Let today’s story transport you into the realm of fable to spin an origin for one of the show’s most enduring villains.
Old Pony Tales for Hearth and Home
[Dark] [Adventure] • 3,054 words
The back of this slim volume reads as follows:
On winter’s nights, when cold winds blow outside and ponies everywhere huddle around the fireplace, friends and family often pass the time by telling stories to one another. Many of these fanciful tales have been told and re-told for generations, and the most enduring ones have become immortalized in folklore as pony tales.
My brother and I have travelled the land, gathering many of these stories, and now present this collection for your entertainment. We hope you find them as interesting as we did.
~Scarlet Quill, of the Quill Siblings
Most of the pages are blank, but as you watch, neatly-penned words begin to fill the first few pages all on their own. Already, one story has completed itself. It appears to tell the tale of the First Changeling…
FROM THE CURATORS: While the presentation here is a bit unusual — “the summary makes it clear that this was intended to be a collection of tales rather than just one,” JohnPerry noted — the fable it presents is a complete standalone story that’s as solid as any we’ve spotlighted. “I quite enjoyed this,” JohnPerry said, echoing our consensus, while AugieDog added “I really wish the author had done more of these — maybe our feature will inspire them?”
The big thing prompting that praise was the author’s grasp of the chosen form. “Charcoal Quill shows a strong handle on not only the common elements of a folktale, but also on what purpose those elements serve, and why they’ve become common elements,” Chris said. “Add to that a perfectly Equestrian concept, and you end up with something that feels like a genuine bit of pony lore.” Present Perfect agreed: “It’s a good in-universe sort of tale, and while you can see where it’s going if you know what it’s about, all the elements work.” AugieDog, for his part, praised those elements: “I love the little details — reminding her each time that she has to remove her gifts so Chaos won’t see them — and the message that, even with the best of intentions, it only takes one step over the line to doom a person completely is very true to the genre.”
The story is chock full of those lovable little details, but there was one on which every curator commented. “Reading the dragon’s section was the moment I decided that this was going to be an RCL rec,” Chris said. JohnPerry was also impressed — “it simultaneously fits within the context of the story while parodying it somewhat” — and Horizon agreed: “It’s one of the welcome moments of levity in a story that effectively goes to some dark places. Any story that can both subvert its own storytelling and play that storytelling straight to powerful effect gets a thumbs up from me.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Charcoal Quill discusses generous dragons, griffon godmothers, and flail-wielding pony names.
Give us the standard biography.
I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Relatively intelligent but not the best socializer, I was fairly alright around other kids but never really jelled with any particular group. As such, I tended to focus on schoolwork and on reading, and my best friends were my books and my older brother (although my brother and I grew apart around middle school).
For my freshman year of high school, I joined an acting class on a whim, and not only did I find that I enjoyed it, but I also made quite a few friends. I did Drama in all four years of high school, started performing in school plays during my Junior year, and progressively came more and more out of my shell … at least until around halfway through my Senior year, when the Incident (don’t ask) forced me back into being a social recluse. Now I’m a sophomore in college, still in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m majoring in Theatre (with a focus in performance), holed up in my dorm room whenever I’m not in class, and avoiding any sort of non-mandatory interpersonal interaction that might lead to a risk of developing emotional attachments.
… Yeah, I have issues, but I’m dealing with them. Sort of.
Anyway, when it comes to creative pursuits, I’m a bit of a dilettante – I do writing, digital drawing, 3D modeling, and acting, which I tend to drift between as the mood strikes me. For non-creative fun, I enjoy reading, playing video games, browsing the internet, and watching television shows, particularly cartoons.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Ooh! While it’s a bit of a digression, this gives me the perfect opportunity to delve into what I’ve gleaned about pony naming conventions …
Okay, so while there are a few outliers, pony names tend to fall into two categories, and the first (and relatively rarer) one are human-related pun names – either a pun on a famous individual’s name or a human name that’s a pun on the pony’s identity. For instance, Svengallop and Haycartes are puns on Svengali and Descartes, respectively. “Joe” works for Pony/Donut Joe because it references “a cup of joe” (i.e. coffee), and “Trixie” works for the Great and Powerful etc. because it references
tricksy fat hobbitses her magic tricks. As such, you wouldn’t find a pony named, say, Mason unless they do brickwork … or unless they wield a flail, in which case their full name would probably be Mason Chain.
