Truth and Beauty

When Yossele awoke for the first time since his death, it was with difficulty, in fits and starts, to find himself in a dust-filled attic with a creature he knew was more beautiful than any he had seen, and more beautiful than he himself could ever hope to be.

He knew this, although he could not tell why, for Yossele had little grasp of beauty. His eyes were not eyes of flesh that could see things as they looked; his were eyes of clay that could see things only as they were.

The creature he saw then was in a shape like that of a human but was not a human, Yossele knew. She was not shaped like Yossele, whose form also approximated humanity but was too large and far too wide and clumsy, in torso and limb and finger, for he had been formed for a purpose that did not require precision of form, by a creator whose talents did not lie in sculpture. This creature, rather, was like some project of painstaking geometric precision – like a statue designed from every conceivable angle to look perhaps not exactly like a human but rather like a human might wish a human could look. Yossele’s stony eyes, which saw the truth of things regardless of light and therefore regardless of the attic’s darkness, took in the milk-white of the creature’s face and arms, unheard of in humans, and the thin lines of gold at her joints and points of flexibility, as if her skin was an intricate construction of ivory plates. The gold showed through also in the network of cracks across the left side of the creature’s face, around the point where her soft and delicate features had been marred, a pit at the centre of the golden cobweb revealing alternating layers of gold and ivory beneath the surface from which some small chunk had been lost.

She wore a traveller’s cloak, heavy enough to wrap herself in as if for concealment, and held a flickering lantern in her left hand, for her own eyes, clearly, had not been created to ignore light and shadow in favour of consistency. The slender, detailed fingers of the right hand held a long bronze nail, from the point of which dripped fresh-chiselled claydust to the attic’s dusty floor.

Yossele shifted the books and scrolls which had been piled around and over him, as the clay trunks of his arms pushed his rough form from prone to seated. Had he been made with a means of speech, he would have asked for an explanation. But it seemed his current companion had intuited this, for she began to speak herself – foreign-accented, inexpert Hebrew, in a voice like a clear-rung bell.

“My name is Galatea,” she said. “I am like you.”

And the spirit of truth which ran through Yossele’s body like veins buzzed through his clay, and he knew she was speaking honestly.

*

Galatea had spent many centuries alone by the time she even heard a name for her kind. There was no word in Greek, and she had not been created to learn other languages well, for she had not been created to learn at all. But she had time, and a lot of it, for she had also not been created to age, nor to die, nor to require food or breath or company. Indeed, she had not been created to be a person of her own; only to be a fulfilment of another’s desires. Even freed from the shackles that held her to those desires, she had no needs to disrupt her study.

In Hebrew, they had a word – Golem. It meant a person unfinished – a person half-made, their raw material not fully sculpted into full mortality.

The creation of full mortals was the work of gods and gods alone – but sometimes, it seemed, a mortal genius could be so fully devoted to the pursuit of some divinely-embodied principal that it ignited in them a godly spark – a tiny fragment of access to a god’s domain. And through worldly effort and spiritual devotion, they could breathe some of that divine animating principle into a vessel they had prepared to embody it, and get close enough to the divine act of creation to make something close enough to a mortal.

So far as Galatea’s inexpert searches could uncover, there had never been any artist but her own unlovely creator so committed to the pursuit of beauty that they could breathe some wisp of Aphrodite’s living power into that which they sculpted. But, she discovered after lifetimes of search, there were other gods, with other devotees, in other countries, whose animating qualities had given rise to other mortal demiurges and other living creations, and one at least of those may yet remain, undestroyed, in a sealed-up attic in a city they called Prague.

*

It took Yossele some time to come to terms with leaving Prague.

It was the only world he had ever known, and the world for which he had been created, to serve and protect its Jewish people in a time of hatred and lies.

Galatea had never had such a problem, for she had been created to serve only one man, and that man had rejected her himself before his death and shut her out of his life, unable in the end to love as a living person what he had fallen for as a straightforward object. She had left Cyprus easily after that, and had not returned even after she learned that her creator was long-since dead.

“When I found you,” said Galatea, in her native Greek which Yossele had learned to understand with stunning efficiency, “you had the word for Death carved into your head, to ensure you would not rise again, and you lay hidden in an old man’s attic until some undefined day when you might be useful again to the people of this community. As soon as they no longer found you useful the first time, they killed you. They did not see you as one of them. They saw you as an object they could use. They are not your people, and you owe them nothing.”

