Friday, September 6, 2013

Fandom Classics Part 6: The Glass Blower

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

Welcome to beginning of NFL season!  For the next few months, those of you who are fans can enjoy the return of the game, while those of you who aren't can suffer.  And of course, with the start of the season comes the return of fantasy football, and my yearly donation to people who have a better understanding of the phrase "regression to the mean" than I do.  I also went ahead and signed up for a free Pick the Winners league for ponyfans; I'll let you know if my team, [insert pony pun here], does anything worth mentioning.  Spoiler alert: they won't.

But enough sports-y stuff.  Head on down below the break for my review of Cold in Gardez's The Glass Blower.

Impressions before reading:  I read this not long after it was written, and loved it.  Since then, I've come across multiple critiques that fault the fic for its portrayal of Rarity.  While it's been a while, I can't say I disagree based on what I remember of this story.  It'll be interesting to see how this one holds up.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A humble glass blower spies Rarity at the market, and determines to create for her a gift worthy of her beauty--for she has sworn to only give her heart to an artist as gifted as she.

Thoughts after reading:  Since I prefaced my review of Arddun Lleuad on Wednesday with an admission and explanation of the fact that I'm not a big fan of shipping (or at least, of some of the more common narrative conventions which tend to accompany "shipping stories"), it seems appropriate to begin this review by mentioning how much I love fairy tales.  I love the way that such short, memorable stories can incorporate morals that are both brutally blunt and open to interpretation; I love to look at how stories change over time, depending on culture and intended audience; I love the simple yet grandiose narration which all the best fairy tales have.  This being, in essence, a MLP-set fairy tale, I was predisposed to enjoy it--and I did.

The story is, without giving away too much, cut from a classic mold, addressing pride centrally, and a few other vices and virtues tangentially.  The story revels in magical wonder, as fairy tales often do, and follows a tried-and-true narrative pattern.  It's true that the strict adherence to this pattern does make the work predictable, but it's also very appropriate to the story being told.

As for the use of Rarity... in truth, she'd have been better of if she hadn't been Rarity.  Since she personifies pride and beauty here, and has literally no other role in the story than to exemplify these traits, utilizing a well-defined character is actually counterproductive to the mood of the piece; Rarity's simply too human a character to fit well into a story better suited for a one- or two-trick paragon.  By contrast, the stallion wooing her is defined entirely by his artistic craft and his single-minded dedication, which drives home the story's message far more effectively than a more nuanced character would.  I know that it's rare to complain about characters being too well-developed, but there are story styles for which blunter instruments are required, and this is one such.

The narration is suitably grandiose, but never descends into overwrought parody.  Moreover, Cold in Gardez elects to give his characters comparatively informal voices in private, saving their speechifying for public.  I thought this an odd decision at first, but it proves to help establish how seriously all involved take Rarity's challenge--and what it means to all of them.  Overall, the tone of the work is positively excellent.

As for that "brutally blunt and open to interpretation" moral?  Here, the author hits precisely the sweet spot that I look for in stories like this.  Without delving into spoilers, I can't say much about it, though.  So, if you want more detail, click the tag beneath.   But if you don't want to know how the story ends, don't.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

This story does what it sets out to do extremely well, and remains accessible without sacrificing the style or conventions in which it wraps itself.  The only truly weak point of the story was Rarity, but although her presence may have been a distraction, it never reached the point where I was forced to call into question the entire premise.

Recommendation:  Fans of fairy tales in any form should absolutely give this a look.  Moreover, more general readers will find that this story is not only of interest to aficionados of the style.  Rarity is compressed down to two essential traits and nothing more in this work though, and those sensitive to the flattening of characters may well take offense.

Next time:  "For I am a Jelly God," by Posh


  1. Chris hit the main criticism I've seen of this story, and one I agree with. The other I've mostly seen, which I also agree with, is that this is barely a pony story. The characters could have all been made human, and it wouldn't have affected the story at all, except for the one conceit that separation of the races' abilities made it unusual that the artisan was able to work the magic he did, though even that would have been easy to justify in a human character.

