Wednesday, May 16, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 67: The Old Stories

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

It's apparently that time of year: the bunny population in my neighborhood has doubled in the past week.  Not that I'm complaining too much; I like seeing wild rabbits in the morning and evening, and they're a lot cuter than the ones in the pet store if you ask me.

On the other hand, it's been years since anything from the garden has made it more than a quarter-inch out of the dirt before being devoured.  The price I pay for living with lagomorphs, I guess.

After the break, my review of Thanqol's The Old Stories.

Impressions before reading:  This is another of my old favorites, so I'm looking forward to reading it again.  I admit I'm a bit apprehensive, though; I'm a sucker for folktale/mythology-type stories like this, but they're easy to write poorly.  Simple stories tend to lay bare any flaws in an author's writing.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The main six each share a legend which means something to them, and with the addition of a seventh tale, tell the story of Equestria's founding.

Thoughts after reading:  A classic folktale consists of several key elements: archetypal characters, a straightforward conflict based on or springing from those archetypes, and a resolution which provides a clear moral.  In addition, such a story is usually glossed in a veneer of antiquity, as the presence (or, as the case may be, illusion) of age strengthens the idea that those morals espoused are ageless.  There's a reason such stories often begin with "once upon a time;" those words evoke a sense of timelessness which lends gravitas to their subject.

Each of the six tales which make up The Old Stories captures these elements brilliantly.  Set at various times close to Celestia's creation of the sun, each offers a thoughtful interpretation of one of the Elements of Harmony, and what it really means to be honest, loyal, generous, kind, or... um, laugh-y and magical.  The ponies who figure in each story are painted in broad strokes, creating simplistic but vivid characters who fit perfectly into the storytelling style.  Moreover, the morals presented at the end of each are thoroughly appropriate to the stories being told, and expertly encapsulate the straightforward lessons of the classic folktales to which they hearken.

That said, the framing device for those tales was of variable quality.  Supposedly, each story was told by one of the main six, but the degree to which the tone of the narration matches the nominal speaker vacillates significantly.  There's a noticeable disconnect in language and structure between Dash's "...when Princess Celestia asked him to become a vassal of hers, he turned her down. He was a proud pony and wasn't about to bend knee to some newcomer Alicorn," and, in the very next paragraph, "[They] agreed that they'd settle this with a duel. The original Iron Pony competition! Winner gets Equestria. Stakes couldn't be higher."  The latter is clearly Dash telling a story.  The former I could buy if she were reading or reciting something, but it just doesn't match the presentation of other narrative example.

As in the last story by Thanqol that I reviewed, this one shows total competence on the writing front, with the glaring exception of an occasional its/it's slip.  Language varies somewhat depending on which pony is telling her story (though as I said above, this variation is inconsistent), but word use is overall very good.  On a technical front, there's not much to complain about here.

Of the six stories, the weakest was easily Pinkie's.  The reason had less to do with the story itself than the introduction to it.  To quote her opening paragraph: "Oh, you want to know how I got my cutie mark? That's easy! First off, I was a pegasus, but then somepony said that we should be more racially diverse, and then they rewrote me as an earth pony and - oh no, that's how Equestria was made. I always get those two mixed up."  By opening with a break-the-fourth-wall gag, the author abandons that sense of timeless antiquity which is the hallmark of a good folktale (and which is present, in various forms, in each of the other stories), and turns Pinkie's bit into a mere exercise in meta-creation (not helping: Pinkie's segment is full of references to friends of Thanqol's and previously written fanfics.  Most are reasonably subtle, but the meta-setup acts to shine a spotlight on these instances, by making them appear to be deliberate story-breaking insertions on Pinkie's part rather than amusing (and more importantly, ignorable) coincidences).  Thankfully, the other segments did not suffer from this self-awareness, and when stripped of its more unfortunate inclusions, even Pinkie's story is conceptually solid.

Despite the presentation, there's more to this story than just six short legends.  Between them, the stories the ponies tell manage to frame a history of Equestria that is rich in hinted-at depths and meshes well with the mythological feel of the show's less slice-of-life episodes (I'm thinking particularly of the pilot).  Moreover, the seventh segment provides a crucial binding, and casts all the previous stories in a new light.  I won't say too much for fear of spoiling the story, but it gives the entire work an aching poignancy which I found genuinely moving.  Not many fanfics accomplish that.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

In many ways, this is a very simple, bare-bones collection of stories which comprise a single narrative.  But the fact that they're simple in no way undermines the obvious skill of the author in crafting these tales, nor the resonance of their morals.  Despite a few missteps, this is an elegantly designed piece, and one which I enjoyed immensely.