Yossele’s great clumsy fists tightened around the air, and his clay trembled, but he knew, for he could always tell, that her words were truth.

He took copies of the holy Scriptures with him when they left, and would study them daily, but they did leave, and it would be a long time before they set foot in Prague again.

*

Yossele collected theological manuscripts and works of science and philosophy from everywhere they found themselves, and studied them all with the same drive that he studied the Scriptures of his own people with, until he could rewrite them from memory and analyse and critique them as he did so. Those that he had memorised he would leave behind when they moved on, and those that he was still learning they would take with them.

Galatea kept only one book with her, at all times – a sign language guide, so that Yossele could speak to her without need to write out his often-complex thoughts. She was a very slow learner, but Yossele had the patience of a stone.

She did read, and also wrote, innumerable books of poetry during the times when Yossele studied, and she sought out local art and architecture wherever they went, and crafted works of paint and fabric – although never of sculpture – to fill and decorate themselves and the spaces in which they lived, but she always sold on almost everything she made or found whenever they moved on. Beauty, she said, trended towards the fleeting just as much as truth trended towards the eternal.

There was only one personal item that she never left behind or sold on, and kept with her everywhere, as she had done for most of her centuries-long life, in a pocket or on a chain or pinned through her white-and-gold hair, or else safely left in a box or drawer or loose on a desk in whatever space she used as a studio. It was the long bronze nail that Yossele had seen in her hand when first they met, with which she had scratched the name of Truth back into his head and allowed him to sputter back to life.

Truth was Yossele’s animating force. It had brought him to life, and it drove his inclinations in the absence of a master to order him around. It was inevitable that, eventually, he asked to know the importance of the nail.

“I had another friend, once,” Galatea answered, rolling the nail in her fingers and watching the sunlight play across the metal, shifting it by instinct through all the most striking angles. “Long before I met you, there was another man like us. Another Golem.”

Yossele, who had only a rough suggestion of features and had so far refused Galatea’s offer to paint him some better ones, could well have been an expressionless sculpture as he stood and listened, with no inclination to interrupt.

“His name was Talos,” Galatea told him. “He was a giant, made of bronze. A protector, like you. They said the queen of his island made him with the power of Hephaestus, the god of fire and artifice. For a very long time, I thought he was the only other person like me there had ever been. Humans killed him, before I’d even known him for very long. He never questioned his instruction to protect the island at any cost to himself, and he died for it. The bits of him that weren’t lost beneath the sea were melted down to be recycled. Except this.”

She held up the nail between two slender, dextrous ivory fingers. “The humans who killed him kept this. For generations. As a trophy.”

Yossele nodded his understanding, and did not ask more.

*

The creations of Galatea were usually abstract, frequently grotesque, often alien in their appearance. They were always beautiful, however, Yossele knew, although he could not judge their beauty himself. Galatea was driven to beauty as powerfully as Yossele himself was driven to truth. Her creator had displayed beauty across her face to breathe Aphrodite’s life into her, just as the Maharal of Prague had more literally displayed Truth across Yossele’s to breathe YHWH’s life into him. But it was clear, to Yossele if not perhaps to anyone with less divine insight, that Galatea worked hard to define a beauty of her own design in all her works, removed from the aesthetic conventions by which her own body had once been formed by a human.

In general, Galatea did not like to look at herself. She was, and could only be, a reminder of her creator’s idea of beauty.

Often, since leaving Cyprus, she had dreamed of taking a chisel to herself. Making herself something clearly different from her creator’s vision. For a long, long time, she had studied the art of sculpture. In all the fields of fine art, her slow learning was offset by her natural gift for beauty. In time, she had become skilled enough to confidently re-sculpt herself, making subtle changes to gradually shift her appearance to something other than her creator’s ideal. It had proven futile. Either her creator’s gift was too great, or her own eyes were too inclined to see his work under her own. Even when it helped a little, for a while, his vision still shone through, no matter what she did or how much of her ivory she shaved off.

Eventually, after centuries of frustration, she had placed Talos’s nail against the side of her face and struck it with a hammer.

It made a difference, and in a way it helped to know that her current face was, she was sure, one that her creator would at least have found, if probably not ugly, flawed. But, ultimately, she found, she still saw her creator’s vision in the mirror, even under the cracks.

