It’s the classic fairytale opening: Once Upon A Time – but what does it actually mean? Apart from the obvious “this happened in a distant past that may or may not have been our past”, it’s kind of difficult to say.
I do wonder about the now-forgotten person who created that opening, though. Did they (probably he, if it came through the tradition of traveling bards/storytellers, although I’m not going to say definitely since there were female storytellers – we just don’t know nearly as much about them) flounder around looking for just the perfect way to start their newest piece? Did they start with something that had the right general feel and tweak it until they got it just so?
In some ways verbal storytelling has it a little easier. The thing isn’t pinned down on paper (which despite the ephemeral nature of the medium and the even more ephemeral nature of electronic literature starts to feel like it’s been carved in stone as soon as it’s there in black and white or whatever text and background color you prefer), and there’s the immediate feedback from the audience. You can even say, “Ah, this one doesn’t interest you, how about I tell you something else. Something with adventure, fighting, and no kissing.” (or minimal kissing, anyway, since most stories for grown ups wind up with kissing in there somewhere).
Precisely why I think of The Princess Bride when I think of storytelling is a story on its own. Many years ago, not too long after Princess Bride was released, I found – to my delight – a copy of the book. I expected a standard-issue movie novelization, or possibly a longer, more involved story that had been compressed to fit into a movie timespan.
What I got was… well. It’s a book within a book, just as Princess Bride is a story within a story. And the outer outer story is loaded with asides about what was cut from the fictional book to produce the readable and enjoyable version that is in my hot little hands. As well as the fighting, adventure, torture, and the rest of it, of course. And a certain amount of kissing. Although it most definitely is not a kissing book.
Anyway, why do the fairytales have this semi-classic/semi-cliche opening? (And why do so many of the successful fairytale-ish books, movies, etc. seem to do something that’s got the same feel? (A Long Time Ago in A Galaxy Far Far Away…. )). I won’t say I’m correct on this, but these openings clearly place the story that follows somewhere other. They’re in a world that isn’t this one – despite being rather similar in a lot of ways – and in a time that isn’t this one. They’re also somewhat timeless, since they don’t usually have a definite era they can be pinned to. Some time before modern conveniences for the most part (or in the Star Wars example, so long ago/far away that the entire civilization is probably long gone), and in a world where magic happens, but where goodness (usually as defined by whoever’s currently in charge of such mores) is rewarded and wickedness is punished. Which is not to say that wickedness doesn’t usually get a pretty long time to run free before the virtuous hero/heroine has suffered enough to receive their reward.
It’s a way to signal that this story is one of those, one where the proper morals are reinforced and behavior that’s anti-societal (and usually antisocial as well, since things like eating children are usually frowned upon) is punished – a way to pass on to others what proper behavior is (yeah, you look at the fairytales and there’s always a moral lesson in it. Although a lot of them these days the lesson can be pretty unsettling – the non-sappy versions of The Little Mermaid come to mind).
Finding the older versions of them to see the older lessons is an interesting if unnerving exercise. The Grimm Brothers, whether they made up the ones they published or used modified folk tales as their base, are pretty horrifying to modern sensibilities. The bowdlerization and softening that’s happened over the years says a lot about how we’ve changed as a society (or as multiple interconnected societies, really). We’re a lot further from the blood and the death than we used to be even a hundred years ago.
Personally, I think that’s a good thing.
Oh, and have a “helpful” Westley.