Today’s story is about the lines that we tell ourselves should not be crossed.
To Be A Mule
[Sad] [Slice of Life] • 2,983 words
She smiles at him every time she comes to visit the stately home where he works as a gardener, but Dilly Daliér has never spoken to her.
Nor will he ever.
Because he’s a mule and she’s a unicorn, and those are the rules.
FROM THE CURATORS: “This is a short, sad story about institutionalized racism in Equestria,” Present Perfect said when nominating it. “You’ve got regret, longing, and societal pressures balled up into a neat little package.”
That sparked quite an interesting debate over this story’s presentation of discrimination. “This story certainly feels like an antebellum South metaphor,” Horizon observed, and JohnPerry chimed in: “It’s always good to find a story that deals with the matter of racism without whitewashing it.” On the other hoof, Chris pointed out: “It’s not really a story about racism; it’s a story about class. If Daliér and his dad were earth ponies, they would’ve said that was the uncrossable divide. … The problem isn’t that ‘those kind of ponies’ don’t marry mules; it’s that ‘those kind of ponies’ don’t marry anyone who isn’t ‘those kind of ponies.'” AugieDog found some middle ground: “Whether it’s about species or race or class, this story is very much about ‘being the outsider,’ about looking in at a group whose opinion of yourself you accept as being more true than your own opinion of yourself.”
Those themes are embodied in a pair of OCs whose layered characterization gave us plenty to dig into. “I understand why the father personally would stick around as a gardener, but it seems almost like he’s actively trying to force his son away from anything that will make him happy or successful,” Chris said, and JohnPerry argued: “The elder donkey, far from coming across as unenlightened or callous, actually sounds pragmatic and sympathetic. … That illustrates how that divide is often self-enforced through the collective fears or indifference of those who are affected by it.”
As should be obvious from how much the story’s central idea engaged us, we found the depth of To Be A Mule exemplary; that and its clean writing sent it to a feature. “There’s not a whole lot else to say about it, other than it does what it sets out to very well,” Present Perfect said, while JohnPerry was more effusive: “If there’s any complaint I have of this story, it’s that I wanted more at the end. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read the sequels.”
Read on for our author interview, in which archonix discusses statuesque sacrifices, fanfiction dating, and the two types of reading.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m Archonix. I drink whisky. Occasionally horsewords come out.
What, you want more? Ok, I’m also a serial careerist. I’ve been a builder, an electrician, I’ve worked briefly in television and spent some time as a mediator for Manchester City Council. Currently I’m a software developer working on a project that I can’t talk about because it involves a national broadcaster.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I honestly have to say that I’m not entirely certain. Somewhere in the mists of time I must have thought to myself “Archon sounds pretty cool” — because teenagers always want to sound cool on the internet, and if you can’t afford Latin then surely Greek will do instead. But of course Archon would be one of the first things to be taken by anyone with half a brain and a secret desire to rule the world. Surely you might then think that I would have chosen something equally creative and special to replace it. But no, apparently I decided to just jam a couple of letters on the end and call it a day.
You suck, past me!
Who’s your favorite pony?
Tempted as I am to say “all of them” … generally it’s been a three-way split between Twilight, Derpy and Cheerilee, which I tend to overcome by just mashing them into an OT3 in my spare time. Twi I don’t need to explain (who wouldn’t be fond of adorkable bookhorse?) and Derpy is just cute no matter what she does. Cheerilee … she’s got this sort of world-wearied but irrepressible optimism going on. There’s all these kids that she has to face day after day, but she keeps her smile up and it seems her cheer really is genuine. I like that.
Minuette is threatening to pop into my top five after Amending Fences.
What’s your favorite episode?
Either Luna Eclipsed or It’s About Time. In fact you could probably name just about any episode from season 2 and I’d like it. Luna Eclipsed in particular stands out to me for the one scene where Luna is symbolically offering candy to the Nightmare Moon statue. In a few seconds it manages to demonstrate so much of Luna’s character — her fears of being taken by Nightmare Moon, her stoicism and refusal to appear weak to outsiders, her need to be accepted. It was a masterpiece of animation.
What do you get from the show?