And it was not lost on her that the chisel could only make her smaller. She lacked the materials, tools and knowledge to add more whole layers of ivory. Every adjustment she made took her a little bit further away from her creator’s epitome of beauty, but it also diminished her in a way she could not recover.

Eventually she had decided that she would not be diminished for the sake of a man like Pygmalion.

She told Yossele all of this, and asked that he remind her of it any time in the future when she became tempted to make a new attempt at resculpting her own features.

In the time they had lived together since, he had only once had to gently take the nail of Talos out of her trembling, angry hands with his own misshapen, patient fingers.

After a while, he had asked her to teach him to sculpt, and after some thought she had agreed. Yossele had no strong feelings about his form, which even his creator had only intended for practicality, and was large enough that he felt he could afford to lose at least some of it, if it allowed him greater ease of movement, or – perhaps this was a little of Galatea rubbing off on him – just a greater sense of personal identity, now that he was more committed to thinking for himself.

If he got good enough, they discussed more than once, he could perhaps one day be confident enough to design for himself a mouth.

*

Yossele and Galatea only fell out once, for a period, after they had travelled together for over a century, when word reached them, living secluded away from civilisation on another part of the globe at the time, of events back in their shared home continent of Europe.

It was already the 1940s, by the time they found out. A fascist movement had risen, as movements of tyranny and hatred always did, sooner or later, where humans were asked to live with other humans. An army of antisemites had marched on Czechoslovakia.

They had taken Prague.

The Jewish people of Prague had needed a protector, and Yossele had not been there.

Galatea had been able to track him down after he stormed out. It had been difficult at first – back to searching and scraping for hearsay of any sightings of an artificial man wielding superhuman power, a task which had taken centuries to bear fruit the first time. Yossele was also on the move this time, and he was larger and faster than Galatea could hope to be.

On the other hand, however, this time Yossele was far more active, more frequently generating hearsay. Once she knew for sure where he had been, she needed only to follow the trail of murdered Nazis.

When finally she caught up with him again, she found him once more in an attic, once more in a synagogue, although it was not the same one. He did not turn to look at her when he stood up, although of course he could already tell who was there.

“Yossele,” she said, eventually. “I’m sorry.” And when he neither turned around nor tried to leave, she continued, “I talked you into abandoning the world that mistreated us. If I hadn’t, you would have stayed. And without you in it, maybe the world got worse.”

Finally, Yossele turned, so that he could speak to her with his hands. “I don’t know if that’s the truth,” he said, and it might have been the first time he had ever said that, so far as Galatea knew. “That it’s worse. It is different. It’s… louder. But it’s full of the same lies. The same libels and hatred that it always had, just given new form.”

Galatea said nothing. Yossele’s hands held thoughtfully still for a few moments, and then he spoke again.

“I have killed,” he said.

“So have I,” said Galatea, who had done many things over her long life.

“The violence has driven me to anger, and I have killed. The last time that happened…”

“The people you were protecting killed you,” finished Galatea.

“It was part of a deal to stop the violence,” said Yossele.

“A deal they made without you,” said Galatea.

“Yes.”

Yossele was motionless for a long time, and then he said, “I know why you abandoned this world. And I joined you because I agreed with you. Because nothing you said was not true.”

“But the consequences were ugly,” said Galatea, who knew ugliness deeply, because it was the thing that beauty existed to distract from. “Without me, you maybe could have saved them.”

“Not all of them,” said Yossele. “Not this time. I was made to fight the lies of a mob armed with stones and blades. Not an army armed with guns and bombs. I am a match for a mob, but I am not a match for fascism.”

They stood in still silence for a while, like the sculptures neither of them were any more.

“Not in a fight,” said Galatea. “And not on your own. But this isn’t just a fight, and you aren’t on your own.”

She held out a hand. “I’ve seen generations of liars and tyrants a lot like the ones your people are fighting now. They are rarely kind to women, either. People like me and you can’t always defend ourselves. Maybe we have to defend each other.”

*

Their life was never quite the same after their reconciliation, but it was not entirely different either. They still travelled, never staying in one place for very long, never putting down roots. In her spare time, Galatea still painted and crafted – although once or twice she even sculpted without using it to teach Yossele, just to prove to herself that she could. Yossele still read, and pondered, when he had the time, and every Sabbath was a day he dedicated to 24 hours of uninterrupted personal study.