    Still, I thought it was a wonderfully written story, and it's one of a few I've favorited. It's been so long since I'e perused my favorites that I don't remember how many, but there is at least one story I've favorited that I didn't like, so that I could keep it as an example of how not to do something or of a great premise wasted by lackluster writing. But this is definitely one I enjoyed on its own merits.

  2. I actually liked having Rarity in this story. I view it almost as a prequel of a earlier time in her life when she was, well, the pony we see in this story. That perhaps these events are what snapped her out of her vanity and started her on the path to the much better pony we see in the show itself. Perhaps showing that Twilight wasn't the only one of them that was narrowly focused before finding friends.

    1. That could make for an interesting series of short fics

  3. I agree with this review and all the specific praise and criticisms.

    That said what it comes down to is personal opinion and preference as to whether this story about these characters with these depictions is desirable to oneself as FiM fanfiction.
    As for me... no sir, I don't like it.

  4. I was very disappointed when I read the Glass Blower, on account of knowing someone who's totally in love with it, and thus having my expectations driven ever upward. Rarity's portrayal absolutely killed the story for me; I agree that she would have been better served with an OC, and I agree with Pasco as well that this isn't a very pony story (though that's hardly ever something I complain about). I thought the story was fascinating (the magical glass sculptures are all stunningly wrought), but beyond being well-written, I just couldn't take it.

    I do have to wonder about the fairy-tale thing, as that explains a few other objections I had to it, one being "People just don't talk that way." In a literary community where fairy tales are not the norm, is it permissible to judge a fairy tale on the merits of normal fiction? I read a story recently where realizing it was a fairy tale helped explain why the writing wasn't all that good. But is it a crutch? Is "it's a fairy tale" enough to explain away poor characterization and dialogue? (There's a parallel to draw between this and something else that comes up a lot, but I can't think of what at the moment.)

    1. AU. A lot of people see AU as an excuse to completely do whatever they want to the characters and settings with no regard for canon.

    2. "People just don't talk that way?"

      Talk what way? I'm curious. None of the dialogue struck me as unusual, but then again, not many talk like I do either.

  5. I've heard the criticism before that Rarity seems out of character in this story. I would argue that she's not out of character -- rather, her character has been exaggerated. All the flaws we see in the show -- her vanity, her obsession with class and self image, her deception -- are all here. Her virtues, such as they are -- beauty, skill, refinement -- are here as well. All that is missing that we see in the show is generosity.

    Someone smarter than I noted that Rarity is the best character of the mane 6 because she alone is defined by her flaws, rather than her virtues:

    - Twilight is defined by being smart, organized, and powerful. Her flaw, the only thing preventing her from being perfect, is the obsession and social isolation she displays (though less frequently in the show than in fanfics).

    - Applejack is defined as honest, strong, hard-working and family-centric. Her flaw is her stubbornness.

    - Fluttershy is kind, gentle, understanding. Her flaw is timidity.

    - Pinkie Pie is lively, vivacious, joyful. Her flaw is her inability to be serious when necessary (and, in a single episode, an apparent manic-depressive tendency).

    - Rainbow Dash is athletic, loyal, and exudes coolness. Her flaw is her pride and disdain for intellectual pursuits.

    But then we have Rarity. How is she defined? Not by what makes her good, but what makes her bad:

    - Rarity is vain. We see this constantly.

    - Rarity is judgmental.

    - Rarity is prideful.

    - More than any other pony in the show, Rarity is deceptive. The make-up and clothes she conceals herself in are simply physical stand-ins for this part of her character.

    But we still love Rarity. Why? Because despite being a negative archetype, she is still a good pony, because her virtues outweigh her flaws. She is generous to a fault. She is willing to sacrifice her physical appearance, her time, her talents, her livelihood, all for her friends. She is, alone among the main characters, a bad archetype that manages to overcome these flaws and be truly good.

