“Once upon a time.” Four words. I don’t need to say anything more, and yet you know at once what it is you’re about to hear. You may not know the precise contents. You may not recognize the specific characters. You may have little notion of the exact action that is about to unfold. But you are ready all the same to take on all of these unknowns, the uncertainties, the ambiguities. You are ready to succumb to the world of the story.
The formulation is as near to universal as they come. While I can only vouch for a handful of languages through my own experience—in the Russian, the phrase translates loosely to in some kingdom, in some land; in the Romance languages, to some variation of there was once—if I’m to believe this elaborate list, few if any cultures stray from the general contours of the phrase.
And its appeal, too, is of the most enduring kind. It’s worth noting that one of the earliest known books to have been printed on the original Gutenberg press, in 1476, was Aesop’s Fables. The German printing was soon followed by the first English translation, by William Caxton, in 1484. To put this timing in perspective, consider that the Gutenberg Bible—the first surviving book produced on the new printing press—dates roughly to 1450. The central text of Europe’s central religion, followed closely by the tales and fairy spinnings of a Greek storyteller. (And in between, a 1461 printing of Der Edelstein, a work of German fables.)
Why such lasting and ubiquitous appeal? What is it that the words promise, exactly? Beyond the lure of fantasy and the make-believe, magic kingdoms and talking animals, why that phrase, that turn, that wording?
First, there is that semblance of distance. We are not in the now, but rather in some place in the removed past. Upon a time. And second, there is the vagueness, the deliberate lack of specificity. We are not speaking of a defined time, a time you can point to, but rather of a once, an indeterminate moment. Not a land or a place you can locate, but some kingdom, some land, some place that cannot be tied to a map or a ready-made travel plan. And it is to these two elements, distance and vagueness, that I propose we look in trying to describe, if not altogether explain, the power that once upon a time holds over its audience.
Distance is a psychologically powerful tool. It can allow us to process things that we would otherwise be unable to deal with—and I mean this in both a literal and a more metaphorical, emotional sense—and it frees up our mind in a way that immediacy does not.
If we take a step back—in time, in space, in the hypothetical mind (here, I am borrowing from the definition of psychological distance offered by NYU psychologist Yaacov Trope)—we can discern elements that are invisible from up close. In that movement, we change our construal, our representation of the world. Things that were concrete and specific become abstract and broad. Patterns emerge from pieces. Other perspectives vie with our own. We are able to see a reality that is broader and deeper than the one we can perceive up close.
At a distance, the world is less threatening. It is easier to take in. It is easier to parse. It is easier to handle. You can say and think things from far away that you can’t say and think up close. For a child, this means the possibility of comprehending far more about reality than can come from reality itself. For an adult, it means much the same thing—a freedom of fantasy and reflection that we rarely give ourselves as we grow older.
In emotionally charged moments, we tend to do reflexively what the fairytale does for us: we put distance between ourselves and what we are experiencing in order to see it and deal with it better than we otherwise could. Sigmund Freud referred to projection, sublimation, reaction formation, displacement—all tools of self-distancing from problems that touch the ego too profoundly. And while many of Freud’s teaching have lost favor, few are the psychologists or psychiatrists who would deny the nature of the basic defense mechanism.
And in a less psychoanalytic fashion, who hasn’t at one point or another asked for advice “for a friend”? How many detective stories have used the trope of the client who acts ostensibly on someone else’s behalf—all the while being interested in himself alone? And who hasn’t experienced the realization that it seems far easier to play therapist and see the trends in someone else’s problems than to understand and deal with one’s own?
Distance makes possible what immediacy cannot accomplish. And distance is one of the hallmarks, the defining characteristics, of the fairytale—the tale that might be true but, safely, is not.
