In my native language, one standard formulation to start a folk tale is “There was, once upon a time, because if it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it”. There are different versions of this formulation, some of them going on and on about a miraculous past and place where the events took place.
“If it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it” is about the substance and reality of stories. Obviously, folk tales are not descriptions of historical events (although they may echo such events). But this doesn’t mean that they are not rooted in the real. They are “real” insofar as they condense and distill the lived experience of past generations.
They carry meaning and they speak about things we all care about. Struggle. Loss. Redemption. Trust. Betrayal. They wouldn’t have survived from one generation to another otherwise.
Let’s imagine how stories were told. A child sits close to the fireplace while grandpa tends to the fire. It’s dark outside and the room is a small island of light, safety, and warmth in an ocean of darkness. There are no distractions, just the crackling of fire and the shadows on the walls. Grandpa starts to speak slowly, as if somebody else is trying to speak through him.
“Once upon a time, in a far, faraway land, there was a good king living in his castle by the sea…”.
“How far away, grandpa? Where we went to the seaside last year?”
The child needs to establish a foothold of the story in reality. This doesn’t need to be here, in the midst of our lives. It can be far away, underground, through the rabbit hole, on a different planet. Children understand that folk tales and fairy tales take place in a misterious place that can be governed by different laws. But they are curious and want to know how this place functions.
As a storyteller, you may be able to get away with “far, far away” when you start off. But you have to reveal more about the world of your story as you go along. No matter how far away that place is, there must be a way of getting from here to there. It may be a magic mirror or a long travel through places that get weirder and more dangerous as you go along. There has to be a point of contact with the here and now.
Discussing in what sense stories are real may seem like a play of words but it’s not. If stories are somehow real, they are meaningful. They have a logic and a structure that we may be able to decipher, even if they are very far from our usual logic and structure.
Therefore asking where exactly is “far, far away” is a way of establishing a point of contact with the magic reality of the story. Many elaborate formulations to start a folk tale are exactly about this – creating a link with our reality. Then the story can go on and the horses may fly and the dragons may speak.