    The Rarity in The Glass Blower takes away that one, tiny aspect of her character, the single virtue we associate with her. Minus her generosity, what kind of pony do you think Rarity would be?

    One much like this, I would imagine.

    1. I think you are defining the characters too closely based on their construction instead of their actual relatable virtues and flaws.

      Twi being smart, organized, and powerful might define her to a prospective employer, but to a friend those traits are just another attribute like "purple" or "unicorn".

      Twi's virtue is her resolve. Her drive to be the absolute best she can be at anything she cares about. She has to be the beat student, the best mage, the best astronomer, the best friend. And she does not need to be the best for her own conceit, she needs to be the best because otherwise she feels she is letting someone down.
      Her flaw is her poor coping skills when she is unable to handle something causing her composure to erode.

      Dash's virtue is her dedication. Whether to a friend, a cause, a mission, a goal, a dream, her values, etc. She always follows through regardless of the difficulty. She can crash time and again and never give up.
      Her flaw is that she sees the world through Rainbow Dash tinted lenses. Her own abilities and priorities are the baseline by which she measures everything. She believes in herself so strongly that she has trouble relating to a world that is not tailor built to her specifications.

      Pinkie Pie's virtue is her absolute belief in the power of joy.
      Her flaw is that she has almost no self restraint.

      Rarity's virtue is that she sees the potential in all things and people/ponies and cares enough to want to help them realize that potential. Like an artist with a canvas. One thing you fail to mention is that she is by far absolutely the most supportive of all the mane 6.
      Her flaw is that her ambition overrides all else. Not necessarily purely selfishly, but she takes top priority. After all, if she doesn't elevate herself, she'll be in no position to help others. But this causes her to lose sight of the here and now and get herself into conflicts of interest. She is the one with the occasional tunnel vision not always discerning when she stops giving and starts imposing.

      AJ's virtue is that she is not special. All her abilities and attributes come from no inherent advantage. She is who she is and can do what she does because of how she was raised and just her life as it is naturally with no special ambitions beyond taking care of her family. All her skills are learned and honed through hard work and lifestyle. She is exceptional simply because she is unexceptional.
      Her flaw is being unable to deal with not being able to accomplish things outside of her ability. Her attitude is do or die no matter what. Stubbornness plays a part in that for sure, but it seems like that is an attitude she adopts to try and accomplish the impossible, not the cause of her ill fated attempts.

      Fluttershy's virtue is her empathy.
      Her flaw is her shyness.

    2. It's hard seeing so nuanced a character reduced in any form, I think.

      (and, in a single episode, an apparent manic-depressive tendency)


      AJ's virtue is that she is not special.

      DPV, I...

    3. DPV, I can honestly say I don't think I've ever disagreed more with an assessment of the main six.

      For starters, I think we have a fundamental disagreement on what constitutes virtue. You seem to be using it as 'something that is considered good', which I am not down with. A virtue is something morally good--a principal on which a person can stand. The things you listed are just personality traits, and most of them I consider to be personality flaws.

      For example, you said Twilight's virtue is resolve (which isn't a virtue anyway) and then went on to describe perfectionism, which is both not related to resolve and generally considered a negative trait. It's her character flaw, not a virtue.

      To the other extreme, you said that AJ's virtue is that she's not special. Aside from being a ridiculous position to start with, AJ is by far the closest character to being virtuous, by nature of having the only fundamental character trait that corresponds to virtue outside of cartoon logic. There is no virtue higher than honesty. She is the most morally praiseworthy character in the entire show.

      I'm not even sure Fluttershy has a virtue. Her empathy is completely out of control and is her greatest flaw, not her virtue. She is quite literally a textbook abuse victim (probably neglect). It's pretty much why she's so universally adorable: it's like she's everyone's second-best pony, loved by everyone but without a strong enough personality to rise above Rainbow Dash, Rarity, or Twilight Sparkle (you Pinkite's are just wrong 'uns, and like it or not, AJ just doesn't have that kind of popularity).

