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Once Upon a Time...

Once Upon a Time: The “Who,” “What,” and “When” of Fairy Tales
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Have you ever read stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, or the Frog Prince?

These stories are called fairy tales. Although you might not have read them in English, you likely can find these magical stories in your own language and culture.

Fairy tales are stories passed down through the generations. The names of the characters might be in a different language, but many of these stories seem to tell of similar events.

In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will look at the beginnings of these stories, and find out the “when, “who,” and “what” of these stories we loved as children.

Beginnings: when?

Many fairy tales in English start with the same opening: “Once upon a time.” When we read this phrase, we immediately know the story is a fairy tale and have ideas about what might happen. Many cultures have similar expressions beginning their fairy tales.

We know that these stories are made up. We set aside our disbelief to enjoy the magic of these stories.

“Once upon a time” answers the question of “when.”

In English, the expression “once upon a time” means “at some point in the past.” It is used to talk about a story that happened a long time ago, but the exact time is not important.

“Once upon a time, there lived an old woman…”

“Once upon a time, there was a rich man who lived happily for a long time with his wife.” (From Cinderella)

Some fairy tales open with “There was once a…” This phrase also shows that the story happened in the past.

Both openings help us understand that the story is in the distant past. But they do not tell us about the characters in the story. Which brings us to our next question of “who.”

Who? or What?

In fairy tales, nouns identify important people, places, and things. But adjectives are also very important.

The adjective “little” can be used before a character’s name. Like, “Little Briar Rose” in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Sleeping Beauty.

Other characters might be described with two nouns together like “Snow White” or “The Snow Maiden.”

Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) in the forest.
Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) in the forest.

There are several kinds of characters in a fairy tale.

Sometimes the stories are about families. There are often siblings: brothers and sisters. You might read about a husband and wife or children and their parents.

In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children are brother and sister, and they get lost in the forest.

The Brothers Grimm Gretel and Hansel
The Brothers Grimm Gretel and Hansel

Sometimes there are even stepparents or stepsiblings, family members created by a remarriage.

Cinderella has two stepsisters.

There is always a good character. This might be the hero or heroine, a female hero, in the story. This person carries out actions like rescuing someone or helping others. Or they might have a task to do or solve a problem.

Jack is the hero after he climbs the beanstalk and kills the giant.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother acts as a heroine by helping Cinderella get ready for the ball.

There are “villains” or bad people in fairy tales that might harm or put a spell on the hero or other characters in the story.

Cinderella has an evil stepmother who makes her into her house servant.

There is often “royalty,” a queen or a king, in the stories because during the time of these tales that was how things were. And, if there is “royalty,” there are also “commoners” or everyday people who might come from poor situations.

Rapunzel is a princess who is locked in a tower.

There also are magical numbers and objects found throughout fairy tales.

The most common magical numbers are “three” and “seven.” For example, there is the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the fairy tale of Snow White, there are seven dwarves in the forest.

Sometimes words, phrases, or actions are repeated three times.

We can also find magical objects in fairy tales. These can help the hero or heroine, like the glass shoes in Cinderella. They can also be used by the villain of the story, like a house with chicken legs in the story of Baba Yaga or the Evil Queen’s talking mirror in Snow White.

And there are magical animals that can talk and have human-like traits in fairy tales. These animals can be either good or bad. They can help or hurt the main character. In some tales, they might be the main character.

The cat in Puss in Boots talks and wears boots.

Puss in Boots
Puss in Boots

Final thoughts

Today, we talked about the beginning of fairy tales. We answered the question of “when” in the opening “once upon a time.” And we answered the questions of “who” and “what” by thinking about the different characters, magical numbers, and objects in a few stories.

Let’s close with some homework. Choose a favorite fairy tale in English. Then, write down the answers to the following questions: How does the story begin? What opening sentence does the story use? When does the story take place? Who are the characters?

After that, describe a few characters. Are there any magical numbers or talking animals? Who is the hero? Is there a villain?

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I’m Faith Pirlo.

And I'm Jill Robbins.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

fairy tale –n. a simple children’s story about magical things

magical –adj. something with impossible powers

phrase –n two or more words that do not form a complete sentence but that express an idea

character –n. a person in a story, book, movie or play

task –n. a job or something that must be done

beanstalk –n. a bean plant

fairy godmother –n. a person with magical powers who saves someone from trouble

spell –n. a group of secret words that carry magical power

tower –n. a tall structure

dwarves –n. (pl.) people in stories who are much smaller than most

trait –n. a quality that makes a person different from others

boots –n. (pl.) tall shoes that protect the lower part of the leg