Today’s story was too tempting for us to pass up.
And the Serpent Said Unto the Princess
[Dark] [Romance] • 2,785 words
In the beginning, there was Harmony. Then Discord stole Fire from the Alicorns.
FROM THE CURATORS: “Who doesn’t like a good creation myth?” RBDash47 said in his nomination — and judging by our unaminous approval, this fic blew past “good” with room to spare. Along the way, it picked up both top scores and praise like Soge’s: “Oh boy, is this fic special in a way few fics are. The multi-layered narrative, the allusions to all kinds of human myths, and most importantly, the twist at the end that brings everything into sharp focus. Everything works in synchrony to deliver the author’s grand vision.”
That was quite a feat given how many big ideas the story brought to the table. “I can’t remember the last time I saw something with so many layers,” Present Perfect said. “There’s the creation myth, which is perfectly excellent storytelling on its own. Then there’s Discord as both Lucifer and Prometheus, poisoning ponies with his fire. And then there’s the Hero, and the revelation that what we know as ponies is not what always lived under Celestia’s rule. Of course, the omission of Luna from the tale reinforces that this is almost assuredly not historical truth, which is great. What starts out as seemingly anti-Discord religious tract becomes full-fledged insanity by the end, and I loved watching the tale unravel.” FanOfMostEverything commented on that as well: “If anything, the friction between the scripture and reality only emphasizes the devotion of the congregation.”
We found the story’s vision reinforced by excellent voicing and pacing. “It’s got the language and rhythm of a revival-tent cult meeting down so well, the temptation to read lines aloud in my best ‘fire and brimstone’ voice was nearly overwhelming,” AugieDog said. “And the slow unwrapping of the Hero’s identity is one of the finest reveals I’ve read in quite some time.” On top of that, as Soge noted, the story’s big ideas squarely kept the show front and center: “Through all its depths, it still remains fundamentally pony, the kind of thing that can hardly be achieved outside fanfiction.” That came together, as Horizon said, to a simply enjoyable read: “Smooth execution of a novel idea? Sign me up.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Undome Tinwe discusses exploding pythons, wedding crashers, and $250,000 savings.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m told I existed prior to getting into the PhD program at my school, but I’m not entirely sure I believe that. Currently, I’m in my nth year of working on a doctorate in Electrical Engineering, and it’s a bit of a toss-up as to whether I’ll finish it before the inevitable AI Singularity renders my dissertation moot.
My research interests include machine learning, paranormal romance literature, probabilistic inference, the graph theoretic aspects of shipping, information theory, and Quenya. My current research involves finding a way to install Tensorflow onto a computer in such a way that it doesn’t explode all the Python libraries already present, a task which apparently has no known solution despite years of research into the subject.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I’m absolutely terrible at coming up with names. My username on most websites was “abccba” plus some random numbers at the end for over a decade because I literally couldn’t come up with anything and “abc” had already been taken. Pretty sure I never even named my pet fish — just called it “my fish” or some variant thereof until it went down the toilet and into a better place.
Fortunately, in high school, I fell in love with the Quenya language (a dialect of Tolkien’s Elvish spoken by some of the characters in Lord of the Rings). After that, I figured everything sounds cooler in Elvish, so my go-to method for generating names became to just look up random words in the Quenya dictionary and call it a day.
My username is more accurately spelled Undómë Tinwë. “Undómë” is the nominative singular declension of one possible translation of “Twilight.” “Tinwë” is the nominative singular declension of an attested translation of “Sparkle” (a more accurate translation would likely be the passive participle of the verb “Tintina-“, but I liked the sound of “Tinwë” more).
So yeah, my username is just Twilight Sparkle, but it’s cool because it’s in Elvish.
(As a quick aside, my alternate account’s name is Melessë Lindenya, which is a very poor translation of “Mi Amore Cadenza”)
Who’s your favorite pony?
Twilight’s my favourite, because I see way too much of myself in her and because she represents who I want to be one day.
