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Once Upon a Time
"We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once Upon a Time' lasts forever."

For the book series, click here and for the ABC series, click here.

Once upon a time there was a trope. This trope was a Stock Phrase and a very old one. In fact, according to Webster's, it goes back at least to 1380. It began almost every Fairy Tale there ever was.

It was a very popular trope. In French it was il était une fois and in German it was es war einmal, which literally meant "It was once." Sometimes it was translated as "Once there was" or "A long time ago," but most often, this trope was simply translated as "Once upon a time." Other languages have translated it directly. Russian fairy tales often start "Zhyl-byl...", that is, "Once there lived...". In Ireland it was " There was this man...." which comes from the Irish language " Bhí fear ann fadó...." (There was a man a long time ago...)

Now, stories that began with "Once Upon a Time" often ended with "...and they all lived Happily Ever After." But Once never got to the end of the stories — he always stayed at the beginning. And that is where he will always be.

Now, are you sitting comfortably? Then let's begin. Once upon a time... note 


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime 
  • Princess Tutu: The narrator begins each episode with the japanese equivalent of this, むかしむかし(昔々) or "mukashi mukashi". It's rather purposeful, since the show deals in Fairy Tale tropes.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena uses the same phrase in narrating several plot points, most notably the story of the Prince and the Witch and the story of the Princess who wanted to become a Prince.

    Card Games 
  • There is a card game called "Once Upon A Time" revolving around storytelling. The stories always start with this.

    Comic Books 
  • Kurt Busiek's Trinity: Once a race of aliens is telling their creation myth, it starts:
    In the Longago. Aye, and in the Long Longago, and in the time before the Long Longago. In the Before, when nothing was.

    Film 
  • Often used in film titles:
  • Inglourious Basterds:
    Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France.
  • Star Wars:
  • Once Upon a Forest
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas:
    Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems
    In a place perhaps you've seen in your dreams...
  • Enchanted:
    Narrator: Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom known as Andalasia, there lived an evil queen. Selfish and cruel, she lived in fear that one day her stepson would marry and she would lose her throne forever. And so she did all in her power to prevent the prince from ever meeting the one special maiden with whom he would share true love's kiss.
  • The Sixth Sense:
    Malcolm Crowe: Once upon a time there was this person named Malcolm. He worked with children. He loved it. He loved it more than anything else. And then one night, he found out that he made a mistake with one of them. He couldn't help that one. And he can't stop thinking about it, he can't forget. Ever since then, things have been different. He's not the same person that he used to be. And his wife doesn't like the person that he's become. They barely speak anymore, they're like strangers. And then one day Malcolm meets this wonderful little boy, a really cool little boy. Reminds him a lot of the other one. And Malcolm decides to try and help this new boy. 'Cause he feels that if he can help this new boy, it would be like helping that other one too.
  • WarGames:
    Stephen Falken: Now, children, come on over here. I'm going to tell you a bedtime story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Once upon a time, there lived a magnificent race of animals that dominated the world through age after age. They ran, they swam, and they fought and they flew, until suddenly, quite recently, they disappeared. Nature just gave up and started again. We weren't even apes then. We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks. And when we go, nature will start again. With the bees, probably. Nature knows when to give up, David.note 
  • Yellow Submarine:
    Narrator: Once upon a time, or maybe twice, there was an unearthly paradise called Pepperland. 80,000 leagues beneath the sea it lay, or lie. I'm not too sure.
  • In Ever After when Danielle's descendant is about to tell the "true" story of Cinderella she Lampshades this. She has recently read the works of the Grimm Brothers, so she has only recently learned the storytelling conventions:
    Now then, what was that phrase you use? Oh, yes. Once upon a time...
  • Inverted in Emir Kusturica's Underground - the final words in the film are:
    "Once upon a time there was a country called Yugoslavia..."
  • Rock-A-Doodle:
    Once upon a time, back before I even learned how to tie my shoes, the Sun came up. Now I know an ordinary sunrise may not be such a big deal to some folks, but imagine for a moment, instead of rising up like this: (the Sun starts to rise from Earth orbit) One morning where you live, she took a look around, and decided to go back to sleep. It happened once to us. Let me tell you all about it..."
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. The World:
    Once upon a time, in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada, Scott Pilgrim was dating a high schooler...
  • In-universe: Kolya has an example of a girlfriend of Louka's telling little Kolya stories in Russian over the phone (while her husband is away, naturally enough), starting audibly with Zhyl-byl....
  • The Return of Swamp Thing:
    Once upon a time... in the Swamp.
  • Brian Henson's Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story:
    "Once upon a time...yes, this sounds like a fairytale. A little something for the children."
  • Disney's Beauty and the Beast:
    "Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. But then, one winter's night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold. Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away, but she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within. And when he dismissed her again, the old woman's ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. The prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart, and as punishment she transformed him into a hideous beast and place a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there. Ashamed of his monstrous form, the beast concealed himself inside his castle, with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world. The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope, for who could ever learn to love a beast?"
  • Holes
    "Once upon a time, there was a magical land where it never rained. The end.'''"
  • Sabrina
    "Once upon a time, on the north shore of Long Island, some thirty miles from New York, there lived a small girl on a large estate. The estate was very large indeed, and had many servants. There were gardeners to take care of the gardens, and a tree surgeon on a retainer. There was a boatman to take care of the boats: to put them in the water in the spring, and scrape their bottoms in the winter. There were specialists to take care of the grounds: the outdoor tennis court and the indoor tennis court, the outdoor swimming pool and the indoor swimming pool. And there was a man of no particular title who took care of the small pool in the garden for a goldfish named George. Also on the estate there was a chauffeur by the name of Fairchild who had been imported from England years ago together with a new Rolls-Royce. Fairchild was a fine chauffeur of considerable polish, like the eight cars in his care, and he had a daughter by the name of Sabrina. It was the eve of the annual six-meter yacht races, and as had been traditional on Long Island for the past thirty years, the Larrabees were giving a party. It never rained on the night of the Larrabee party. The Larrabees wouldn't have stood for it. There were four Larrabees in all - father, mother, and two sons. Maude and Oliver Larrabee were married in nineteen hundred and six, and among their many wedding presents was the town house in New York and this estate for weekends. The town house has since been converted into Saks Fifth Avenue. Linus Larrabee, the elder son, graduated from Yale, where his classmates voted him The Man Most Likely To Leave His Alma Mater Fifty Million Dollars. His brother, David, went through several of the best eastern colleges for short periods of time, and through several marriages for even shorter periods of time. He is now a successful six-goal polo player and is listed on Linus's tax return as a six hundred dollar deduction. Life was pleasant among the Larrabees, for this was as close to heaven as one could get on Long Island."
    • The remake uses this phrase in both the opening and the closing.