Fun. The entire show is fun. It’s adventurous, the characters are entertaining, it’s all … I mean even when you get an episode as self-consciously self-aware as Slice of Life, it’s still fun. There’s a joy in it that a lot of shows just don’t have any more, especially the stuff aimed at children. They’re always trying so hard to be edifying or educational or inspiring or whatever. They don’t just kick back and have fun.
What do you want from life?
I think someone already did the obvious Conan joke. Let’s see … the cheap answer is satisfaction. So I bought a Snickers.
The real answer is something bigger. Something more than I have. I’m not entirely sure what it is now. When I was 15 I thought it was a big house and a fast car and money, because we didn’t have money. When I was 25 I thought it was travelling. Then I got to 30 and everything went a bit spiritual, and now I think mostly what I want is to find that perfect whisky, sit by a roaring fire on a cold winter evening and just be.
Why do you write?
In a way I don’t have a choice about it. I’m compelled to write, even if what I write ends up being abysmal, because writing gives me access to things that I can’t have in reality. There are worlds I want to explore and places I want to visit and people I want to talk to, but none of them are real. The only way to get there is by writing about them until there are enough words to make them real.
Plus it gets me all the babes.
I know everyone’s laughing or rolling their eyes right at that line, but it’s actually true. My lovely wife only ever got in touch me me that first time because she wanted to know when I was going to finish a Simpsons fanfic I was in the middle of writing. If I hadn’t given Lisa a mary-suish twin sister created by Mr. Burns as part of his evil army of evil clones, we never would have met.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
The stock answer that pops up to this question about half the time is “read”, which is fine as far as it goes, but in my mind it isn’t really all that helpful, because what a lot of people who advise writers to read neglect to mention is that you can read a book analytically or you can read it immersively, but you can’t do both at once. To try would be a contradiction.
To fully grasp the meaning of a story, you have to read it twice.
First time you turn off whatever analytical or critical parts of your brain might be running and just read it for the story. Immerse yourself in it. Enjoy it to the full. Second time, analyse it to death. Slice it up, tear it apart, criticise every decision the writer made, ask yourself how you might have done it different.
When you analyse a book you are withdrawing yourself from the text in order to slice it up and examine the individual pieces. Immersion means you are plunging head-first into the thing as a whole and experiencing it from the inside. Samuel Alexander called these states Contemplation and Enjoyment, which rather neatly encapsulates the two states of mind, while Lewis analogised this to staring at or staring along a beam of sunlight in a darkened shed. One gives you the structure, the other gives you the nature. You have to learn how to do both.
Oh yes, and drink lots of fluids. Tea for preference.
What was the inspiration for To Be A Mule?
Oof… dear, dear me, this one is a bit complicated. BBC period dramas, fantasies about an immense garden, generally bring British…
I suppose it began with a cute visual joke on the show, when Rarity loudly declared someone to be stubborn as a mule. “Oh no offense,” she says to the mule that happened to be standing right next to her. It was a funny, silly scene, but it stuck in my head.
Then the idea grew more concrete through a casual mention of a character in another fic I’m writing (No Room For Regret, if anyone’s interested) — a donkey who was the gardener for a very rich and powerful noble family. He only has one line and three bits of description, but while I was writing the scene he popped full-formed into my head as this old grumpy bastard with a bit of a low-level scandal in his past and a mule for a son. The mule even appeared in a later scene in the story, though I had to drop it because of the flow.
Then there’s the whole classic trope of a servant falling for a member of the family they’re employed by, which falls quite neatly out of the relationship between a gardener and his employers in English aristocratic society. I’ll expand on that in a moment.
That idea of unrequited or impossible love across social divides is as old as civilisation itself. I’m pretty sure it’s even hinted in the epic of Gilgamesh, though that might just be wishful thinking on my part. It’s a powerful image even so, one that I’ve tried to capture for a long time. I tried writing this story a few times in particular but they were all a bit naff for a simple reason: I had the two sides of the thing interacting. There was no way to show the division. One day I realised that putting a window between them would fix it, and then the rest just sort of flowed out from that.
I may have got that particular element from Star Trek, now I think about it. Kirk and Spock on opposite sides of a radiation shield was a very nice metaphor for their relationship. No matter how close they might be to one another, to the point of mortal sacrifice even, there was a boundary of duty between them that could never be crossed and a clear acknowledgement of which of them would ultimately be required to make that sacrifice.
