Today’s story is a tiney glimpse into Equestrian high society.

wrong-forkThe Wrong Fork
[Slice-of-Life] • 1,138 words

During a lull in the conversation at an upper class charity dinner, Rarity takes a moment to contemplate some commonly held assumptions made of Princess Celestia. Specifically, her table manners.

FROM THE CURATORS: As previously mentioned here, stories this short — “The Wrong Fork” barely clears 1,000 words — are easy to write, but difficult to write well.  The effect of each word is magnified when a story is so brief, and PoweredByTea uses that here to great advantage.  “This story manages to invest a trivial moment, an idle bit of speculation, and a no-stakes ‘climax’ with such draw that it sucked me right in,” Chris said.  “The Wrong Fork is a great example of how small moments can be used to build character and introspection.”

This fic also drew praise for its strong closing.  “The last line really tied the whole thing together; a nice way to put everything into context,” JohnPerry said.  And Present Perfect marveled at the themes introduced by Rarity’s closing actions: “This is the Equestrian high-society version of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade, or a movement leader going to political prison,” he said.

Ultimately, though several of PoweredByTea’s stories were worthy of a feature, we selected this one for the exemplary mileage it gets out of its brevity.  “My god, this is deep for a thousand words,” Present Perfect said.

Read on for our author interview, in which PoweredByTea discusses social climbing, anthropological studies of the English, and sheep-bone headwear.

Give us the standard biography.

I was born in the North of England. I’m currently working a job in the South. There was a bit in the middle, but it’s not that interesting.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

I’m going to copy verbatim the answer I gave the Pony Fiction Vault:

I must admit, I’ve always struggled with coming up with online handles. I have yet to think of one I’m happy with. The truth is, I never actually meant to interact much at first, I was just creating an account to track a few stories, so I picked random7634. At some point, I started leaving comments on stories and blog posts and I realised I should probably come up with a better handle.

So it was about this time that Skywriter’s Princess Celestia Hates Tea showed up in the feature box. I didn’t read it at first because it looked like another Pony X verbs Y story, but it just stayed up there for days and eventually curiosity got the better of me.

Now we have to break off this tale to say that I drink a lot of tea. I come from a culture that is stereotyped around the world as being full of tea drinkers, and the amount of the stuff I get through is still be considered abnormal.

So there I was, reading Princess Celestia Hates Tea, drinking my cup of tea, wondering about a proper username, and it occurred to me that “PoweredByTea” would probably be as good a name as any, so I went with it, and there you go.

In hindsight, it’s not so great. For a start, it doesn’t read well as a noun. Oh well, the cycle of not being happy with my online handle continues.

Who’s your favorite pony?

Twilight Sparkle and Rarity for different reasons. I see a lot of Twilight in me and I suppose that makes her easy to relate to. I like learning, I spend too much time worrying if I live up to the standards of others, and I made only a few friends during my childhood. Thankfully I didn’t have to defeat a dark goddess returned to bring eternal night to the world to do so, merely a man wearing a sheep pelvis on his head. [1]

The main difference is I’m hopelessly disorganised. I like the idea of checklists in principle, it’s just I never follow through with making any.

Rarity, however, is not a pony I have much in common with at all. If we met, I doubt we would be friends. But she can be such an interesting and complicated character that she deserves to be best pony too.

Also, I’m a sucker for pretty much anything involving the Royal Sisters.

[1] Am I sensing you desire more context? Then this footnote is for you! You see, at university I joined a live action role-play society and ended up becoming fast friends with many of its members. One of the first events I went to was an adventure where our party was hired to go deal with a monster—the costume for which involved a sheep’s pelvis.

The thing had been in the society for basically forever—I’m not sure if anyone still remembers where it came from—but it looked remarkably intimidating, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

What’s your favorite episode?

Another copy-paste from my Vault interview, as the answer hasn’t changed much.

Um, gosh, I don’t think I could point to one in particular and call it my favorite, but, well I do like Winter Wrap Up—that song, what more can I say?; Fall Weather Friends; Suited for Success—I care about fashion and dresses now? Well played FiM, well played; Sonic Rainboom—some great Rainbow Dash; Stare Master; Green Isn’t Your Colour; Cutie Mark Chronicles; The Best Night Ever; Lesson Zero; Sisterhooves Social; Sweet and Elite; It’s About Time.

