IMAGE By WALTER CRANE, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 1875.
We take the phrase “once upon a time” for granted, but if you think about it, it’s quite oddball English.
Upon a time—? That’s just a strange construction. It would be pleasant to know its history: When, more or less, does it get up on its legs? Around when does it become standard procedure? My researches into this question, however, have yielded nothing conclusive.
Forget “upon a time.” Look at the “once.” That part really is standard from the beginning, and not only in English. Just this past weekend, I paged through fifteen volumes of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, and I’m here to tell you:
The word once is in the first sentence of almost every single folktale every recorded, from China to Peru. There is some law of physics involved.
Folktales get right down to business, no fooling around. Once there was an old king who had two sons. Once there was a poor lace merchant who decided to make a trip. And if it doesn’t say “once,” it will say “a long time ago.” A long time ago, the fox and the hen were good friends. A long time ago, there was a man who had a shaving brush for a nose and who had two daughters, et cetera.
Why should it always be a long time ago. That’s easy. If you said, “When I was a girl, there was an old man in this village … ” you’d be opening yourself up for interruptions. Where is that old man now? Where are his two sons? But if the story took place a long, long time ago, or simply in undefined and undefinable history (“once”), interruptions will be … fewer.
I want to mention that not one story in Grimms’ Fairytales actually begins “once upon a time.” German doesn’t have that expression. They just say “once.”
It was raining in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, but that didn’t stop Joseph W. Walker, a compositor for the Baltimore Sun, from heading out to Gunner’s Hall, a public house bustling with activity.
It was Election Day, and Gunner’s Hall served as a pop-up polling location for the 4th Ward polls. When Walker arrived at Gunner’s Hall, he found a man, delirious and dressed in shabby second-hand clothes, lying in the gutter.
The man was semi-conscious, and unable to move, but as Walker approached the him, he discovered something unexpected: the man was Edgar Allan Poe.
Worried about the health of the addled poet, Walker stopped and asked Poe if he had any acquaintances in Baltimore that might be able to help him.
Poe gave Walker the name of Joseph E. Snodgrass, a magazine editor with some medical training.
Immediately, Walker penned Snodgrass a letter asking for help.
Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849
There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.
Yours, in haste,
On September 27—almost a week earlier—Poe had left Richmond, Virginia bound for Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for Mrs. St. Leon Loud, a minor figure in American poetry at the time.
When Walker found Poe in delirious disarray outside of the polling place, it was the first anyone had heard or seen of the poet since his departure from Richmond. Poe never made it to Philadelphia to attend to his editing business.
Nor did he ever make it back to New York, where he had been living, to escort his aunt back to Richmond for his impending wedding.
Poe was never to leave Baltimore, where he launched his career in the early 19th- century, again—and in the four days between Walker finding Poe outside the public house and Poe’s death on October 7, he never regained enough consciousness to explain how he had come to be found, in soiled clothes not his own, incoherent on the streets.
Instead, Poe spent his final days wavering between fits of delirium, gripped by visual hallucinations. The night before his death, according to his attending physician Dr. John J. Moran, Poe repeatedly called out for “Reynolds”—a figure who, to this day, remains a mystery.
The Dance of Death by the German artist Hans Holbein (1497–1543) is a great, grim triumph of Renaissance woodblock printing.
In a series of action-packed scenes Death intrudes on the everyday lives of thirty-four people from various levels of society — from pope to physician to ploughman. Death gives each a special treatment: skewering a knight through the midriff with a lance; dragging a duchess by the feet out of her opulent bed; snapping a sailor’s mast in two.
Death, the great leveller, lets no one escape. In fact it tends to treat the rich and powerful with extra force. As such the series is a forerunner to the satirical paintings and political cartoons of the eighteenth century and beyond.
For example, Death sneaks up behind the judge, who is ignoring a poor man to help a rich one, and snaps his staff, the symbol of his power, in two.
A chain around Death’s neck suggests he is taking revenge on corrupt judges on behalf of those they have wrongfully imprisoned. In contrast, Death seems to come to the aid of the poor ploughman, by driving his horses for him and releasing him from a life of toil; the glowing church in the background implies this old man is on his way to heaven.
Holbein drew the woodcuts between 1523 and 1525, while in his twenties and based in the Swiss town of Basel. I
t would be another decade before he established himself in England, where he painted his most enduring masterpiece The Ambassadors (1533), in which two wealthy, powerful and worldly young men stand above (and oblivious to) an anamorphic skull that signals the ultimate vanity of all that wealth, power and worldliness.
In the 1520s, Holbein was busy trying to earn a living in Basel, painting murals and portraits, designing stained glass windows, and illustrating books.
The year before he began The Dance, he had illustrated Martin Luther’s influential translation of the New Testament into German.
Once upon a time, there lived a photographer named Kilian Schönberger – and while he is not a character from your favorite fairy tale, his very real images spin some otherworldly fantasies.
Working in Cologne, Germany, the photographer’s own backyard serves as the source for his “Brothers Grimm’s Homeland” series and captures the woodlands and waterfalls that served as a backdrop for many infamous folktales.
Schönberger – who, ironically, is color-blind – perfectly blends the misty, magical, and macabre in his intensely-atmospheric photographs.
Presenting everything from thickets full of brilliant sunlight to copses where things go bump in the night, his landscapes speak to the battles of good, evil, and everything in-between that pervade folklore tradition.
Although his images more often feature gingerbread cottages and ancient castles than human characters, Little Red Riding Hood would look perfectly natural running through them.