    Literature 
  • The Bible:
    "In the beginning..."
  • Lord Dunsany in Time and the Gods:
    "Upon an evening of the forgotten years the gods were seated on the hills."
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie:
    "I was born in the city of Bombay...once upon a time."
  • A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce:
    "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo..."
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein:
    "Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith."
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:
    "Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house."
  • In The Colour of Magic:
    'We've strayed into a zone with a high magical index,' he said. 'Don't ask me how. Once upon a time a really powerful magic field must have been generated here, and we're feeling the after-effects.'
    'Precisely,' said a passing bush.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense:
    "Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing."
  • Winnie the Pooh:
    "Once upon a time, a very long time ago, about last Friday..."
  • From The King's Chessboard:
    "Once, long ago in what is now India there was a wise man who performed a service for the king of Deccan..."
  • Parodied in Bored of the Rings:
    Cellophane [...] bid them tell the tale of their adventures.
    Arrowroot cleared his throat. "Once upon a time," he began.
    "Call me Ishmael," said Gimlet.
    "Whanne in Aprille," started Legolam.
    "Hear me, oh Muse," commenced Bromosel.
  • The Eyes of The Dragon by Stephen King:
    "Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons."
  • Near enough every single fairytale ever written:
    "Once upon a time, long, long ago..."
    "Long ago there lived..."
    "Once there was a gentleman..."
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major:
    "There was a village, once, not very long ago for those with long memories."
  • In "The Voice on the Radio, the third in Caroline B. Cooney's "The Face On The Milk Carton" series.
    Reeve begins the story of Jainie with "Once upon a time."
  • Storyteller: Subverted. When the grandfather starts to tell the story, he begins with "Once upon a time..." but his grandchild stops him by complaining that they are tired of stories always starting that way and asks him to try starting the story another way.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Bewitched "I, Darrin, Take This Witch, Samantha (#1.1)"
    Narrator: Once upon a time, there was a typical American girl, who happened to bump into a typical red blooded American boy. And she bumped into him, and bumped into him. So, they decided they'd better sit down and talk this over before they had an accident. They became good friends. They found they had a lot of interests in common. Radio. Television. Trains. And when the boy found the girl attractive, desirable, irresistible, he did what any red-blooded American boy would do: He asked her to marry him. They had a typical wedding. Went on a typical honeymoon, in a typical bridal suite. Except, it so happens that this girl is a witch.
  • Blackadder: In the third season, Baldrick reads the story he wrote:
    "Once upon a time, there was a happy sausage named Baldrick. And he lived happily ever after. The end."
  • Charlie's Angels:
    Charlie Townsend: Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy - two in Los Angeles, the other in San Francisco - and they were each assigned very hazardous duties. But I took them away from all that, and now they work for me. My name is Charlie.
  • Dead Like Me:
    Georgia: Once upon a time, or more specifically at the dawn of time, god, lower case "g", was getting busy with creation, as the kids these days are saying. He gave Toad a clay jar and said, "Be careful with this. It's got death inside". Pleased as punch and oblivious to the fact that he was about to become god's fall guy on the whole death issue, Toad promised to guard the jar. Then one day Toad met Frog. "Let me hold the jar of death, or what ever you call it", Frog begged. With a nod to Nancy Reagan's pearls of wisdom, Toad just said no. But Frog was determined, and after much whining Toad finally gave in. "You can hold it, but only for a second", he said. In his excitement, Frog began to hop around and juggle the death jar from one foot to the other. Frog was an asshole. "Stop!" Toad cried out, but it was to late. Frog dropped the jar and it shattered to the ground. When it broke open, death got out, and ever since then all living things have to die. Makes you wonder how much better the world would be if frogs just stuck to hawking beer. So there you have it, the mystery of death finally revealed. We all die, some of us sooner then later. For me it's going to be much sooner. But that's only the beginning of my story.
  • Doctor Who "The Android Invasion: Part 1":
    The Doctor: Once upon a time there were three sisters, and they lived in the bottom of a treacle well. Their names were Olga, Marsha and Irena... Are you listening, Tillie?... I feel disorientated.
  • From the same Doctor Who, the 12th Doctor in "Listen"
    The Doctor: Once upon a time *touches Rupert's forehead, sending him to sleep* The end.
  • Married... with Children "Buck Saves the Day":
    Al Bundy: Once upon a time, there was a young boy. A boy... full of hope. He was single, and he was happy. Then one night, much like tonight, something rose from the swamp. He heard a noise behind him: thump-thump, thump-thump. He walked a little faster. Thump-thump-thump-thump. Then he saw it. There, in the light of a bar, stood the evil, redheaded, high-heeled spandex monster. He ran from it. He stood it up, he dated others, but nothing could stop it! He could hear it's wild call: "oh honey? Honey?" It was horrible. Finally... it trapped him. Opened... opened its hideous mouth, bared its fangs and said, "Marry me?"
  • My Name Is Earl, "Creative Writing":
    Joy Turner: Here's a story: Once upon a time, Randy shut up. The end. It had a slow start but I liked the middle.
  • Salvage 1 (1979):
    Narrator: [opening narration] Once upon a time, a junkman had a dream.
  • The Drew Carey Show:
    Mr. Wick: Gather around, everyone. Story time. Come on... gather around. Once upon a time... Johnson was fired. And everyone else lived happily ever after. Freaked, but happily.
  • Titus, "The Smell of Success":
    Ken Titus: I got a little story I wanna tell you. Once upon a time... NO! If I help you now, you'll never learn to help yourself! [leaves]
    Ken Titus: I got a little story I wanna tell you. Once upon a time, your dog got hit by a truck this morning!
  • Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars: '
    "For the 89th time...once upon a time there was a boy named John and John was an astronaut. He lived in a far away place called Earth which is so far away you've never heard of it. One day when John was out doing astronaut things a big, blue wormhole gobbled him up and spat him out at the far end of the universe. Things were looking grim in Mudville, till our hero met an amazing living ship, made some nice new friends, and he hooked up with his dream girl. We could've lived happily ever after, but the Peacekeepers raped, chased and tortured us for years on end. And two months ago, we got our asses shot off again."
  • Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: The opera "Spoon Mountain" begins:
    "Once upon a time, not so very long ago. Not so very long ago."
  • Once Upon a Time