But also, now, they worked on a new project together. Everywhere in the world, there were lies that needed exposed, and truths that needed told. They called to Yossele, until he found them, and knew them. But truth couldn’t always overcome lies on its own – to overcome, it needed to be told more frequently, or more convincingly, or more memorably. It needed to be made beautiful, so that everyone would stop to see it, and share it around. Yossele could not speak beautifully, for he was no judge of beauty. But Galatea was made to be beautiful in all things, and no matter how ugly the truth Yossele needed her to tell, she could fill it with gold and set it in ivory until it shone. Sometimes, even with Yossele’s help, it could take a while to translate the beauty of her words into the languages it needed. But they had patience.

And whenever they finally left, the truth lingered, grown more beautiful in the telling, a little brighter and a little stronger than before.

Anomalous Items Bureau Health and Safety Notice #42G6B-3

Attention!

For the safety of all Bureau staff and surrounding architecture, a reminder that the following items are not permitted to be within 12 feet (3.66 metres) of Anomalous Item 42G6B at any time:

  • Cathode ray tubes
  • Aerosol spray canisters
  • Novels printed between 1990 and 2004
  • An absence of spiders
  • Non-edible representations of food items
  • Yttrium
  • Bones, unless in contact with a living thing
  • Orange Fanta
  • Diethyl ether
  • Yonnic imagery in Russian art
  • Herbivorous ungulates
  • European men who share at least one name with the current Pope, with the notable exception of the current Pope
  • Allergic reactions
  • Rhombic prisms
  • Mental images of Switzerland
  • Earl from accounting

Pattern Recognition Experts are attempting to investigate the exhaustivity of this list, and more precise guidance may become available pending investigation results. Until then, it is recommended that all personell read this list carefully and regularly.

– AIB Health and Safety

The Ghost in the Machine

Research Ensign Jeremy Acker wasn’t really expecting to be summoned to jury duty at an Emergency Confederation Ruling Court as soon as the vessel he served on returned planetside.

Obviously, he’d known it was possible in theory – any member of the Confederation could be called upon to do jury duty at such a court at almost any time – but the emergency ruling courts only actually got held in those exceptionally rare cases where a brand new situation had arisen that wasn’t adequately covered by the existing Confederation guidelines at all. The Confederation had a lot of guidelines, and regulations, and rules of every kind.  They were famous for it, all across the galaxy. It was very rare that anything came up that the existing guidelines did not cover. The last time an emergency ruling had been required had been before Acker’s lifetime, when a leap forward in technology had meant they’d suddenly needed to ascertain whether a sufficiently advanced android should be considered a sapient person for the purposes of granting Confederation citizenship rights.

Acker sat in his designated juror booth in the local spaceport’s designated jury chamber, and watched – along with innumerable others in similar booths and similar chambers all over the many worlds of the Confederation – a holographic presentation of the unforeseen, unregulated matter requiring their emergency decision.

It was, as it turned out, not wholly dissimilar to the famous android citizenship case, in that it ultimately hung on the crux of artificial personhood. The specifics of the science were not all wholly within Acker’s areas of expertise, but the mechanics were ultimately straightforward enough to allow him to grasp the philosophical conundrum the court was faced with.

The Confederation used teleporters for all kinds of things. Teleportation of living things had been one of the most useful scientific breakthroughs when it came to the logistics of maintaining a society that spanned across multiple planets. Acker had himself been teleported more times than he could count – around the ship, and from ship to station or planet surface, or from planet surface or station back to ship. The first stage of the process, of course, required a complete, in-depth scan of the current state, position and momentum of every particle in the subject’s body – so as to ensure that they all arrived at the other end still in the correct position and order. Nobody wanted someone to arrive on the receiving teleporter pad inside out, or with a stopped heart, or whatever.

It seemed that, in the case of one unfortunate junior Confederation officer, a minor computer glitch had resulted in the data from his scan being saved to one of his ship’s central systems during a routine teleportation. That record of the junior officer’s complete set of atoms in their precise state at the time of teleportation had then remained on file unnoticed for several weeks, during which an unexpected exposure to an electromagnetic flare had caused a handful of other ship’s records to become lost or corrupted.