The other, considerably more common pony name tends to follow a specific pattern. Usually, it’s formed from mashing together two short, generally unrelated words (or simply taking one, slightly longer word) that pertains to the pony’s identity. Altogether, the name is usually three to four syllables long, with stresses on the odd syllables (Rainbow Dash; Pinkie Pie; Twilight Sparkle, and so on) and has just enough assonance and/or consonance to make the words sound reasonably good together.
So what all this has to do with my pen name is that it was picked as a name for an avatar who’s in that weird limbo between being my own ponysona and (as this particular story’s description hints at) a character in his own right, and as that character’s a pony, I deliberately tried to replicate standard pony naming conventions for him. He’s called “Charcoal” because his coat (like much of my wardrobe) is charcoal grey, but also because charcoal can be used to write or draw … and because by its very nature, it’s been burned before. He’s also called “Quill” because that seems to be the standard go-to writing tool in Equestria, and as a writer, that’s a big part of his identity. The two words are only tangentially related to each other, but the hard C in Charcoal and the hard Q in Quill help to tie them together, as do the L’s in both. So yeah, I guess you might say I’ve put far too much thought into this.
What I didn’t put much thought into, however, was the sheer number of authors on this site that also have names ending in “Quill”. I looked it up once, and it turns out there’s a lot … I’ve been sorely tempted to put together a list of them all sometime.
Who’s your favorite pony?
That’s a tricky question, but I think I’d have to say Rarity because she’s got a great design, an amazing voice actress, and a melodramatic streak that is endlessly entertaining. Also, I can relate to her to a certain extent, though for reasons that my bio makes obvious, I relate to Twilight and Moondancer more (both of whom I’m rather fond of). There are plenty of other ponies I like for various reasons, and I swear that many of them aren’t unicorns, honest, but the list might be a bit too long to go into here.
However, if we’re not limiting ourselves to just ponies, then Discord is my favorite character hands-down. That said, I feel like most of his post-reformation episodes have been sort of lackluster … while I don’t regret his reformation, I still think he worked a bit better as a villain.
What’s your favorite episode?
By now, there are so many episodes that it’s hard to pick just one, but I have to admit that the “Return of Harmony” two-parter will always hold a special place in my heart for several reasons. For one thing, it introduced Discord, who in his first appearance was goofy and charismatic and unsettling and menacing and despicable all rolled into one, which made for an absolutely spellbinding villain. The episode set the highest stakes that we’d seen on the show thus far, and it was unpredictable enough to leave me constantly guessing at what would happen next. It was spectacular and bizarre and even genuinely emotionally moving at times, something which doesn’t really happen often for me, so it definitely left me wanting more … especially since it was also the first episode that I actually saw the same day it aired (as I’d binge-watched the first season on a whim during the summer between the first and second seasons), and that was back when the Hub actually let their cliffhangers hang for the entire week, so I’d had to wait ‘til the next Saturday to find out how these little ponies would escape their latest (and most harrowing) scrape.
As much as I’d enjoyed the two-parter up until that point, I think what really sealed the deal for me was the scene right after Twilight had succumbed to despair, and Discord was apparently trying to cheer her up as she trudged through all the chaos … For a moment there, it really looked like Discord wasn’t having as much fun with breaking her as he thought he would, and since he’d been treating everything like a game and making ponies suffer solely for his own amusement, I genuinely thought that maybe he’d learn to regret his decisions and change everything back out of remorse. But the moment he saw the proof of how much he’d utterly broken Twilight and then cheered in triumphant glee, it was like a punch in the gut to me. It simultaneously left me seriously invested in seeing Discord take a hard fall and cemented his place in my mind as one of the best villains of all time.
So, yeah. While there are objectively better two-parters out there and the slice-of-life episodes tend to better capture what makes this show truly great, pure sentimentality makes “The Return of Harmony” my favorite MLP episode thus far.
What do you get from the show?
Personally, the top two things that I generally look for in stories are engaging characters and memorable worldbuilding, with the additional category (for visual mediums) of interesting, colorful design. The show delivers on all these fronts, but what it also brings that I greatly appreciate is its optimistic and positivity-affirming outlook. Plenty of cartoons seem to rely on mean-spirited humor, but increasingly, the newer ones seem to be consciously avoiding that paradigm, which I’m eternally grateful for – between all the crap that happens in the real world and a certain gritty, brutal cynicism that fills a lot of popular media, it’s nice to have more and more things that are upbeat and colorful and fun … Plus, such an overall tone helps to give the inevitable dark and/or pathos-filled moments much more oomph.
What do you want from life?
To crush my enemies, see them driven – nah, just kidding. I’d like to earn enough to financially support myself by doing something creative that I love, to leave the world a slightly better place than it would have been without me, and to be remembered reasonably fondly, but not terribly missed.