What do you get from the show?

When I was finally persuaded to give ponies a go, I was in the middle of writing up a PhD thesis. It was a very lonely and stressful period of my life and the uncynical, very genuine world the show depicted was just the sort of thing I needed to maintain a little sanity.

What do you want from life?

Ugh. Are all the questions going to be this difficult? For the longest time I assumed I wanted to be a scientist. I guess I got pretty far with that one. I’m listed as a co-author in a paper or two. Now? I have no clue. Lately I’ve been feeling completely lost.

Why do you write?

So apparently they are going to be that difficult, hummm? The answer is I don’t really know. In the past I think I’ve called the process fun, but that’s not quite right. Quite frequently the process of writing is massively painful and the fact that I’m even doing it makes me question my own sanity. All too often, I open the google document, stare at it, and go procrastinate watching youtube videos so “fun” is perhaps not the right word.

It—the writing thing—goes back a long way. I remember writing the first 40,000-word sci-fi novel a long time ago. Somehow the plot never went anywhere and my uncle who I showed it to admitted to me years later that it was “awful”. I’ve made other attempts over the years, once participating in a long running round-robin collaborate story. I guess for whatever reason, writing stories is something I’m drawn to. I think the answer is that even though it’s hard, creating things feels worthwhile.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

I gave a lot of practical advice in my Vault interview, which is still all good. To that, I’d add one piece of advice my friend GhostOfHeraclitus always gives: read lots and lots, and don’t skimp on the non-fiction. I’ve tried doing this lately and even a little reading really does end up giving you ideas. Certainly The Wrong Fork would not have been written if I hadn’t read Watching the English by Kate Fox, a study of English culture put together using techniques from anthropology.

Rarity ends up besmirching her own social standing to prove a point. Could you talk a bit about the idea of sacrifice in relation to this story?

Yikes! That sounds like a question from an English exam. You gave me flashbacks to scratching around trying to figure out how I was supposed to answer and what the examiner wanted. Happily, as the author, I can for once just skip to giving the straight answer… modulo death of the author theory, which I’m going to ignore because it sounds rather morbid.

Sacrifice is not a major theme in the story. At the opening, Rarity is simply bored. She doesn’t want to interrupt Fluttershy and doesn’t feel able to contribute to Twilight, Spike, and Celestia’s conversation. The result is her mind wanders in strange directions it wouldn’t normally go in.

In Rarity’s headspace, at least as I pictured it while writing, she becomes intensely curious. Enough that she doesn’t worry about the consequences of her actions to herself (which she judges minor at most). It’s only afterwards does she ruefully reflect on what she’s done.

And actually the nature of that reflection brings up the idea of loyalty but I’m going to tack that onto the end of the next question.

Celestia is a “pretender” by virtue of having outlived countless ideas of what proper etiquette is. But if Rarity also considers herself a “pretender”, what is required for a pony not to be?

This is a very good question and the answer is going to be very long. No one will judge you if you just skip it.

Still reading? Okay then.

As I said, Watching the English by Kate Fox was something of an inspiration for the piece. It’s certainly where I got the word “pretender” from. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like it (though I would be very interested in learning of similar books on other cultures). What makes it unique is that it’s written by anthropologist and it’s researched using the anthropologist’s tools and techniques. We normally imagine anthropologists going off to study remote tribes in the tropics or something, but Fox studies English culture instead. There was clearly some real, honest to goodness, research that went into it.

For example, one of the most amusing bits was Fox investigating the old queuing stereotype—”left alone, an Englishman will form an orderly queue of one.” She did this going out and cutting queues (a very emotionally painful experience for her—and I sympathise. The thought of doing this makes me wince) to see what would happen and what the reactions of people would be.

A thing that stuck with me was that Fox often splits her discussion across different social classes. The working class does this, the upper classes do that. You wouldn’t believe how much disagreement there can be about what certain meals and rooms of the house are called. Lounge? Sitting room? Drawing room?

And yes, these are sweeping generalisations, but finding sweeping generalisations about a culture is what anthropology is concerned with.

In another memorable piece of field work, Fox describes going to an upper class event (it may have been the Royal Ascot?) and meeting a baroness there. She’d worn a dress she thought was good, but the “grand old lady” apparently turned her nose up at it.

