Once, in olden times, when wishes still had power . . .
Thus begins The Frog Prince, and most other fairy tales besides. Countless variants convey kindred content. Whether the story starts “once upon a time” or “far away and just as long ago,” what grabs our attention is the audacity of the opening line. Every fairy tale claims that this happened.
Our contemporary world is a world of tentative theories, shifting hypotheses, and momentary models. Full of fleeting fads and passing phases, it is a whispy world. The fairy tale’s bold claim—lo, the truth! This was from of old!—erupts in our conditional cosmos like an armored knight riding forth from a foggy mist. It is upon us, and it cannot be ignored.
As such, fairy tales are difficult because they invoke reality, not because they fabricate fiction. The novelist (with whom we are comfortable) spins a tale of what-if. The bard (with whom we are not) sings a tale of what-was. Pure, unadulterated fairy tales unsettle us not because they happen to be false, but because they dare to be true.
Yet there is something more disturbing about the fairy tale than its truth claim, just as there is something more to its opening line than “once, in olden times.” The incipit continues with “when wishes still had power,” and the phrase is as deep as it is arresting.
The fairy tale does not merely purport to tell the truth about the past. It also presumes that something changed. It is the same world, but the world is not the same. At an undisclosed juncture between then and now, something slipped. The cosmos shifted, metaphysically. There was a time when wishes still had power, but now it is not so. Another incipit begins its story “a long time ago, when the world was full of wonders.” Once, but no more.
Herein lies the difference between fairy tale and history. Histories assume a world that has always been the way it is now, and construct their accounts from homogeneous facts. Fairy tales assume a world elementally altered, and weave their dramas within this tapestry of change.
How, then, should we respond to the fairy tale’s audacious opening?
With credence. The fairy tale is true, and it is truer than history. The world is not what it once was. The cosmos has changed—twice, in fact. There was a time when wishing quit its power. But for the Christian, it is powerful once again.
Consider J. R. R. Tolkien’s poetic rebuttal of a man who would dismiss fairy tales:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst . . .
Yes! ‘wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things ‘fair’ and others ‘ugly’ deem?
Perhaps the world is full of wonders still.
Image: Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky, New Fairy Tale