Recommendation:  Fans of folklore and worldbuilding will find this to be an absolute treat, but I'd recommend it to almost anyone.  The individual stories are short but thought-provoking, and the way the final segment connects them is touching and bittersweet.

Next time:  Off the Edge of the Map, by Daetrin


  1. Okay my thoughts.

    I should start by saying I don’t read this as a series of mythological tales about Equestria, I can’t do that here*. No, what Thanqol has done is become the Chaucer for Equestria (“The Canterlot Tales” would make a fitting alternative title). As with Chaucer’s work, Thanqol’s has a distinct group of storytellers (the main six) that tell tales. Here’s where my praise comes in. Not only do the characters speak as if they would in the show when telling their stories (for the most part, I felt a few times there was something missing like Fluttershy’s reluctance to be judgmental or it became a little generic), but they tell a story that they would probably tell as well. All stories connected back to their element and so like with Chaucer’s work, the theme fits the speaker like a glove. I think Dash’s is the most successfully, if only because I can imagine her acting like she did at the beginning trying to draw attention to herself and instead just getting a story from a comic. And I also enjoyed some of the light character-humor moments, which added some fun to these stories.

    Here’s my problem with them. As with “The Canterbury Tales”, not all the stories here are interesting or enjoyable. I really didn’t care for either Applejack’s or Twilight’s. I don’t hold it against Thanqol for this part, too much. Between maintaining the important connection between character and story or making those tales more enjoyable, he made the right choice in where to put more effort in. But that doesn’t make them any less easy for me to get through. I also don’t like having the tales’ message read to me at the end, it’s too rubber mallet like. Yes, Chaucer did it as well, but it made more sense for him to do so and part of the time is was very tongue-in-cheek. And while there are plenty of mythologies out there that have conflicting stories, the point of these stories is that they actually happened. At times, I really didn’t think that this made sense. It’s hard for me to explain and find an example because it was just a feel but it’s like the world building didn’t make a plausible world at times (I supposed the lack of any life giving sun comes to mind, I mean magic can only work so far). Finally, while I really like the idea behind this, I wish more were done with the stories themselves. That is they were expanded upon. The telly style works given that it’s supposed to be somewhat oral but it does keep me from being engaged because of it when there's no actually speaker acting (Chaucer’s work also suffers from this), something a little meat could help remedy that fact or at least push it aside.

    So overall what do I think? Well, Chaucer is a rare writer that can successfully get the character’s voice and value’s right, particularly when they don’t appear directly. His work is a great piece and that once at respects and mocks the values of his time period, which adds a historical value to me (I’m ignoring the fact that he borrowed a lot from others, so did the Bard and plenty of other writers). Thanqol’s “The Old Stories” doesn’t have that latter part for a number of reasons* but he was able to get the former piece of matching character and story. Its strength outweighs the weaknesses because of that.

    Let me also add something as well. This was one of the first fanficts I read back in September on Equestria Daily (round 2), and at the time, I liked Dash’s part and smiled at the twist, I didn’t enjoy it overall and removed the bookmark to it. This time, it was different. I was able to enjoy the character’s being who they were for the most part and found a lot more to enjoy. So congrats, I don’t often change my opinion on fiction from negative to positive but I did here. So, thank you for a wonderful piece.

    1. *
      Let me explain what I mean by I don’t read this as mythology despite the obvious creation based stuff. I’ve liked mythology ever since I was a kid in elementary school starting with the Greeks (like most of kids) and have since expanded interest to the Babylonians, the Norse, the Aztecs, the Japanese, the Finns, the West Africans, and plenty of others. But what I value about such stories these days, as well as fairy tales, fables, and other folklore from these cultures is their historical and anthropological worth. The things I like about the “Odyssey” isn’t the story itself (if I was reading it for the story I wouldn’t be doing so because I don’t know the language), but what it tells me about the Greeks at the time, like the fact that they value home, their opinions on heroes, and the belief that a man can sleep with any number of women for years but his wife must be faithful to him even though he’s probably dead (*grumbles at the sexism*). It’s fun to learn about such cultures that way. “The Old Stories” belongs to a faux culture at best, so it has none of this (this is why I don’t see much value in mythology for fictional cultures by themselves). Instead, I judge based on the quality of its stories for that reason and not as a series of myths. Now something like “The Canterbury Tales” has something to say about medieval society but the stories inside are meant to be read as stories. This is why I compared “The Old Stories” to that instead of treating it like mythology. I didn’t take points off for that. I still like it.

  2. I can't say this was my favorite. It's mostly not the sort of thing I read fanfiction for, and while I'm friends with Thanqol and I helped him out with this one, I generally didn't get enthusiastic about his fics for that reason. Bugs' comments about it being mythology for a nonexistant culture kinda hits the nail on the head; it's good as far as that goes, but it left me with a feeling of "so what?" "So what" has a much harsher connotation than I mean, but that's all I can think of to express the feeling.