She’s basically a grad student in all but name at the start of the show, and now she’s a professor and a Dean. I, too, hope to one day complete my dissertation and grow a pair of wings, which I’m given to understand comes complimentary with the degree, along with the ability to teleport to exactly where your grad students are hiding from you and the courage to reply to every email in five words or less.
(Also Rarity is best pony, but that’s a story for another time.)
What’s your favorite episode?
I’m partial to many episodes, but my favourite is still the one that really got me into the show: A Canterlot Wedding.
I was just using MLP as background noise while documenting code at the end of an internship when I got to that episode. It was the first episode that got me to stop what I was doing and just experience the craziness of a Royal Wedding being crashed by an army of shapeshifters. In addition, “This Day Aria” is a great song and even part of the background music from the episode ended up turning into one of the best instrumental pieces I’ve ever heard (“Love Conquers All”, for the record, which inspired this incredible orchestral version).
Also, paranormal romance is my schtick, so Cadance and Shining Armor were pretty much invented to appeal to me.
What do you get from the show?
Catchy tunes, a positive outlook on the world, and a setting and characters that are ripe for derivative works.
What do you want from life?
To hold the title of Doctor of Philosophy, to have something academic named after me (algorithm, theorem, equation, etc.), and to achieve immortality by uploading my consciousness into The Cloud™. Oh, and to be able to read and write about ponies kissing and holding hooves. That’s cool too.
Why do you write?
Because I have stories in my head that I want to have exist somewhere in the world, and if no one else is going to bring them into existence, then I guess I have to do it.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
I’ve got lots of advice that I’ve picked up over my tenure as a writer, from some very skilled people, and it would take me tens of thousands of words to go over it all. Off the top of my head, there are four fundamental pieces of advice that I’d like to share here which I feel would be most impactful.
- Know thyself, and to thine own self be true.
Why you write, and why you want to publish are important. The former gets brought up a lot, and helps you refine your writing style, motivates you to keep going when things get tough, and generally helps you achieve that self-actualization that most people want from their writing.
The latter, on the other hand, is less often discussed, but arguably more important since it helps you set more concrete goals and approaches to writing. If you write purely for yourself, don’t care about publishing at all, and only want to use fimfiction.net as an archive to keep your stories, then you should learn to figure out what you want to see, and take advice and steps to improve the things that allow you to enjoy your own stories more.
If you want to write purely for fame and fortune, then it’s important to study what genres and themes are popular, how to craft descriptions that attract the idea, where to get good cover art that draws the eye, and a hundred other things that, in some ways, have nothing to do with “writing.”
Granted, most people sit somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, or might have other motivations orthogonal to this axis. For example, if I’m writing to win a contest, I might try to study advice given previously by the judges, and to tailor the story to what I know about the judges’ preferences. If I’m trying to score an RCL nomination, I might write a mythological origin story for Discord, because it allows me to display the stronger points of my writing style, rather than jumping out of my comfort zone on a story that might help me develop my weak points, but would be of lower quality.
Understanding your motivations will help you carve out a path towards a goal you actually want to achieve, and can save you a lot of grief from asking the wrong people for advice.
- Don’t just know what the rules are, know why the rules are.
There are lots of rules that people like to throw around in writing. Some of them are even consistent. And all of them are meant to be broken, sometimes.
The question, of course, is when that “sometimes” is. I’ve seen people blindly adhere to a set of rules like they were scripture, and I’ve seen people say “well Stephen King said that it’s okay to break the rules, so I’m just not going to capitalize any of my sentences because I don’t feel like it.” To me, both of these approaches illustrate a fundamental lack of understanding of the purpose of these rules.
The “rules of writing” are meant as best practices, guidelines for how most stories should approach certain things, and exist because many authors have found success in following these rules.
Which is why it’s important to understand why these rules seem to lead to success, so that you understand the price you pay for breaking it and can compare it to the benefit you gain from doing so.
My favourite example of this is the six-line rule, which basically states that every paragraph in your story should be six lines long or less. The knee-jerk response to this rule is to go through your story, take every paragraph that’s more than six lines long, and start inserting paragraph breaks into them until they no longer break the rule. Granted, this is sometimes the best solution, and I’ve done stuff like that myself, but it also illustrates a lack of understanding for why the rule exists.