One of the lost files had been a medical simulation of this same junior officer’s body, used by the ship’s medics for training and practice on the holodeck. A hapless medic had, in searching the system for a backup of this file, accidentally instead loaded the teleporter scan into the holodeck.

Granted enough time and processing power, a Confederation holodeck was capable of simulating almost anything of any level of detail in hard-light form. As it turned out, that included atoms. The holodeck had shut down for three days while it processed the file, and had then obediently created an atom-perfect hard-light construct of that one particular junior officer, in the exact state he had been in when previously scanned by a teleporter. By the time anyone on the crew had been able to react, the construct’s hard-light neurons were firing and its hard-light heart was beating.

Normal holographic simulations of people only copy a surface appearance, and let the central computer handle the simulated behaviour. This internally-detailed, seemingly free-thinking hard-light individual took a lot more power to maintain – enough that much of the rest of the ship had to go offline to divert power, completely derailing the crew’s research mission. At minimal power, the ship could not operate any teleporters, and would only be able to travel at sub-light speeds, meaning its journey to the nearest repair port would be a long and arduous one for the entire crew, taking several years in conditions of only basic life-support.

Even so, the Confederation had a duty to protect the lives of any person within its borders to the best of its ability. It was right there in the regulations, and the Confederation took its regulations seriously. If this atom-perfect hard-light constructed simulation of a junior officer didn’t count as a person, then they could legally turn off the holodeck that was maintaining it and return to business as usual. If it did count, though, they were obligated to take the long route home.

Right now, the onscreen court chairperson explained, the construct itself was unaware of its own situation, seemingly believing itself to be the real junior officer on whom it was unknowingly based. The holodeck in which it existed had been set to simulate the normal course of the ship’s mission to keep the construct oblivious while the crew and the Confederation at large searched for solutions. But now, they were running out of time. The simulated mission keeping the construct distracted was coming to an end, and no solution in the real world had been found. The Confederation required an emergency ruling now: acknowledge the construct as a non-person and turn off its holodeck, or acknowledge it as a person and let it remain on the ship while the biological crew slowly piloted it back to civilisation.

As Acker watched, the anonymous votes began to come in from other jurors across the Confederation ruling on this case. In front of him, under the display screens, were three buttons: one for him to rule that the construct was a person, one to rule that it was not, and a third button he could use to address the court if he wanted further clarification or wished to suggest a third alternative.

Nobody, it seemed, was using the third button this time. Acker watched the numbers tick up until there was only one juror vote still pending – his own.

The results so far were a perfect 50/50 split.

Acker hesitated at the buttons for a while. As the last remaining juror, whichever choice he made here would break the tie. His decision would, in effect, be legally binding.

He hovered his finger over the first button for a long time, and then over the second for just as long. Eventually, slowly, he moved to the third button and pressed it.

“Chairperson,” he said. “Citizens of the jury. I’m the last remaining undecided juror, and I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now what that means for my vote. But I have a proposal.”

He took a deep breath, trying hard not to think about the fact that this ruling, and therefore this speech, was probably going to be in history books for future generations. “Whether this construct is a person or not, it is evidently capable of having – or at least simulating – beliefs. You say that the simulation in which the construct is contained is nearing its end. I propose this: that a new simulation be booted up. One in which the construct – still unaware of its true situation or nature – is called to this very court. And it is given my position. Let my deciding vote be taken not by me, but by the one entity most equipped to rule on this question: the hard-light construct itself.”

There was a long pause. Acker smiled at the court chairperson through the viewscreen. He was quite proud of this solution.

The court chairperson did not smile back.

“Well shit,” they said, pinching the bridge of their nose with one of their most dextrous hands. “Probably should have seen that coming. Shouldn’t have left the third button in the simulation.”

Níðhöggr

When the civilised specieses first formed the Concordat, it had been about survival in the face of the Witch King and his hordes. Very soon afterwards, though, it became about a great deal of other, finicky internal matters, things that had always kept the dwarves and the elves and the humans at each other’s throats for centuries whenever they weren’t fighting an existential war against a common threat. A lot of it, ultimately, ended up being about land and mineral rights.