    1. Just thought of a good way to put it: "Okay then."

  3. I can't offer any opinion other than: I't just not my thing.

    I remember my friend Aaron once took me to see a local group perform 'The Canterbury tales', and I hated it. Naturally, he made all the arguments one might expect from a well read person to a largely un-read person like myself, so I tried reading the book as well. He seemed rather confused that I retorted with, "but it's the same stories!" At best, the details of how the story works is tertiary to the story itself, and I either like a story or I don't. These kind of shorts I find dull and pointless. Thus, I personally find 'The Old Stories' dull and pointless. It's just not me...I don't 'get' it.

  4. Heh. The reception to this still surprises me. I literally wrote it as a sequence of disconnected forum posts off the top of my head, with no planning or structure. Every single story is filled with in-jokes from the ponythread I posted it in. I didn't even intend it to be a story, and I *certainly* didn't intend to submit it.

    After being bullied for about a month by a friend of mine, I eventually gave in and emailed it to Equestria Daily with an attitude of "Fine, fine, let's get this over with".

    I'm not quite sure what happened next.

    I have no defences or rebuttals to anything anyone has said here. Instead, what I took away from this story was a sense of self-confidence and renewed determination - if I was capable of writing a story filled with in-jokes and OCs and get it 6 starred on Equestria Daily, then I seriously started wondering what I could do if I applied myself properly.

    The results of that were Yours Truly.

    1. Makes sense to me :)

      I really enjoyed Yours Truly. I kinds felt that it was simplicity done right. Still wish it had been done without the shipping, but it left me with a big smile and that's all I feel I can really ask...

    2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. That was the first story of mine I legitimately felt happy with.

      And, uh, sorry about the shipping but in my head it's always been a love story and I legitimately have no idea what would be left if I took out the shipping. I guess the Adventures of Dread Pirate Pinkie Pie?

    3. Well, by 'without the shipping' I don't necessarily mean without the love story. I just see so many well envisioned stories where I feel like the story would have been more powerful to drop the romantic aspects in favour of focusing on the love and emotional needs aspects. The latter I don't view as shipping, but there is plenty of scope for arguments over semantics on that point.

      For example: in my mind, you could remove shipping from Yours Truly without changing the story at all. As I said, I actually feel that it might have been a little more poignant (bugger, I can never spell that word right!) as a deeper and more meaningful friendship, than as actual shipping.

      ..but of course, that's just me :)

      Of course, in the end it can ONLY be the story that's in your head, and I'd rather just have that than an argument over the specifics!

    4. :o

      I thought I was the only one!

    5. Yours Truly: One of my absolute favorites. One of the handful of fics that truly made me laugh out loud... several times!

    6. I'll be honest, I like "The Old Stories" more than "Yours Truly", even before the re-read. Sure, "Yours Truly" was successful at something that I didn't think was possible, but part of it left a bad taste in my mouth as well. It also belongs to the "Where is the main cast after x number of years" genre and that's one I've grown more judgmental of because of the cheapness of death from numerous bad ones amongst other things. (I can really only think of one fanfiction in that genre that really worked for me but that was always a strange one and it's debatable if it even counts as one). If and when we get to "Yours Truly", I'll go into more detail about my overall thoughts on it.

  5. I don't think the in jokes were that horribly intrusive, my first time readingt his, I din't know Thanqol or his friends, so I just thought they were OCs, and that was fine. Not every reader will have knowledge about the author's life, and that's like complaining JK Rowling based Lockhart off a person she knew.

    1. For the most part, I agree with you; fandom and real-world references were present in (IIRC) every chapter, but almost all were both plot-relevant (i.e. not totally gratuitous) and sufficiently subtle that they could pass without question, an amusing addition for those who caught them and unobtrusive to those who didn't. But the Pinkie section, by making the speaker audience-aware, elevated those inclusions to the status of deliberate in-story additions. So, it's no longer Thanqol who's throwing in these bits, the conceit is now that it's Pinkie herself. For me, that's a crucial distinction.

      In the other sections, I'm inclined to agree that the in-jokes were done in such a way that they didn't intrude on the reading experience.

  6. This was one of the first fics I read and I remember liking it a lot. I'll have to go back and re-read it.

    Oh, and about the bunnies? Chicken wire cages around your garden beds. I have the same problem up here with ground squirrels and a direct physical barrier is the only solution. The cages are a bit ugly but it's worth it for the fresh veggies.

  7. Yeah, I would agree with pretty much everything here. I am not a huge fan of the particular style, but that's personal preference and not any kind of objective observation. Overall, enjoyable enough, and quite creative!

    Off the Edge of the Map is up next? I am excited!