Drift away on the currents of today’s story to see Equestria as you’ve never seen it before.
Riverdream At Sunset: A Manuscript
[Crossover] [Adventure] [Human] • 7,768 words
A forgotten manuscript reveals an odd journey purportedly undertaken by Lord Dunsany, a Promethean explorer of the Lands of Dream. While the manuscript has yet to be authenticated, its contents are interesting enough to merit my posting them here.
FROM THE CURATORS: “At heart, this is just a human-in-Equestria story,” Horizon’s nomination began, but it was immediately obvious to all of us that there was much more going on. “It’s HiE with class,” JohnPerry said, while Chris marveled: “This is in many ways ‘just’ an HiE story underneath all the trappings, but that doesn’t deter me from praising it. First off, those trappings are really, really brilliant.”
That’s because the particular human visiting Equestria is one of the fathers of fantasy literature, and this fic is a marvelous homage to his style. “GroaningGreyAgony perfectly captures the way Dunsany meshed dense Victorian style, with its penchant for untranslated tidbits, flowery descriptions, and all the rest, with a nevertheless clear and readable narrative voice,” Chris said. Horizon agreed: “The language here is unreal. Pseudo-Victorian, quaint yet inviting, full of casual Greek that’s all clear in context (and all in the glossary if it isn’t), and bursting at the seams with worldbuilding of both the Equestrian and Earthy varieties.” Present Perfect, too, fell in love with the language. “There are just so many wonderful passages in this,” he said. “Like ‘We are glad of a fire, but we do not love it.'”
What we did love was basically everything about this story. “Besides giving us what has to be the coolest origin story for Celestia I’ve ever read, you’ve got a protagonist who’s fun to follow,” JohnPerry said. “Great framing story. Great creation myth. The world-building is fantastic,” Present Perfect added. Finally, there was a solid message in the story’s framing and presentation. “It’s not just a story about going to Equestria, it’s a story about humanity willfully losing touch with the ways and traditions of our ancestors,” Chris said. “Those Greek mythology callouts aren’t just to show how smart the author is, nor are they even ‘just’ because that’s how Dunsany wrote: they’re the girders which support the story’s message.”
It’s no wonder that Riverdream At Sunset sailed through our selection process with rare top scores from multiple curators. “At heart, this is ‘just’ a Human in Equestria story,” Horizon said, “but I’ve never read another one like it.”
Read on for our author interview, in which GroaningGreyAgony discusses cat downloading, illusion shattering, and Faribalisteenism.
Give us the standard biography.
Writer, artist, dilettante, computer tech, knave of many trades. I was born in a time-reversed log cabin that my great-grandniece will build. My mother was a tightrope-cutter at a circus and my father liked to loosen the safety nets; that’s how they met. I live in New Jersey because no other location sticks quite as cloyingly.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It’s a name I used on a BBS, long ago, and was meant as self-mockery of my often pedantic writing style. Speaking of pedantry, do I have to explain what a BBS is, nowadays? I guess I should. Imagine the Internet with all text and no web pages and it takes you an hour to download a picture of a dancing cat. And instead of a wireless or cellular connection, you stick a phone cord made of copper wire in a clunky slow beige computer and use it to call another clunky slow beige computer in someone else’s house, and they whine and shriek and hiss at each other. That’s what BBSing was like.
Incidentally, at the time of this writing, if you enter groaning, grey and agony into Google, among the top results is Chesterton’s Lepanto. It’s a fine and stirring poem about a historical battle, and I recommend it.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Being smart, bookish and socially stunted, I have an unspoken affinity with AJ.
What’s your favorite episode?
Too Many Pinkies. At least, it’s the one I’ve watched the most often.
What do you get from the show?
It was for me, at first, a note of optimism and hope at a time when I sorely needed it. Nowadays, I am more interested in the body of fanwork than the show itself.
What do you want from life?
More of life, if possible. And if not possible, contentment.
Why do you write?