See, the problem with long paragraphs is that people’s eyes tend to glaze over it. For the most part, they’ll read the first and last sentence, and then move on. Also, long paragraphs can be indicative of the fact that either one has put too many ideas into a paragraph, or that the main idea of the paragraph is being explained in too many words.
So one way to use the six-line rule is look at every long paragraph, and even things like sections of large paragraphs where you have ten 5-line paragraphs in row, and try to figure out if there’s more than one idea in each paragraph (in which case split the paragraph along those ideas), or if the one main idea is simply being explained in a very un-compact way (in which case rewrite it to be more concise).
And, if the idea is particularly complicated, and needs that many lines, then keep it long, but make sure that it’s written in a compelling fashion, to keep readers in check. Maybe start the paragraph off with some kind of cliffhanger, or throw in some jokes or snide commentary into it to keep things fresh. Or maybe just have the main idea be really, really interesting so that people won’t want to skim over it.
Because the price of breaking the six-line rule is losing some of the audience’s attention, you need to either bolster that somehow, or make the payoff really worth it.
The Rule of Three (that events in stories always seem to come in threes) is an interesting case, because there really doesn’t seem to be much reason for its existence besides “this is how it’s been done for a while, so why change something that works?” There are some justifications for it: it’s the minimal amount of events needed to build up a pattern and then subvert it is three (X, X, not X), by the time you hit four events your audience is probably getting a little tired, etc.
In general, though, there’s no one price you pay for violating it, so you are more free to break this rule whenever you feel like it. Just remember some of the justifications of the rule and make sure you aren’t subverting things too hard and confusing or boring your audience. (This video is a great explanation of the Rule of Three and its purpose in storytelling.)
In summary: learn the rules, learn the justification behind the rules, decide if those justifications justify following the rules in your story, and then act accordingly. (This is also a great critical thinking exercise, and can help you practice an important life skill.)
- Writing is always better than not writing, but writing to improve is even better.
The first part of the above statement is commonly-given advice: you can talk and think and study writing all day long, but until you actually start writing, your knowledge is going to be all theory and no practice. Actually working on a story is the fastest (and arguably only) way to actually improve significantly at your craft, so you should definitely do that.
That being said, not all writing is equal when it comes to improving as a writer. When deciding between projects to work on, an important consideration is what you can get out of each project. My first two writing projects each broke the 100k word mark and took two-and-a-half years and one year to finish, respectively, but I learned more about writing from a single month of working on an 8k word contest entry than I did on both those stories combined, and rapidly improved over the course of the next 50k words or so of short stories that I wrote.
The reason? Short stories allowed me many opportunities to reflect and iterate on what I had learned. It taught me to plan out stories, to write beginnings, middles, and ends, and how to edit and proofread and do all the post-writing stuff. Not that you can’t learn this from longer stories, but it takes longer because you’re bound to a single project, and even if you improve you’ll often end up carrying the dead weight of earlier parts of your story.
In addition, it’s easier to find people to give detailed feedback on short stories than long ones. Very few people are willing to read through 100k words and tell you everything you did wrong, but if you only have 5k words, that’s much more doable. The feedback I received on my short stories helped me immensely, and let me see and work on aspects of my writing that I would never have considered to be a problem until it was pointed out to me.
Granted, long stories help teach you things like organization, and discipline, and how to plot out more complex story arcs, so there’s value to writing those too. It’s all about what you need to improve on most, which kinda ties back into the first point about motivation. Figure out what you want from your writing — and in this case, what you want to improve — then take steps to reach your goals.
This extends beyond length considerations. Genre, style, medium, all of these offer different opportunities, and stepping outside your comfort zone is especially useful in improving your craft.
Of course, don’t forget the first part of the advice. If you truly only want to work on one thing, then do it, even if it’s not the optimal way to learn. After all, discipline is easier to build when you have motivation.
- Friendship is magic, and networking makes the world go round.