The events of Sweet and Elite played out in real life, with no Fancypants to step in and save the day.

Fox describes an intense feeling of inadequacy and a feeling that she isn’t supposed to be there. I believe it’s here she actually uses the word “pretender” to describe herself.

One answer to the question is that “non-pretenders” are those that don’t have to think about all the upper class social rules because they were born into it and could absorb it at such a young age that everything is as natural as speaking a first language.

Learning another culture can certainly be hard. My PhD supervisor often complained about how hard adapting to British culture and small talk was at first. Likewise, my parents are totally clueless about most Internet memes.

So is that it? What if a pony were to actually put in the effort learn all the unwritten rules, change the way she talks, her bearing, her vocabulary, and everything else. Would that be enough?

It might depend on who you ask. The thing is, there are almost certainly ponies in Canterlot willing to look down on Rarity no matter what she does simply because of her background as a Ponyville pony.

In that, the show mirrors life. The term “social climber” can be a term that is looked down on. I’m reminded of an old British comedy show called Keeping Up Appearances featuring the antics of one Hyacinth Bucket (who insists it’s pronounced “Bouquet”).

“The Bucket residence, the lady of the house speaking!”

She’s completely ridiculous and you’re meant to laugh at her.

“It’s my sister Daisy. She’s not the one with the Mercedes, sauna and room for a pony.”

After writing The Wrong Fork I started wondering why. Why is “social climber” a bad word? Perhaps it’s because we perceive the social climber as being deceitful? But deceitful about what exactly? What if who they feel they are is different to who their parents were, as Rarity clearly does? Was I wrong to laugh at Hyacinth? In a more enlightened society would there be no Hyacinth stereotype to laugh at?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I just ended up being forced to ask myself them.

In any case, back to the question of when a pony is or is not a pretender. The answer is that as far as some ponies are concerned, Rarity, a Ponyville pony, will always be one. Rarity knows this, but she states it matter-of-factly. She knows what they think, and sure, it’s a barrier, but she’s past caring enough to let it get her down, which is a nice victory for her.

And, well, then she has her little revelation. There are a few rather important lines:

So then, Celestia, you’re a pretender too.

You, Celestia, are not quite the perfect princess that everypony suspects you to be. This is (supposed to) have the feeling of shock about it. It’s phrased as an accusation and Rarity uses Celestia’s name with no honorific.

Nevertheless, Rarity quickly realises that she and Celestia have something in common that she never suspected possible. (This is the bit where we pick up from the last question.) And with that comes a feeling of loyalty and a little bit of guilt too. She even goes as far as calling her act a “betrayal”—which it is, just a little bit.

Fear not, Princess, your secret is safe with me.

Fear not, Princess. It’s not exactly much of a secret, but Rarity resolves to keep it anyway. And for a gossip like her, that’s significant.

Though all things considered, it did a perfectly adequate job on the hay.

And back to the question of those ponies who would stick their noses up at Rarity while idolizing Celestia. What do they really know? Perhaps the best answer to the question is with another question: why should it matter?

Have you ever used “the wrong fork”?

I hope not? You start on the outside and work in, right?

I don’t actually know anything about how forks are supposed to work at upper class dinners. That was of the nice things about writing about ponies—I was able to make up the “hay course” and “floral course” and assert via authorial fiat that the forks looked very similar. Otherwise I might have had to do *shudder* research.

As for “the wrong fork” in bunny ears, most certainly yes. Who hasn’t made a faux pas or two? I’m certainly no budding socialite. Heck, my parents never did get me to stop leaving the spoon in my teacup…

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Well, I’d just like to point out that The Wrong Fork started out life as this idea that got stuck in my head and refused to go away. I certainly never set out with the intention of writing something with high minded ideas and (shudder) possible social commentary. It feels completely bizarre that I was able to write an response the length of a short essay on the “pretender” question and for the record, I don’t mind if you read it and your response is simply “Rarity trolled Celestia LOL”.

In fact, I almost didn’t publish The Wrong Fork, so once again I’m going to have to thank GhostOfHeraclitus for the heckling that prompted me to do so.

Finally, The Pony’s Guide To Perfect Gentility, in case you were wondering, is a reference to a book by Emily Thornwel entitled The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility published in 1857. So I suppose I did do some research after all.

You can read The Wrong Fork at FIMFiction.net.