'Once Upon a Time' - The Mystery of Fiction


’Once upon a time…’

Whenever a story-teller says those words, what happens in the minds of his or her audience?

A story-teller is a conjuror: with these words, the listener or reader is invited into a world separated out from the one in which they sit listening or reading. ‘Once upon a time’ introduces a bubble, an empty space and time, which the conjuror will now fill with things recognisable to us and yet not so: figures will appear with which we have some familiarity - the orphan, the princess, the knight, the king, the jester, the wizard, perhaps all dressed in different clothes but not so disguised that we, the audience, have no inkling of who they are. And they begin to do familiar things - they answer to needs, set off on journeys, feel losses, are moved by events. They do not behave so strangely that we lose compassion for them, but neither do they perform so ordinarily that we are not drawn to them.

Slowly, the void initially created by the story-teller’s words is populated by lights and shadows. Motion takes place which we follow; emptinesses are carved out into which we are drawn. Depending on the nature of the story, that void is gloriously filled or left gapingly empty at the end. We emerge from the conjuror’s spell and glance around at the world in which we live, either refreshed and uplifted - ‘and they lived happily ever after’ - or with our gaze darkened and turned inward.

My attention was drawn to these things by the oddity of what happens in a popular story when a character comes across a hero famous in the world outside the story. For example, in a James Bond film, we have that classic and anticipated moment in which the secret agent identifies himself to his adversary: ‘My name is Bond, James Bond.’ Fleming’s creation, star of a series of successful novels and one of the world’s longest-running film franchises, is known globally. Bond is literally a household name. Why then, are we able to swallow that moment in one of his films when he announces his identity without the adversary snorting with the laughter of recognition? ‘Oh sure,’ they should naturally respond, ‘like the guy in the films?’ But they don’t react that way: instead, they go on as though they had never heard of him. That means we are to some extent jerked out of the reality that the director is trying to portray as real. We dive back into it willingly, wanting to ‘go along with the fiction’ of it, knowingly participating in a world which is now more clearly one step removed from our own.

Another example: the BBC’s long-running and globally popular science fiction series Doctor Who features a blue police box as its hero’s means of transportation and t