Obsolete in spoken French, the preterite, which is the cornerstone of Narration, always signifies the presence of Art; it is a part of a ritual of Letters. Its function is no longer that of a tense. The part it plays is to reduce reality to a point of time, and to abstract, from the depth of a multiplicity of experiences, a pure verbal act, freed from the existential roots of knowledge, and directed toward a logical link with other acts, other processes, a general movement of the world: it aims at making a hierarchy in the realm of facts.
That’s from “Writing and the Novel,” but this, this was said of old:
That happened in the reign of queen Dick, i.e. never: said of any absurd old story.