Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Once upon a Time

“Once upon a time”. How familiar these words are to us, even though it might have been long years ago in our childhood that we last read them on the printed page. The words conjure forth a sense of events about to unfold for us, of ‘what is going to happen next’, and we know then that we can settle down and listen captivated to some magical story filled with heroic daring and romance. 

Beginnings are full of promise. They hold something that is at the same time majestic and delicate, grandly unfolding and yet also fragile. We might not always know what is to come, but that ‘not knowing’ is the very thing which creates a sense of tension. But because this familiar phrase finds its place at the beginnings of stories, and because these stories have already been written, we know that we are going to find out ‘what is going to happen next’. All that we need to do to find out what that something might be is to sit and listen or read further.

And so we accompany a little girl in a red cape as she goes to visit her grandmother in her cottage in the dark woods, or we journey with a mixture of courage and dread with Beauty as she nears the castle of the Beast. The variations are as infinite as the human imagination, and it is our imagination that defines these stories. 

But whatever their individual variations, these stories always begin with “once upon a time”. But so do they always end with another familiar ringing phrase as well. There waiting patiently at the end of the story like an old friend is the reassuring phrase: “…and they lived happily ever after.” Even as we experience all the adventures and setbacks with which the characters must contend along the way, we know that things will work out in the end because ‘happily ever after’ will be the story's concluding words.

Our life, as we know all too well, tends to have a rather different format from one of these stories. What our imagination cannot define, but only wonder about, is what has yet to be written down. “Once upon a time” could also be the commencement of our own lives, or of the coming year, or even of the day that is about to unfold, but whose events have yet to happen. We can guarantee that it will begin with this phrase. How our own story might end is less certain. Those words ‘happily ever after’ are so imprinted in our consciousness that they might lead us into a sense of false expectation, into thinking that this is the way that things ought to end. But perhaps the words offer something more significant than false expectations which might lead only to disappointment.

Perhaps these formulaic story phrases also offer us promise, of a sense that events are unfolding as they should, even if these events are very different from what we had imagined for ourselves. “Once upon a time” is always the beginning. And if we allow ourselves the space, and perhaps also the compassion and forgiveness for our circumstances, it is always possible that “happily ever after” will be the conclusion.

Illustration: Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs by Lidia Postma


  1. Emma this is beautiful folklore all and in of itself. A story within it it's very own story. Simply beautiful.

  2. Replies
    1. Like yourself, Lulu... just like yourself :-)

  3. Happily ever after.... Als je het kan zien en ervaren, is er bij ieder ongeluk ook geluk. Maar het is maar net welke kant je op wil kijken. En soms heeft het tijd nodig voor je het kan zien of ervaren. Ja ik denk ook dat er voor een ieder geluk kan zijn!
    Mooi hoe je je verhaal verteld!
    Groet Hannah