Incorporating institutionalized racism into Equestria can be a tough sell. How did you go about it here?
By trying to being as subtle as I possibly could. The problem with most portrayals of racism is that they’re dropped on the reader with all the subtlety of a ten-ton lump of steel to the forehead. I don’t like unsubtle messages in fiction. It leads me to infer that the writer doesn’t trust their readers to see an implicit idea.
If you interpret the show in a particular way, then right from the beginning there’s been a subtle undercurrent of ethnic disharmony in Equestria. The three tribes are generally well integrated and seem to believe that this means everyone else is just as harmonious as they are, yet they casually use their close cousins as the butt of jokes and distrust the unfamiliar enough to go into a stampeding panic when a zebra shows up on market day.
Of course all that requires you to put on a “finding racism” hat and to keep looking until you’ve found it. Equestria isn’t racist at all, but it’s an interesting exercise to project these ideas onto the setting and examine how they play out.
I didn’t even set out to write about racism specifically; that particular theme emerged from the story as part of the general background. Instead I wanted to address the broader idea of social caste. The simple fact is that society — any society — will divide itself as a matter of course, whether that be along obvious lines of colour or religion, or along less obvious lines of social and economic class, with those who have managed to appoint themselves as “superior” occupying the upper layers of society, while their inferiors are held down below them. In the UK, particularly in England, that layering is one of economic class and “breeding”, for want of a better term. If you’re born in the wrong sort of family in the wrong location, you’re the slime at the bottom of the bucket. If you’re born in the right family, you float fragrantly and inexorably to the top. Of course racism exists within all that, very visibly so as recent news will attest, but it’s so tied up in questions of social connection and economic class that it almost disappears as a separate concern.
There also seems to be themes of class divisions going on here. Would you mind discussing that?
I was trying to avoid covering this too much in the previous question but it happened anyway … still, there’s a particular element in this story that sort of illuminates the issue from a slightly different angle, and that’s to do with the relationship between servant and master, which is an extreme form of the division between working class and upper class in a class-based society.
Ask most people who the most important servant is in a stereotypical aristocratic household and they might say the butler, perhaps recalling vague memories of Hugh Laurie’s career before he became House, and the snooty chap in the bowler hat who does QI now. For a young bachelor living alone that Jeeves and Wooster portrayal would be true, but for the landed gentry, or even the upper-middle-class sort with the big house and the horses and fat old Range Rover on the drive, the butler would actually be pretty unimportant in the grand scheme.
The majority of the audience here is from the United States, and so they’ll tend to see a gardener in that social context, as a lowly sort of chap, probably Hispanic, who rakes up the leaves and does as he’s told.
In English aristocratic society, by contrast, the gardener would be the most important and probably most powerful servant in the household.
The gardener is the interface between the lord and his garden. The lord would ask a thing done — not command, but ask, almost as a favour — and the gardener would see that it was carried out. He would be very familiar with the needs and habits of his employer, because he wasn’t merely carrying out a job but reifying his employer’s personal tastes — and he would be in command of any number of servants of his own to implement those tastes. He was often familiar enough to eat at the family table on a regular basis and be on first-name terms with most of the household, and he would even have some say in the running of the place where it concerned the effect on his domain.
By comparison, all a butler did was uncork bottles and snoot about the place.
Having said that, for all his familiarity with the family he worked for, the gardener could never dream to be their equal. Despite being on the very top rung of his own social class, he was still only a servant and would be expected to act as such. The family might be as friendly with him as they chose, but he wouldn’t be able to treat them the same way, because he knows his place and he knows that boundary is not one to be crossed.
Of course things aren’t like that these days.
At the end, Daliér seems to give up on pursuing his love interest. Do you see that as him giving up on his dream or as a maturing of his character by dropping an adolescent crush?
I would be tempted to leave that one as an exercise for the reader.
Is the chapter title (“In a sunlit paradise, dreaming of a world that never can be”) a reference to anything in particular?
Only to the situation Daliér finds himself in. He lives in a paradisiacal estate, a place most people would consider to be a tiny piece of heaven, and he’s surrounded by beauty, but none of it can be his.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Never settle. Refuse to know your place.