As for vagueness: that which scares us in real life—the lack of definitions, rules, clearly defined borders and boundaries—is not only unscary but entirely welcomed in the fairytale. The children’s story frees us up to generalize: this could be anyone (even me), and it could be anywhere (even here). But it does so from a safe place. It’s not actually me or here, and so, I can let everything play out as it may and see what happens. I am safely removed, and my mind can operate in peace. I can try out scenarios I otherwise wouldn’t. I can meet and understand people I never would in my everyday life. I can indulge in abstraction and play, engage my curiosity and foster my creativity, and remain the whole time protected by that vague veneer of once. (And not only can I do it, but I am healthier if I do it than not. Literal-mindedness is a hallmark of many a neurodegenerative disease and cognitive disability. Conversely, adults who are taught to imagine a situation from a more general perspective make better judgments and evaluations—and have better self-assessments and lower emotional reactivity than their non-generalizing counterparts.) The safety valve of fantasy can be switched on and off at will.
Once upon a time opens up doors that need to be opened, for children and adults both. And these are doors that are difficult, if not entirely impossible—at least, not without traumatic effects, all the more so in the case of children—to open in its absence. Though all fiction works to similar purpose, it is in this simple formula that the mechanism is called out and distilled to its essence.
Today seems an especially fitting moment to reflect on the universal draw of the fairy tale, the fable, the children’s story that lets us all for a moment engage in the safe make-believe of fantasyland. I woke up to news of the death of Maurice Sendak, one of the greats of children’s literature—and someone who pushed always to redefine what the limits and possibilities of that literature could be.
Sendak understood the nature of the fairytale as few others have done. He wasn’t afraid of the medium’s power, and he wasn’t about to coddle or speak down to his audience. He knew that within that frame of once upon a time, he not only could but had to deal with themes that would remain otherwise unapproachable. He did so against the opinion of the so-called experts: as a New York Times obituary points out, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once asserted—without reading the book, naturally—that Where the Wild Things Are was too traumatic for children. Bettelheim argued that, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion.” But was the story actually traumatic? Or did it allow a child to confront his anxieties—and then, to move on? Was it, in a way, more adaptive than having the realities never spoken of or denied altogether?
Sendak certainly believed it was. In a 2003 conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross, he reasserted the view that you don’t keep things from children: “Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve convinced myself — I hope I'm right — that children despair of you if you don’t tell them the truth.” His words were inspired by his own childhood silence—or rather, the silence of his parents—surrounding the deaths of numerous family members in the Holocaust. Would a once upon a time have helped? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But at the very least, it would have offered an alternative to outright denial.
And in a broader sense, I would argue that modern psychology has borne Sendak’s view of openness out repeatedly, in the development of cognitive behavioral therapies and the recognition that fantasy, play, the realm of the imaginary are just the right place to deal with “basic anxiety.” That in writing things down, talking them through, constructing distancing scenarios, we become better able to handle our fears and our anxieties, to deal with the problems of our everyday existence. For, Sendak didn’t just offer the darkness. He showed how Max and all his other creations could see past it and overcome the anxieties that were unavoidable in life. “His narrative is almost always about a child in danger whose best defense is imagination,” notes Cynthia Zarin notes in her 2006 New Yorker profile.
The world of once upon a time is not reality. It is a creation of make-believe. It is an invitation for fantasy and imagination to take the stuff of real life and do with it what they will—and perhaps, to translate the newfound truths back from story to actuality. In the realm of the imaginary, anxiety doesn’t become less anxious, nor tragedy less tragic. But in that world, you can make sense of it all from a distance. It can’t touch you in quite the same way—and yet it can lead you to a much deeper understanding and feeling of realities that would be too impenetrable without those four magic words at the fore.
And if the story is strong enough—well, it’s enough to inspire a bit of the fairytale thinking in real life. Not just among children. Zarin describes Sendak’s brush with death over forty years ago:
In 1967, Sendak, then thirty-nine, suffered a near-fatal heart attack, the result of a childhood fever that had weakened his heart. On hearing of his illness, Else Holmelund Minarik sat down and wrote “A Kiss for Little Bear.” Michael di Capua recalls that she thought that if she wrote another Little Bear book Sendak would live. In the story, the picture that Little Bear paints to give to his grandmother is of a Wild Thing.
A belief that an action, a story can restore life, or keep someone from death.
With his many once upon a times, Sendak showed us what the power and promise of those words, at their best, can be. Not only can they show us where the wild things are, but they can teach them what we can do to tame them.
In memory of Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012.