Also, I’ve made it my life goal to play the Doctor (or the Master, or the Corsair) on Doctor Who, but I’d be perfectly content with just getting that other stuff instead.
Why do you write?
I’m not really sure. Sometimes I write to explore an idea, and other times I write to experiment and push my boundaries. Sometimes it’s because a story or a character grips my soul and refuses to let go until they’ve been put to paper, so to speak. But ultimately, I think that – just like any other creative effort I do – perhaps I write because it allows me self-expression without requiring me to directly open up about myself.
That, and it’s fun.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
If you want be a good writer, then practice, practice, practice. Don’t wait for motivation – if you force yourself to write, then chances are you’ll pick up steam within a handful of minutes. Pull inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. Improvement takes effort, but it also takes time, so don’t worry if you’re not satisfied with your results right away. Always make sure your work gets edited, but if you self-edit, then don’t do it right after you’ve finished it – come back to it a week or two later. When it comes to criticism, it generally pays to at least listen, but do your best to separate the wheat from the chaff. Get to know the characters you’re writing about, but beware – if you get to know them too well, then they’ll take up residence inside your head (and won’t even pay rent). Write what you want to see. And if life takes you to some pretty rough places, then there’s no shame in taking as long a break as you need – just be sure that if you find writing worthwhile, you jump back on that wagon at the earliest opportunity, because the longer you’ve stopped, the harder it is to start back up again.
The dragon’s section is a notable, and rather humorous, play on the structure established by your story to that point. What did you feel that that perspective added?
Bearing in mind that it’s been over three years since I wrote this story and that consequently, I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what I was actually thinking at the time, I suspect it unfolded that way because a) when it came to addressing the hoard, subverting the pre-established structure was a surprisingly logical outcome, and b) since I tend to just go with the flow when writing, I find it difficult to not include whatever suitably amusing elements occur to me at the time, regardless of the tone of everything leading up to that point. (Growing up on the likes of Pratchett and Whedon will do that to a person.) However, with the benefit of hindsight, I suppose there are a couple of other things that that encounter added to the story.
First, it rather inadvertently made the dragon into the character in the story with the most personality, even if much of it is simply implied. She’s a dragon who lives among ponies, has pony friends, and even (to a certain extent) looks at the world the same way a pony would, but ultimately she’s a dragon – a well-mannered dragon, to be sure, but still a dragon, and this colors how she reacts to situations. In trying to help their Princess-turned-Queen, while each of the ponies approaches a great landmark-spirit for help, the dragon’s first thought goes to her hoard, demonstrating how their value systems differ – the ponies are more spiritual and attuned to the environment, but the dragon is more grounded and materialistically-inclined (even if she does get caught up in the moment sometimes). She is also, however, more independent than the ponies, and perhaps more generous – while the ponies let a higher power do the hard stuff for them and never personally give anything up, the dragon, without any guidance, makes a conscious and deliberate effort in finding a suitable replacement for the most crucial part of her Queen, even when that means giving away one of her prized possessions. Compared to the dragon, the other ponies had it easy.
But furthermore, the dragon’s section also underscores the fact that there’s been a fundamental underlying change to the story, and no matter how close one might try to follow the same formula that’s worked so well in the past, now there’s something missing, something which can’t quite be replaced, something which has made it impossible to go back and find the same successes that you’d made before. While the dragon addressing her hoard is a small, comedic example of that, it’s repeated throughout the whole of that fourth iteration … The Spirit of Strife has lost his willingness to keep his word, and he forces the Queen to give up the one part of her being that she has a crucial stake in keeping. Even when she gives in and repeats what’s worked for her in the past, this time, the results don’t pay off – unlike before, her replacement “heart” is a strict downgrade, and her sacrifice ends up being entirely futile. The King’s love, his life, and the happy ending that she sacrificed so much to achieve all slip through the holes in her hooves … And so she snaps, and the kingdom falls.
Each time, something is lost that’s just slightly too big to make performing the same actions as before yield another success. Writ small, it’s comedic. Writ large, it’s fatal tragedy.
What advice do you have that’s specific to writing folktales? What pitfalls should writers beware of when they attempt to write such a story?
Well, the first piece of advice that I’d probably give is that while a folktale’s chief purpose is arguably to entertain, it’s also generally meant to either explain why something is the way it is or to convey a moral lesson to the audience – even if that lesson is along the lines of “life is brutal and unfair, so start getting used to it”. As such, since the focus is mostly on the message behind the story, the actual content tends to feature simple, archetypal characters and simple, easy-to-follow plots (which is understandable – historically speaking, the ones telling these tales were illiterate and had to rely solely on memory to preserve these stories, so they couldn’t all be The Iliad). If you want to write an authentic-sounding folktale, keep it simple and keep it tight, but also be sure to keep in mind the key message you’re trying to get across.
Secondly, as one of the simplest forms of mnemonics out there, folktales often rely on a certain amount of repetition, most frequently in threes – perhaps the most powerful number of iterations, for it’s just enough to set up the pattern and not quite enough to become tedious. That said, I’d also add that even if narrative events repeat, one should probably avoid just copy-pasting and changing the relevant details – it might sound alright when spoken aloud, but when written down, it reads as a bit stale. Were I to go back and do one more editing pass over this story, my biggest priorities would be to go back and write in a bit more variation (and a bit more progression) between the first three sections of the tale.
Following the theme of repetition-in-threes, I have one last piece of advice for writing folktales, and that is that folktales can make no sense, but they still need to make sense, y’know?
… No? Well, let me try to put it a different way … In a lot of folktales, plenty of weird and illogical stuff happen without any real explanation: animals can talk, houses can walk around on chicken feet, beanstalks grow to insane heights, and strange little men can get so furious that they tear themselves in half. Neither the characters nor the audience ever really question why; it’s just an accepted part of the narrative. But even so, it’s not merely weirdness for weirdness’s sake … Within each of their respective stories, these oddities hold an internal consistency and serve to drive the story forward. If you’re writing a folktale, then don’t let yourself be held back by conventional logic. Just make sure that the weirdness facilitates the story instead of distracting from it.
This story is explicitly an in-universe story; do you view it as a piece of corrupted history, or as a just-so story? In other words, do you think of it as a true story that turned into folklore, or as a piece of folklore arising to explain how something might have come to be?
Well, you see, that’s an interesting question … While the theme you’ll sometimes see in fanfic of changelings-as-a-corruption-of-their-former-self is something that I find quite interesting, it’s not a headcanon that I personally subscribe to. So basically, this story was in part my way of playing with the idea without actually committing to it as “fanfic canon”. At least, that’s how it was when I first wrote the story…
But, as the story’s description states, Old Pony Tales was not necessarily intended to remain a single, standalone pony tale. One of the things that I’d decided on was if I was going to add more stories to the list, then the characters of the Quill Siblings would have a bit more of a presence on the periphery – at the beginning, I’d add a foreword to explain why Scarlet (an actress) and Charcoal (a fiction writer) would be motivated to compile all this folklore and what they hoped to accomplish by preserving it, and at the end of each story, I’d use the Author’s Notes to let them talk about where they came across the tale and add whatever insights or commentary they felt was appropriate.
Now, obviously that never quite came to pass. But when it came to what they’d have to say about The Four Gifts of the Princess, I found myself deciding that this would be a story of “dubious authenticity” as a folktale – it was told to the Quill siblings by a mysterious stranger who approached them one night as they were camping in the eastern Macintosh Hills. Even though they ultimately failed to find any written or oral records establishing that it was commonly told (instead of being made up on the spot), it still bore many of the markings of an authentic Equestrian pony tale, so for posterity’s sake, they hesitantly included it anyway.
So maybe that mysterious stranger knew something that the Quill Siblings (or even you and I) don’t. There may very well be a kernel of truth to the tale … but I think it’s a mystery best left unsolved, hmm?
A follow-up to the last question: how would you have written your story differently if you’d approached it from the other perspective?
I’m not sure that if I approached this story as a piece of corrupted history, I would have been able to write it in the first place! I’d find myself trapped by conventional logic … Each time I’d try to write in a fairy-tale oddity, in the back of my mind I would always be asking myself what had really happened.
Did you ever have concrete plans for what other stories might accompany this one? If so, would you care to share those plans?
It’s funny you should ask that, because I’ve actually got stored on my “creative projects” flash drive two additional pony tales that I’d never quite gotten around to polishing up… Of course, now that the cat’s out of the bag, I guess I’ll have to go and do that pretty soon, so I won’t give any spoilers. But – just to whet your appetite – I will reveal that the titles of the two additional stories. They are “Clip, Clap, Clop (or, The Three Brothers and the Ahuizotl)” and “Godmother Griffon”.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that if you, dear reader, have made it this far through my incredibly long-winded replies, then you’re a real trooper. Aside from that, nothing springs readily to mind … But if I think of something, I’ll be sure to bring it up in the comments below. Until then, cheers, darlings!