Why did Bodhidharma stare at a wall for nine years?
Seriously, it feels like that sometimes.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Other than that… Write what makes you happy, not what you think you should write. You may not become the most popular author by following this advice, but it’s a disservice to your talent to write stories you wouldn’t want to read, and you’re not likely to find readers who are empathetic to you if you’re writing stories that don’t come from your heart.
What made you interested in writing a story not only in the style of Lord Dunsany, but with the conceit that he had, in fact, written it himself? And how did you go about imitating the style of such a distinctive writer?
I’d say that the more distinctive the writer, the easier it is to mimic the style, but perhaps that’s just my opinion.
Lord Dunsany wrote beautiful and evocative prose and made it look easy, and many authors, famous and otherwise, have tried more or less successfully to imitate his style. I tried some pastiches in my youth, and though I could make them sound right, I had no story of substance with which to support them, and so those tales fell flat. When I got interested in writing horsewords, it provided a workable scaffold for a pastiche.
Riverdream is based loosely on Dunsany’s Idle Days on the Yann. They have (at least) a river theme and a prayer and a parting in common. (I’ve included some other Dunsanian, extra-Dunsanian and para-Dunsanian elements and references here and there; I like to hide Easter Eggs in my stories.) Many of Dunsany’s dreamworld stories are told from his point of view as an explorer, so it seemed natural to do the same in my pastiche.
I’ve always had an instinctive feel for parody, both in art and writing. Since much of it is subconscious, I’m not sure if I can meaningfully convey how I do it, but I always start by reading many works of the author, both to pick up the style by exposure and to make sure I am not imitating to the point of copying. I also read non-fictional works by and about the author (such as letter collections, biographies, and so on). After a while, my inner voice picks up the flavor and starts generating prose that is mostly in the correct style, and the rational/editorial part of my brain by then has enough information to say “that is/is not how the author might have said that.”
I find that it also helps to read the works of other authors who were contemporaneous with the one whose style you are trying to ape. This gives you a well-rounded sense of what the state of the language was at that time, and helps you discover which turns of phrase were really favorites of the author, or were perhaps just common usage. You can thus add phrases to the story that the author might have added, even if the author never used that phrase in his/her ouevre.
But all this is just about word choice and phrasing. To arrange scenes so that they leave readers with a lingering sense of beauty, or the eerie feel of a fairy tale, or a Dunsanian disquietude, or the sense of a tantalizing mystery just under the surface… it’s rather more difficult to explain how one does that, and I won’t try to do so here. I can say that, like crafting riddles, it has something to do with providing just enough information or detail that the reader’s imagination is inspired to try to fill in the rest.
One of the key themes of this story is of willfully losing touch with the ways and traditions of the past, and you present this as both something to be grateful for (as with the description of the Pegasus Cloudiseum) and as something, perhaps, to be mourned (as in the Afterword). How do you think we should look upon the ways of our ancestors, and how did this influence the direction you took this story?
This story is itself a touchstone to the past. I hope it will be a gateway for some readers to discover the roots of modern fantasy, and if I have gained Lord Dunsany even one more reader, I will be happy.
The Cloudiseum detail was meant as a touch of worldbuilding; I had no lesson in mind when I wrote it, save that even worlds of high and noble fantasy have dark undercurrents. The fires of the Sun can blind you, and there is danger in the realms of Faerie, as Dunsany understood full well. (One may ask, if Pegasus magic and blood goes back into the clouds when they die, just as Earth ponies return to the soil, what happens to the Unicorns? There’s another story there…)
As to our ancestors… They were here and they lived their lives. What they did had as much meaning to them as your life does to you. Without knowing it, they did their best to make sure you had a chance to live. Pay that forward if you can. Someday, you will be the past to someone else, and you may then feel the pain of having your cherished beliefs or beloved tales regarded as ‘out of touch’ or ‘problematic.’ So pay some respect, or at least some charity, backwards as well.