    Music 
  • The Small Faces, "Happiness Stan Suite".
    Stanley Unwin: Are you all seaty comftibold two-square on your botty? Then I'll begin. (Song: "Happiness Stan") Now, of courst, like all real-life experience story, this also begins once upolly tie-toe...
  • Total Eclipse of the Heart:
    Once upon a time I was falling in love
    But now I'm only falling apart
    There's nothing I can do
    A total eclipse of the heart.
  • The James Taylor song "Our Town," used in the movie Cars, begins
    Long ago, but not so very long ago,
    The world was different, oh yes it was...
  • Billy Joel's "Falling of the Rain" begins:
    Once upon a time in the land of misty satin dreams
    There stood a house and a man who painted nature scenes...
  • Don McLean's "American Pie":
    A long, long time ago
    I can still remember...
  • "Those Were the Days", recorded most memorably by Mary Hopkin:
    Once upon a time there was a tavern
    Where we used to raise a glass or two...
  • "Fairytale" Sara Bareilles, mickey-taking every fairytale written with:
    Once upon a time in a far away kingdom
    Man made up a story, said that I should believe him...
  • Waltzing Matilda:
    Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
    Under the shade of a coolibah tree...
  • Taylor Swift's "Forever and Always", a bitter break-up song, begins with:
    'Once upon a time', I believe it was a Tuesday when I caught your eye...