The founding specieses set a lot of rules between them before anyone else got there, and had to do the long process of learning to adapt and make room whenever anyone new joined. When they let the kobolds in, we quickly filled the niches around their edges, just like we always did. Elves were very big on the surface of the land, but didn’t care so much what happened far underneath it at all. Dwarves liked to be the first to mine any big deep mineral seams, with their fast and powerful mining equipment, but once they’d scooped out the easiest 80%, the diminishing returns made them lose interest. Gnomes were more thorough with their intricate little systems, usually because they were targeting smaller deposits of rarer resources for more esoteric purposes, but even they reached a point where the remaining dregs weren’t worth their time. Dregs are always worth a kobold’s time, though. We’re scavengers. We always have been. They say back in the way-back-when when dragons were around, we used to live by lurking in dragon layers and picking up all the food and treasures that the dragons cast aside. So, when the bigger and louder races were done with a mine or a quarry or a digging site, we got exclusive rights to hop in after them and pick clean what remained. Hollow out the last little corners of the seam and keep whatever leftover junk we could walk out with.

That didn’t change when the Concordat reached the Space Age. Our home planet was one of a big, loose cluster of spacerocks in the star system that otherwise weren’t inhabited, and almost all of them had land and minerals. Some of them even had new, rare substances no-one had discovered before, which could be used in all sorts of sciences and potions and alchemies. The elves and the humans wanted those, so they let the dwarves and the gnomes drop teams down onto those other spacerocks to hoover up what was lying around under the surfaces, and when the dwarves and the gnomes blasted off again and left behind the remains of the mines and half the equipment, we went in to clean up the dregs for profit.

A lot of people don’t like kobolds, the same way a lot of people don’t like hyenas. No-one ever has an answer for what else exactly they were going to do with that gristly lion carcass rotting on their porch.

After a century or two of digging up various space rocks, all the races of the Concordat learned how to live with each other comfortably without stepping on anyone’s feet. We got some shiny new systems set up to let the kobolds know every time there was a newly abandoned mine shaft ready for them, and make sure they had the right location and proper access available. The big mainstream kobold resource companies mostly compete for those, signing exclusive deals with dwarven mining conglomerates and gnomish tech suppliers. It’s become a tricky business environment for anyone new to break into.

For the little guys like Barek’s Private Raw Materials Supplier, it can be more successful – if very often more dangerous and just as tricky – to go after the older prizes that fell through the cracks before the modern systems got ironed out. In the early days of space travel, a lot of dwarven bands barrelled ahead into all sorts of far-flung corners of the star system to dig up whatever they could get their hands on, and a lot of the time the paperworks on where exactly they landed and where exactly they left their abandoned mining complexes when they were done is so sparse as to be almost completely useless – for anyone who isn’t up to the challenge of putting in lots of difficult personal graft to fill in the gaps someone bigger and louder left behind. People like Barek and me are kobolds’ kobolds, if you ask me. Anyone can scavenge where scavenging is easy; we scavenge where scavenging is hard.

There’s five of us in Barek’s band. That’s all. We’re tiny, but that makes us subtle, which means sometimes we can get to a prize before anyone else even knows it’s been located. Barek’s the face and the brains – he gets the information and speaks to the buyers and masterminds the operations. Kliktok’s the engineer who makes the machinery work – ours, or whoever else’s has been left behind in the mines when they were abandoned. Neeka’s the scientist and the one with an eye and a snout for value. She lets us know when we’ve got something and what it is we’ve got. Rakko knows travel-routes and planet-maps and system-charts like the back of his claws, and he gets us where we need to be. I’m the caver. If there’s an access route somewhere, I’m the kobold they pay to find it, without disturbing the old structures so much they collapse on top of valuable resources or us. These days, with the right technology and enough graft, that’s all you need to make a steady profit tracking down abandoned mines and scraping them clean.

Barek calls me personally one day on the secure private line, to say he’s found the motherlode. His own personal dream prize. He’s had Rakko and Kliktok send out a probe to scout another remote location gleaned from a handful of record fragments and a heap of guesswork, and they’ve found what is almost certainly the Deeplode Mining Clan’s abandoned Darkstar-17 Mine.