It is very difficult to improve in a vacuum, without guidance or feedback, and that’s assuming that one is particularly good at self-reflection. In addition, writing is a lonely hobby to have, and the solitude can make it difficult to find the impetus to continue on with a project some days.
It’s important to have people around you who share your passion, and having friends who are good at writing and willing to help can be the difference between being trapped in endless mediocrity and improving by leaps and bounds. I would greatly recommend that any writer try to find people who are both like-minded and also willing to challenge your beliefs about your writing, and to engage in regular discussion with them. You will learn a lot about how to better improve your craft, and hopefully help others do the same as well.
These friends can also help you when you need prereaders or editors or proofreaders or just someone to bounce ideas off of. I am eternally grateful to all the friends I have made on fimfiction for giving me the opportunity to grow as a writer. In our discussions, I have found many useful resources, debated every aspect of writing under the sun and reflected on those debates to improve myself, and found people I have come to trust to look at my work and provide feedback.
Though we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, I treasure all those moments for what they have taught me and given me, even if it meant arguing with people who are obviously wrong. (Aragon, if you’re reading this, In Hindsight‘s description is bad and it’s everyone else, including you, who is wrong.)
Also, through my networking, I’ve also been given the opportunity to edit the works of other skilled authors. It’s an experience I highly recommend, as it forces you to see writing in different ways, and to develop critical skills that can help you evaluate your own writing. Also, if you’re willing to help out others once in a while, people are more likely to want to help you. (This is like Networking 101, which means I just saved all of you the $250k you would’ve spent on an MBA to learn this. You’re welcome.)
For those of you who don’t interact much with the community but would like to get started on making friends and influencing people, I recommend checking out the fimfiction Discord server. There are some pretty great people there that I am proud to call my friends, and we’re usually willing to help out new authors looking to join our community. The server also has a collection of really good writing guides for people to study (and not just follow blindly), which I feel are valuable to people of all skill levels.
First, the question on everyone’s mind: Where’s Luna?
The Watsonian answer is that this myth predates Luna’s return, and you can’t rewrite scripture just because another deity shows up. She gets paid lip service because it’d be weird if she wasn’t mentioned at all, but properly integrating her into the mythos is going to take some time, and the cultists are a little busy trying to capitalize off Discord’s return.
Now, from a Doylist perspective, the existence of both Luna and Discord makes duality/yin-yang narratives really annoying, because Celestia is very obviously Yin, but both Discord and Luna make good candidates for Yang, and it’s often difficult to explain the presence of the “spare.” Hence me completely ignoring Luna after I realized that it was possible to justify the exclusion in-universe. There’s always the option of making Luna/Celestia combined Yin, and Discord Yang, but I didn’t want to tire Discord out too much and it really only would’ve served to increase complexity unnecessarily.
Do you suppose the preacher will be able to twist the events of Tirek’s return to fit the cult’s beliefs?
What’s there to twist? Tirek came back to try and save everyone, and Discord betrayed him again. This time he even managed to trick the poor naive Princess of Friendship into helping him. That Discord really is a bad egg, ain’t he?
What elements do you feel are necessary to craft a believable creation myth?
I should probably preface this by saying that I am not an expert in mythology/theology. My studies of the subject can be summarized as half-remembered lessons from Bible studies classes a decade ago and random Wikipedia binges.
That being said, what I found when writing this story was that, in addition to explaining where, y’know, stuff came from, a creation myth needs a very strong sense of theme and message. People don’t create myths just to explain an origin, they do it to convey an idea that is relevant in the present day of the story’s telling. The myth of Hades and Persephone is not about why we have winter so much as why marriage is sacred and no force can keep a couple apart permanently once wed, not even the will of a Goddess.
Duality features heavily as a theme in many cultures. Yin/Yang (Eastern traditions), Chaos/Order (Greek creation myth), Chaos/Harmony (Equestria’s founding). The overall message in creation myths featuring this duality is generally about the importance of balance, and most creation myths will emphasize just how much it sucks when you have only one or the other.