      No. I think you're about as dead wrong as any one person can be. But what do I know?


    4. @InquisitorM

      Just as the word "moral" has many meanings as in "being moral" which most people use in lieu of "ethical", "morals" which are tenets and rules for positive thinking and action, and "the moral of the story" which is any old anecdotal lesson.
      So does "virtue" as in "a virtue" which is a positive trait exemplifies by moral behavior, "virtuous" which is moniker for anything that is done or anyone who acts in a capacity for good, "by virtue of" which is anything at all that contributes to a positive perception of something or someone "By virtue of her long, powerful legs she was a fast runner," and "virtual" which basically means "almost".

      As for Twi, resolve is not perfectionism, trying to be the best you can be at whatever matters to you is professionalism and passion. I think you have little insight as to the nature pf perfection or the psychological reality of what we call "perfectionism". Twi does have a bit of "perfectionist" OCD in little things in her life such as organization and portioning/symmetry that many honor students have, but that is just a crutch to help her pursue things that truly matter to her with this organizational foundation backing her up.

      With AJ you saw one phrase and made a judgement. Shame on you.
      Twi is the most magically gifted unicorn of her age;
      Dash broke the sound barrier at like 6 years old;
      Pinkie defies logic;
      Shy has immense empathy and limited telempathy;
      Rarity has rather unique gem related magics and incredible vision;
      AJ is an apple farmer. All of her abilities and morals and traits come from living and working on an apple farm. Her rodeo skills come from her work, her strength comes from her work, her honesty comes from how she was raised, her stubbornness comes from needing to "step up" at a young age.

      I am not saying she is unspecial or unexceptional. I am saying she has no predefined trait that makes her so. It's all just who she is and her life that puts her on par with the others. No advantages other than what she earned for herself. I praise her higher than all the others for this. So please try to understand where I am coming from.

      As for her honesty? Well, valuing the truth in not something remotely unique to her, being unable to lie well is not "honesty", she may exemplify honesty by virtue of her trustworthiness, but otherwise I think overemphasizing or taking literally each character's "Element trait" is not the best way to characterize these ponies.

      As for Shy, it is entirely possible for a virtue to be a flaw, so we agree. But the way I worded it did not imply the "empathy" as a 6th sense, but as "to care emotionally". And the "shyness" is definitely caused by her sensitivity to emotions.
      And I doubt neglect. I think she just did not build an emotional shield or shell as many kids do because she is too nice for her own good. And a total forgiving doormat. But she's getting better.

      The whole rundown confuses you a bit, but go back to what I first said. This is not the way I assess them as characters, this is the way I assess them more intimately as "people I know" in a way. This is the way I think about people I know personally, rather than viewing them by "absolute virtues" and "meta traits".


      See above re: AJ.

    5. Inquisitor, if loving Pinkie Pie (in the platonic, I love her as a character sense!) is wrong, then I don't want to be right. I guess I'm the weird one though, seeing as Fluttershy's my least-favorite and AJ's my second-favorite. I love my mudhooves

  6. To clear up any confusion, I was talking about archetypes. I.e. the nerd, the jock, the hard-worker, the shy one. Rarity is the only pony whose archetype is negative, but is given character (and redeemed) by her positive traits. The others are all positive archetypes given character by their negative traits.

    1. Rarity is in no way a negative archetype IMO. That is only perception cause by society in which most people with her archetype are viewed negatively due to having negative attributes.
      Similarly to how chefs get a bad rap as stressed out perfectionists due to the media, many positive traits like a high level of self worth are viewed negatively as "vanity". Remember that Rarity's line in the theme is "a beautiful heart" seeing her archetype as negative is extremely superficial and a symptom of the media indoctrination that this show and it's characters tries to escape.

  7. "The story revels in magical wonder..."

    Did I ever tell you guys how much I love magical wonder?
    That stuff's more addictive than cocaine!