(Epistemic Status: Consider this a Gift from the holders of my pact)
I have previously spoken of the narrative structure of the fairy tale – even used the conflict of the courts to express illegible social concepts. I have written short fiction about a poor, broken fae-touched woman granted the boon of Right Things. I have told you of the pacts I have made with those terrific, fantastic manifestations of nature.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned why I like fairy tales so much.
There is a narrative resonance in the fairy tale, deeper than any other narrative structure I’ve encountered. A combination of willingness to defy the natural order and a deep acceptance of the costs of doing that. An exploration of the paradox of the decision to upset the Way Things are Done and decide that you are special and Exempt, and the crushing realization that you’re special and Exempt right up until you aren’t. The exciting path one takes from agent of change to agent of the status quo. It’s a story of rising stars and second chances, but with a darkness I can’t help but be drawn to – a fatalism that echoes in the hollows of my mind. The constant awareness of how long the odds are…the seemingly endless reservoir of determination to try anyway.
The fact is, I’ve already thrown away my shot. The system was intended to work one way for me and somehow I got off the rails. If I had just kept putting out the butter and worn the cold iron – if I had focused on the path ahead and followed the advice about keeping my grades up, paying attention to scholarship opportunities…or maybe if I had learned a trade or held a proper job for awhile out of high school. I instead chose other things, and I paid the Price.
But the world dies without stories. If everyone follows the same cookie cutter path, following their prospects instead of their dreams, following the traditions to the letter, living conflict free lives, where are the stories that form the lifeblood of civilization? When inhuman forces pervade our entire society, the story of humanity becomes even stronger and more resonant – the need to hear the whispers of someone who defied the rules and made it anyway becomes desperate. However, this can never be easy – if it were easy, everyone would choose it, after all. It wouldn’t be a story, it would be the new normal. So the tales that take off, the memes that spread…among the circles of the twice exceptional, it’s the late bloomer who maybe fucked around a bit too much when the system was there to help and has to navigate significantly more hostile territory to use their gifts. It’s Maya Millennial, playing the desperate lottery of the big city to create a resonate story and keep hope and humanity alive. It’s the startup founder dropping out of college to make their next unicorn. It’s that cryptocurrency libertarian you made fun of in 2010 sitting on a pile of digital gold through pure dumb luck. These are the modern fairy tales that reassure us there are still ways to be human rather than processed.
A conflict is no fun if the heroine always wins though. A story loses it’s meaning if there’s never consequences for breaking the rules. A system cannot be upheld by unpunished rebellion. That undercurrent of fatalism…the certainty that the luck eventually runs out…this is also important to my aesthetic vision. The urgency and desperation lends a resonance to the fairy tale that I mirror when I author my own narratives. I like that my endless energy is tinged with this darkness, this deadness that courses through anyone who skirmishes with the fae. The fact is, I expect I will make it, but I will be changed for the effort. It won’t be me who makes it, but a version of myself who is processed after all. “You think yourself special because you’re human – I think you’re most special when you’re inhuman.” This is the paradox that runs through both the modern era and the typical fairy tale. One of the lies to get someone to trade away their life force to keep the traditions alive. The truth is neither the human nor the inhuman are special, they are both parts of the narrative arc, the process – once again, you are special and Exempt right up until you aren’t.
Fairy tales are about society – they teach you what is and isn’t acceptable, and when it is acceptable to defy those rules – because no society thrives without its Fools. In the past, you needed some explorers willing to die for innovation. Now, we need explorers willing to die for stories.
Overall, fairly tales feel both hopeful and fatalistic at the same time, which is much like how I view my own circumstances. I didn’t get the golden ticket of coding when it was hot – I didn’t leverage my intelligence to uphold our illusions of meritocracy – I didn’t learn to accept my place as worthless in an ever changing society – so I run up against the uncaring forces of (human) nature and see if I’m clever and resourceful enough to get ahead…knowing that the faeries find a way to get their Price, in the end.
Discussion questions: What narrative arcs resonate with you? How do you feel about the fairy tale as a narrative conceit? Do you think society is expressed in other stories?