“All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time,’” begins E.H. Gombrich in his 1936 history book for children, A Little History of the World. “And that’s just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time.”
He then asks his young readers to picture the past as an infinity mirror:
Behind every ‘Once upon a time’ there is always another. Have you ever tried standing between two mirrors? You should. You will see a great long line of shiny mirrors, each one smaller than the one before, stretching away into the distance, getting fainter and fainter, so that you never see the last. But even when you can’t see them any more, the mirrors still go on. They are there, and you know it. And that’s how it is with ‘Once upon a time’. We can’t see where it ends.
At the end of the book, he enlists the aid of another another visual metaphor: a river.
“Imagine time as a river, and that we are flying high above it in an airplane.” He briefly describes all the events that have led to our current moment. “Now let us quickly drop down in our plane towards the river.”
From close up, we can see it is a real river, with rippling waves like the sea. A strong wind is blowing and there are little crests of foam on the waves. Look carefully at the millions of shimmering white bubbles rising and then vanishing with each wave. Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief instant they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that. Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again. We can hardly be seen in the great river of time. New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave.
Compare these visual metaphors to the one that begins Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, another history book for young readers, published a decade and a half before Gombrich’s:
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