    Poetry 
  • Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven:
    Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary...
  • Also from Poe, "Annabel Lee"
    It was many and many a year ago,
    In a kingdom by the sea,
    That a maiden there lived whom you may know
    By the name of Annabel Lee;

    Puppet Shows 
  • Bear in the Big Blue House had a song titled this.
    "Once upon a time / That's the way the story goes / Now where it's gonna end up / No one knows."

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Exalted, Koans and sutras associated with the Sidereals inevitably begin this way:
    "Once, there was a maiden..."

    Theatre 
  • Into the Woods opens with this line being spoken by the Narrator before the music starts. The second act begins similarly:
    Narrator: "Once upon a time[music starts] —later..."
  • The Opening Narration from The Solid Gold Cadillac:
    This is a fairy story—the story of Cinderella and the four ugly corporation directors. Once upon a time, not so long ago, Cinderella went down to Wall Street, not in a gold coach drawn by six white horses, but in the I.R.T. subway.
  • Call Me Madam has the song "Once Upon A Time Today."

    Video Games 

    Web Animation 
  • Zero Punctuation :Red Faction: Guerrilla
    Yahtzee: Once upon a time, a fresh-faced youngster saved up all his pennies and bought his first PS2, and with it he bought a game called Red Faction 1, and after rushing home to play he discovered that Red Faction 1 was not a very good game. Actually it was total shite on a crusty roll.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 
  • The intro to The PJs starts with "Once upon a time in the projects," which is also the title of an Ice Cube song.
  • Sponge Bob Square Pants, "Something Smells":
    Patrick: Once, there was an ugly barnacle. He was so ugly that everyone died. The end.
  • Il était une fois...: Albert Barillé produced tons of educational animated series which all got "Once Upon a Time" in their title, completed with the main subject (man, space, life, America, inventors, explorers...). They also shared a very similar cast of reccuring characters.
  • The animated feature Twice Upon a Time uses this phrase in its opening narration.
  • Shrek appeared to use this trope at first, but lampshaded it and used it as toilet paper. Not surprising, since the movie is a Deconstructive Parody of fairy tales.
  • One episode of The Simpsons is called "Once Upon a Time in Springfield".
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic begins its very first episode with a narration from Princess Celestia.
    Princess Celestia:"Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria..."
  • The Ren & Stimpy Show: "Once upon a time, the sky grew black as blood."
  • Most, if not all Fractured Fairy Tales begins with "Once upon a time."
  • The Elmer Fudd/Daffy Duck outing "A Pest In The House" begins thusly:
    Once upon a time, there was a labor shortage...

    Real Life 
  • The Gettysburg Address:
    Abraham Lincoln:Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Non-Indicative First EpisodeBeginning TropesOpening Monologue
Offing the OffspringFairy Tale TropesOriginal Position Fallacy
Nice to the WaiterOlder Than PrintOne-Hit-Point Wonder
Here There Be DragonsDead Unicorn TropeReal Women Don't Wear Dresses
The Princess BrideImageSource/LiteratureThe Ring
Once in a Blue MoonStock PhrasesOne Thing Led to Another

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