What do you think is an “appropriate” amount of Greek/Latin for a My Little Pony fanfic? More broadly, how do you balance authenticity of style with accessibility in a work like this?
What’s an inappropriate amount? There are many aggressively experimental MLP fanfics, and perhaps there are only two other readers on the site beside the author who grok them, but that’s just fine as far as I’m concerned.
For me, authenticity had the whip hand from the start. I wanted to craft a little tale that would please people who already knew Lord Dunsany’s works, and attract and tantalize others who might appreciate an introduction. Hence, I did not intend to dilute anything; I wanted to be as Dunsanian as I could. I did decide that one Dunsanian technique—the use of invented city names to add exotic notes—had to be modified, as readers would already know the places involved and I felt that using utterly arbitrary names for them would detract from the story:
“Is that supposed to be Cloudsdale? Why’d you name it ‘Faribalisteen?’”
“Uhm, I just thought it kinda looked …Faribalisteenish.”
The section of the story about Celestia’s origin had already given me a neat solution to the usual communication problem; if I assumed that Celestia had spoken Greek and had passed it on to her ponies, Dunsany, who had had a classical education, would be able to talk to them without a translator. I then decided that making the place names mean something in Greek was a good compromise between exoticism and familiarity. Since my knowledge of the Greek language amounts to a very small thimbleful of Ouzo, so that making horse puns in Greek was mostly out of the question, I settled for doing loose Greek translations assembled via cursory research on Google. I had intended them as background detail, so I was pleased when readers made much of the names and asked for the translations.
Of course, some readers are the sort who want to know the meanings of the words and to try to solve the puzzles, and others are content to read pretty prose and drift down the river of imagination. I think that Riverdream serves well for both of these. One way to do this is to make sure that if you present a tricky puzzle or some aspect that requires a lot of thought, it is not necessary to the flow of the story or the plot to understand it. An example is the book that Hespericles buries. There are enough clues there so that readers, with their knowledge of the show, can figure out what he was really doing, but if they don’t solve it, it’s just something weird and intriguing.
Regarding accessibility, I don’t wish to be exclusive, but I also won’t apologize for having a large vocabulary and wanting to use it effectively. I am well aware that my literary tastes are uncommon and my natural audience is therefore more limited than that of many other authors. I just follow Hodgson’s rule: Don’t worry about who will get it; the right people will get it. See my advice for other writers, above.
What do you think is the ultimate fate of Equestria, in this work? Do you think it’s truly lost to men forever? And if so, is this for the best?
I wanted to leave that unanswered in the story, and I will so leave it here. But I will expand on it a bit.
One part of the subtext here is that as one gets older and more cynical, it’s harder to hold onto the daydreams of youth. You wind up qualifying things you once thought were absolute, and your suspension of disbelief starts to sag. Dunsany’s works started off as unbridled fantasies, but his later works became more pedestrian. He went from revealing the cosmologies of the gods (as in the Pegana stories) to gently-improbable tales told by a club raconteur (the Jorkens series). Life tends to harden one’s spirit.
Are we happier living in the fields we know instead of stepping beyond our boundaries? Shattering old illusions often hurts, but it’s how we grow, both personally and as a species. We humans are the first species on the planet to deliberately travel to another world, and we were only able to do this by using pitiless reason to pare away our illusions about what the moon and sky actually are. These are the pains and the rewards of growing up.
And you can never really go back. But sometimes it’s fun and soothing to pretend you can.
In the end, if we want to make any sort of paradise actual in our universe, we will have to work hard to attain it, and reach a full understanding of how things work. Thus, to stand a chance of making our illusions real, we have to first set them aside. Funny sort of world we live in, isn’t it?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
When Riverdream was first published, some folks said it would be a shame if it never made the feature box. It didn’t, and I doubt it ever will. I’m okay with that; as stated above, I know that my audience is limited. However, Riverdream’s inclusion in the RCL has placed it in distinguished and worthy company, and I am very pleased. Thank you very much for the compliment. I am glad that the right people got it.