This brief dialogue from the slopes of Mount Doom elegantly evokes a picture of the Hall of Fire in the house of Elrond, where a teller of tales could silence a room with a simple introductory formula. His listeners know, from a single sentence, that a tale of wonder is in the offing. In our own world, the pre-literate world knew this well. The poem Beowulf begins with the word Hwaet, variously translated as "hark", "listen", or simply "so", as in the recent best-selling translation by Seamus Heaney. Perhaps that single word would suffice to silence an entire hall, preparing them for the story to come.
The folktales and fairy stories of many lands, told orally long before such scholars as Jakob Grimm set them to paper, begin with such formulas. In German and French, such a story might begin with There was once a princess ... Other countries use such formulas as There was, there wasn't to introduce a wonder tale. The English formula is well known; indeed, in the final Note to his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien wrote:
These standard beginnings thus serve not only to hush the audience and prepare them to receive the tale, but also establish the setting of the tale in Faerie, in a time and place not quite of this world, though never far from it.
Written literature, it seems, does not require the formality of a standard invocation. Perhaps the mere act of opening the book serves adequately to prepare the reader to receive the tale. It is interesting to compare the more first sentence of The Hobbit, a book that seems intended to be read to a child by an adult, to the opening narrative of the more "literary" Lord of the Rings. "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit" is not very different from the French "formula" of There was once ... . In a less oral style, we would probably not see the word "there" at all. As with once upon a time, Tolkien in a single sentence evokes a sense of timelessness, and introduces the otherworldly Hobbit.
By contrast, Lord of the Rings opens with a sentence more reminiscent of a Victorian comedy, and is otherworldly only because of the unusual names and the quaint reference to Mr. Baggins's "eleventy-first" birthday. Here is a text to be read, not recited, and we are not brought to some timeless world, but to a particular familiar corner of Faerie.
In the modern world, we have a new form of "oral" -- or perhaps "aural" is more appropriate -- tradition: movies and television. Where the old tales would begin with a formulaic invocation, our television programs begin with familiar theme music. After a time, such music can be so familiar that it becomes a necessary part of the storytelling. A particularly strong example of that is Star Trek, with the opening fanfare and the phrase, Space: the final frontier. Somehow, Star Trek seems incomplete when the fanfare is cut away. Compare the first Star Trek movie, in which Jerry Goldsmith's fine score seemed somehow inappropriate, and the second film which began with a frame of stars, and the familiar Alexander Courage fanfare. The reaction of Star Trek fans to the first moments of the second film was universally, "Now this is Star Trek!" Even the current Star Trek series, Voyager, opens with fine theme music and beautiful title images, promising an hour of high adventure in space (a promise which many feel is unfulfilled by the program itself).
In the movies, title music can set the stage and frame the story, as in the modern Western, Silverado, with its lively and evocative Bruce Broughton score. But there are other devices available by which a film can say Once upon a time. The hugely popular film, Titanic has a framing story set in the present day, as modern underwater cameras explore the wreckage of the Titanic. Actual footage of the real sunken ship was used for these shots. But the real story begins in an almost magical moment, in which the narrating character, speaking from memory, tells us that "They called the Titanic the ship of dreams; and it was," as we watch the image of the real sunken liner fade seamlessly to the digitally re-created ship of 1912. This Titanic is literally a ship of dreams, and that fade establishes the time and place -- and fictitiousness! -- of the story that is to come. Even had the character said, "Behold! you will see a tale of wonder, romance, and tragedy unfold here on the screen before you", she could have no better prepared the audience.
Of course, the ultimate champion for a cinematic version of Once upon a time must surely be Star Wars. Originally, the publicist for the film told audiences that the film could be set at any time; it might be the future, or the distant past, or the present time in a far galaxy. The original theatrical trailer began with the words, "Somewhere, this could all be happening Right Now." But sometime between the making of the trailer and the time the film was completed, George Lucas had a moment of sheer inspiration, and the first words of the film became simply, Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Like Once upon a time, these simple words have the immediate effect of placing the story out of time and space, and into the realm of Faerie. But by placing it in a "galaxy" far away, it simultaneously establishes the "space-opera" milieu of the fairy-story that is to come. So powerful is this opening -- made the more so by its familiarity through the years -- that an audience that cheers the 20th Century Fox fanfare that precedes it and the Star Wars title frame that follows will be suddenly, almost reverently hushed as that single sentence appears on the screen. Hwaet!
Peter Jackson will be faced with a similar task. In the first moments of the film, The Fellowship of the Ring, he must prepare the audience for the wonder that is to follow, and must quickly establish the Faerie world of Middle-earth in which the story takes place. It is hard to guess how important the Once upon a time moment in this film will be, and harder still to devise a suitable one, but we can hope that Jackson's company will find some formula that will make everyone hush as they wait to hear the story of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom.