Today’s story might just prove to be magical reading.
I Have a Hat
[Alternate Universe] [Crossover] • 8,935 words
Upstart is excited. His mother has hired a unicorn for a party. It will be so delightful to see a unicorn performing magic. It’s sure to be fun for the whole household!
Of course, it’s just a little fun. She’s not really a unicorn. After all, unicorns don’t exist.
FROM THE CURATORS: “An Equestria where magic has ceased to be a factor in ponies’ lives is a fascinating AU right from the start,” AugieDog said, and all of us reading this Victorian-flavored tale — a pony take on G.K. Chesterton’s play Magic — found ourselves swept up in its enchantments. “This offers a thoughtful bit of commentary on the role of magic in our lives,” Chris said, “and its Equestrian mooring is a surprisingly necessary lens through which to see our own human mythologies.” As Present Perfect put it, “it turns out there’s nothing to make the reader tremble in awe at the knowledge magic exists quite like taking magic away in the first place.”
And while the power of that theme might have sealed this story’s feature, there was plenty more to like here — such as I Have a Hat‘s tonal balance and character work. “There’s a noble tragedy that suffuses the entire story, even as its surface content remains light and slice-of-life,” Chris said about the former, while AugieDog praised the latter: “The characters, all OCs, are fully-formed and well-detailed.” Horizon appreciated those both: “The subtle power plays among the various inhabitants of the house were just as fascinating as the bigger, flashier A-plot, and watching the visitors navigate those tensions really helped ground both halves of the story into a more unified whole.”
But our commentary kept turning back to this story’s well-realized setting, perched at a carefully calibrated distance between our lives and the show. “It was a brilliant choice, I think, to set this in a pseudo-Victorian era,” Horizon said. “I’m reminded of L.P. Hartley’s quote ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ — both in the contrast between the setting’s past and present, and the contrast between the setting’s present day and our own.” Chris appreciated how that also contributed to the mood of the story: “The mix of 1800s-ish setting and moors with a somewhat more modern writing style gives the piece an appropriately uncertain, ethereal air.” But, like any good magician, most impressive of all was how seamless the presentation was. “Justifying an AU an like this is always a challenge,” Present Perfect said, “but this one rises to it effortlessly.”
Read on for our author interview, in which BillyColt discusses branding arcs, unplayed cards, and toyline invitations.
Give us the standard biography.
Well, I’m a 25-year-old college graduate, a musician, and an accountant. Currently desperately searching for a job here in sunny southern California!
My chief interests are television, theatre, and classical music. I got into creative writing mainly through roleplaying, and I started with little short stories and terrible fanfictions for things like Neopets and Eragon. I got into MLP after finding it had a Sondheim tribute, and I started writing fanfiction after having some chats on the imageboards.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It was really something I came up with more or less on a dime. I wanted a snazzy handle that wasn’t one of my other online handles, and my first fic was going up, so I needed something fast. “BillyColt” seemed like as good an idea as any, and I’ve gotten fond of it as a moniker.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Oh, I don’t like to play favorites, but Rarity is my favorite of the mane six. She’s always fun to watch, thanks to her flamboyant personality and voice work. I also just find something novel about how her character arc is about building a business and personal brand.
What’s your favorite episode?
Hm. That’d be tricky. If I had to just pick one episode, it’d be Pinkie Pride, which is in my opinion the best episode of season 4 (which I’d say ties with season 5 as the best season thus far) and The Saddle Row Review (which in my opinion is absolutely delightful). Other episodes I’d mention include Brotherhooves Social, Just for Sidekicks, Amending Fences, Sonic Rainboom, and PPOV. I’m sure that if I spent more time on it I could name many other episodes.
I’m also a big fan of the comics, and some of my favorites stories in there are Zen and the Art of Gazebo Repair, Neigh Anything, Reflections, Sombra Rex, Siege of the Crystal Empire, the Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Luna micros, and too many of the Friends Forever issues to name.
What do you get from the show?
It’s a nice show that doesn’t feel like it’s talking down. It’s simple, sometimes clever, likable, and it has nice tunes. The musical numbers were probably what drew me to the show in the first place. I’m a big Stephen Sondheim fan, and when I found that the show did a number in the first season that was a tribute (actually two songs: “Art of the Dress” and “At the Gala” are both modeled after songs of his, and other songs throughout the series are based on other showtunes).
Apart from that it’s just a nice, likable show. As far as childrens’ shows go, it has most of what I want to see in one. At its best it shows a good ethos and has very clever writing. Even at its worst I can’t think of any episodes that I’ve strongly disliked in the way that some other shows I also love have produced things that get my ire up.
I don’t suppose any of that rambling makes sense. It’s just a show I like, I guess. Not much else to it.
What do you want from life?
Same thing as most people, I imagine. Comfort, certainty, and something worthwhile to do.
Why do you write?
I’ve always been someone who likes culture stuff; music, art, literature. That kind of thing. Also I crave validation from others. Creating content for a fandom is a pretty good way to scratch that itch, it turns out!
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
The thing that kills me more than anything is procrastinating, and it still gets me. People who follow my blog or my tumblr might recall that I sometimes say I’m gonna try to stick to a 20-minutes-a-day schedule, and I’m never able to really do that. So I’m not really the best person to ask for advice on it. Though I might pass along something from the game The Beginner’s Guide, in that one shouldn’t worry if they don’t always have ideas. Lows are just part of the process of being a creator.
You said of this story that: “Mainly, the source is GK Chesterton’s play “Magic,” with elements taken from Ingmar Bergman’s film “Ansiktet” (called “The Magician” in its US release), which was loosely based on the aforementioned play.” Could you elaborate on what inspired you from those works?
Well, really it’s an adaptation in most respects. Neither of them are the most famous of their works; Chesterton’s more famous for his Father Brown stories and the novels of his that got quoted in Deus Ex, and Bergman made many movies, and The Magician never got the kind of reception that Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, or many of his others did. However, I think that they’re both fine works.
Both of those sources share the rough plotline of a traveling magician who’s invited to perform for a rich household. The title of the story actually comes from the Chesterton play. In the first scene, the Conjurer (as he’s called) says a poem to Patricia:
I have a hat, but not to wear
I wear a sword, but not to slay
And ever in my bag I bear
A pack of cards, but not to play.
Chesterton was really a wonderful poet. I used this as a springboard for giving Enchantra the character trait of having her mutter rhyming snatches, which is always fun to do (oh, did I have fun writing Zed’s couplets).
The broad strokes of both sources are roughly the same. You have the magician himself, you have the household, you have a woman who believes in him, and you have an obnoxious skeptic who’s determined that the magician is nothing more than a fraud. However, they diverge in some ways. Chesterton was a devoted Catholic, and so in his version, the Magician is, by most appearances, real. Bergman was an agnostic, so in his version the Magician turns out to be a fraud, albeit with one or two very odd things that seem a little inexplicable.
Some of the particular influences from the movie are the troupe of assistants (the Conjurer in Chesterton’s play is by himself, while the Magician in Bergman’s is attended with a host of others) and the ‘invisible chains’ scene, which I ripped off wholesale from the film. It was a scene that really stood out to me, how Bergman is able to take a scene where so little is happening and make it gripping and suspenseful. All from a man quietly trying to free himself from apparently invisible chains.
From the play itself I keep more or less the relationship between the magician and the young woman at the house who fancies him (though obviously genderflipped). This element was largely excised from the movie, where the magician was already married. Though I should point out that I deliberately left Upstart’s age vague, leaving it to the audience whether he’s a colt or a young stallion, and picking how the relationship dynamic works best (whether it’s a child who views her with a sense of wonder or a young adult who’s feeling a sense of romantic attraction).
The characterization of Duchess is very much inspired by a similar character in Magic, an amusing buffoon of a character who tries to please everyone and pleases no one. One funny exchange of dialogue in the play relates to how he donated equal amounts of money to two opposing political movements. Many of the characters in that play are very distinct archetypes, something which I took to mind in crafting the characters for this. Letterhead is very much based on the skeptic characters from those works (Morris in Magic and the doctor in The Magician), leaning a bit more towards the doctor. Though one thing I notice in my version is that the skeptic never receives a comeuppance. Morris in Magic is made bed-ridden when confronted with a trick he can’t explain (he is made well by the end of the play when the Conjurer and Patricia come up with an alternate explanation that they don’t share with the other characters or the audience), and while the doctor in Bergman’s story isn’t shown to be wrong, he is subject to an elaborate, terrifying prank.
The character of Penner doesn’t particularly have a close analogue in either work. I suppose he might be closest to the Reverend and/or Doctor Grimthorpe from Magic in terms of the dynamic he has with Letterhead.
On a related note, what differences do you see in your story as relates to its Equestrian setting? In other words, how do ponies change the nature of the tale?
Well, the most obvious thing is that it signals that the magic is, in fact, real all along. In addition, I find I like working with alternate universes and futures and stuff with the MLP setting. I think it makes sense, given that My Little Pony is itself a toyline. I feel it invites viewers to speculate more with ‘what if?’ scenarios than most other properties. I mean, there are a number of properties I love a great deal that I would never write fanfiction for, such as Breaking Bad or BoJack Horseman, because those stories don’t seem to invite me to do alternate takes as much. They have a set sequence of events and character development and the world outside of what we immediately see isn’t as important as the main characters themselves.
MLP, because of its nature as a toyline as much as a TV show, I feel invites it a lot more, particularly when it has a setting that feels like it exists outside of what’s shown on-screen. And I feel that the malleability that comes with that lends itself well to crossovers and other adaptive works. I also suspect that this is why shipping doesn’t annoy me in this fandom the way it does in, say, Harry Potter or the Avatar cartoons.
Because MLP is also a cartoon, it makes it easier to work with the characters as archetypes and broad strokes. Obviously there are differences as a work of prose, but I think a good fanfic will invoke elements of the source material, and in doing so I think that the fact that it’s a story set in a cartoon universe lends it well to those kinds of characters.
Why did you chose to reveal the truth about Enchantra at the end of the story?
I felt that was the ending that was the most appropriate. The source subjects, like many other works about magicians (such as The Illusionist and The Prestige) play with themes of duplicity and falseness, and it’s fairly common in those works to have the grand masterstroke revealed. The revelation of the secret does, in many ways, serve as a climax of its own sort.
Also, the fact that this is a My Little Pony story is going to betray something to the audience at any rate. The audience knows that in the story’s universe, magic really was there. It doesn’t make sense to keep it ambiguous at that point.
How do you view the ending you wrote? As optimistic and hopeful? Bittersweet? Nobly tragic? Something else?
I think of it as optimistic. I imagine that if it were animated or the like there would be a dramatic swelling of strings as the carriage sails across the night sky. Like in some kind of Christmas movie.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m just glad that people liked the story this much. I’d been working on it for years and was somewhat terrified of putting it up. But now it’s up and it seems that the people who have read it liked it a great deal. That makes me feel good. Here’s hoping I can continue writing things that I and my readers enjoy!
And last of all, thank you.