Of course, in Serpent Unto Princess, one of the central messages is that this duality is evil, and that Harmony must triumph over Chaos. To that end, every action of Discord is portrayed as making the world worse, and strictly supports the theme of Harmony over Chaos. Once I defined that to be a central conceit in my story, the rest flowed easily.
In addition to this, you also need heaps of symbolism, metaphors, and double meanings in order to both bolster the themes/messages and also to cover up the fact that, literally interpreted, most creation myths makes no logical sense. Layering symbols and comparisons over each other allows you to resolve conflicts with internal consistency by saying “it’s just an allegory/it’s not literal,” while keeping the specific parts of the story you want to be true literal. (Discord taking only three days in his first round of teaching ponies mirrors the Seven Days of Creation in Genesis, which is similarly interpreted as allegorical.)
And, of course, scale and scope are very important. Creation myths tackle a pretty big subject — literally everything — but they also need to be relatable and understandable to the masses, as it were. This is why Genesis has one being creating one thing at a time over seven days, and why Love itself (Eros) is hatched from an egg in the Greek creation myth. Humans (and ponies) need something singular they can focus on, a linear-ish story they can follow.
This also leads to why the source of all magic is a sliver of fire from the Sun in my fic. It’s a concrete symbol that we can use to represent something much larger (this ties back into the whole symbols and metaphor thing, since those are tools that can be used to control scope).
Prometheus is an obvious real-world influence on this story. What other myths did you draw from?
So, fun fact: Discord in my story originally had nothing to do with Prometheus. He was only supposed to be Lucifer/the Serpent in the Garden, hence the title of the fic. The original story had him as a purely malevolent figure, tricking an innocent Celestia (and Luna) into his bed and, by extension, causing all of ponykind to fall from Grace. There was even going to be an apple given to Celestia by Discord at some point that symbolized the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because I was really jonesing on the whole Old Testament analogy at the time.
That turned out to be a pretty boring story, though, with little connection to either MLP canon or current events in Equestria. The first version of the story could have been told with humans without any loss, so I went back to the drawing board.
That was when I recalled an old discussion I’d had about different beliefs systems. The gist of it was the conclusion that, while Prometheus was a hero to Mankind, he would’ve been considered a villain to the Gods on Olympus, and reviled as much as Lucifer was in the Bible for leading Man astray.
Thus began my attempts to combine the story of the Garden of Eden and the story of Prometheus into a single, MLP-relevant narrative. It worked well enough until I ran into the problem of making it relevant in the present-day canon of the show.
Enter The Saviour.
In the New Testament, Mankind is redeemed by the sacrifice of the Saviour, Jesus Christ. He takes away the Original Sin from Man and leads them into the Kingdom of Heaven. If the Original Sin is Magic in my story, then the Saviour had to be someone who could take away magic from the ponies.
Tirek-as-Jesus kinda followed naturally from there, provided a way to link the legend with present-day Equestria. He even had his own Judas to betray him. It was too perfect not to use.
There’s also hints of Apollo in Celestia (love of the arts; being of law and order) and the Court of the Heavens is inspired by stuff I half-remember from my childhood about the Celestial Court in Eastern Traditions.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want to give a huge shoutout to Orbiting Kettle and MitchH for their help on this story. Kettle provided some very valuable advice on how to properly frame this myth in an engaging way, and MitchH helped me tweak a bunch of the language and symbolism to flow better and feel more like a proper sermon. “And the Serpent Said Unto the Princess” would have been a much lesser work without their feedback, and I am greatly indebted to them for taking the time to help me.
I also want to thank everyone I’ve met in the Discord-sphere since I joined the Fimfiction server. There are too many names to list, but I am thankful to everyone who helped provide examples and guidance and support and ideas and a million other things that helped me get to where I am today as a writer. You are the fire from which my Sun burns, and I can only hope to pass a portion of that on to others and let them grow their own wings and fly.
Osto Vinya nauva ustaina!
You can read And the Serpent Said Unto the Princess at FIMFiction.net. Read more interviews right here at the Royal Canterlot Library, or suggest stories for us to feature at our Fimfiction group.