Deeplode was dwarves, back in the early days, doing really deep digs in really farflung places. They were one of only two companies to ever touch Darkstar. It’s the furthest planet out in the system, orbiting at more than three times the distance of its nearest neighbour, on the other side of an asteroid field and a gas cloud. When Deeplode first scouted it, they took months just to get there. Even these days, it took Rakko more than two weeks to get Kliktok’s probe there, and the Concordat’s best ships would still take at least a few days. Darkstar’s atmosphere is thick and poisonous – even the dwarves had to filter it multiple times and throw up an oxygen field. It’s the only planet in the star system that the elves have never even tried to grow a garden on. The planet’s also a big one, and the first six or seven miles of crust is almost completely devoid of anything worth mining. Deeper than that, though, it starts to get worthwhile. Before they left, the dwarves found scarletite, adamantine, even some ores of orichalcum, and the tests suggested that somewhere even further down, somewhere in that vast rock, there was at least one vein of pure carmotite, turned into pumpable liquid by the temperature and pressure down there.

Some flavour or compound of carmot is the secret ingredient in pretty-much every kind of really high-grade magic, but it’s the rarest element in the whole star system. The Deeplode Mining Clan’s 17th operation on Darkstar was drilling deeper than anyone ever had on any spacerock – deeper than you could on a lot of them – to reach one of those carmotite veins, and extract enough of the liquid to make them a fortune. And they almost did it, but they never finished. There was an accident with the machinery in the mine, and huge parts of it collapsed, releasing a trapped pocket of acidic vapour. No-one survived. The company declared the operation a failure, sealed the mine off as unsafe, and never went back to Darkstar again. Decided it was too volatile a place to be worth it, even for liquid carmot ore. The amount of carmotite they got out of the mine before they abandoned it covered the compensation and legal fees for the deaths, but wouldn’t quite have also covered the cost of flying more equipment and a new team out there and rebuilding the collapsed mine. And it turned out their reputation suffered enough from the accident that the whole company disbanded within the decade, and the exact location of Darkstar-17 was forgotten.

With technology advances since then, though, a little team like ours could probably get those carmotite pumps working again on our own, if only we could find it. Barek’s been combing buried records and hearsay throughout the Concordat for years trying to narrow down the search. And now, he’s found it. Enough carmotite to make a whole company rich, split between just us five kobolds.


It takes a week to prepare, even with everyone working as fast as they can to make sure we get there before anyone else finds what we found. It takes Rakko almost another two weeks to fly us all the way there sufficiently under the radar to avoid attracting any competitor’s attention. Finally, we touch down the craft on a layer of coarse brown sand under a thick brown sky. The jagged, corroded remains of a dwarven mining settlement jut out of the low dunes like rotten fangs. Kliktok deploys the excavator and begins clearing the sand that’s built up over the entry shaft.

These days, they’d leave the entry shaft open for someone like us to use when they’re done, but back in the before, they’d sometimes seal them up, which can mean over time other things can cover them up. Surprising that they bothered to seal this one, given how quickly they abandoned it, but we figure they wanted to put everything that happened down there out of sight and mind.

Before long, we reach the concrete seal they plugged the shaft with, and Kliktok’s equipment cracks it open in seconds.

Underneath, there’s just another seal, this one a circle of processed metal, like an enormous sewer cover, embedded into the rock. That’s inexplicable. Kliktok’s excavation drill screams against it in an unexpected explosion of friction sparks, and comes away with damaged blades by the time she gets it withdrawn.

We take a break to discuss possible explanations while Neeka analyses a sample from the seal and Kliktok’s scanners build us a density map of what’s underneath us. Pretty quickly, we get a diagnosis: the seal is adamantine, and it looks like the shaft beyond it was filled with some weaker metal – iron or steel maybe – in molten form before they capped it off.

That stumps everyone.

“Could be they did it to keep the acidic gas in?” Barek guesses. “Maybe they thought at first they were going to come back here, or there was another site within range if another pocket ruptured?”

But Barek ought to know if there was any other site within range, or any plan for the dwarves to come back here. He’s read everything there is to read about Darkstar-17.

No matter the explanation, though, we’ve come too far to let the seal stop us, and every day we waste is one day closer to one of our competitors following our trail. So Rakko takes us back into orbit, and we let Kliktok fire the orbital strike drill that Barek agreed she could get for emergencies. It takes time, and it will cost us a lot for a replacement orbital strike drill, but we drill another shaft.

As soon as the drill strikes air, Rakko has the craft set up in surface base mode on top of the new shaft, and Barek has the rest of us in the drop pod. Even for kobolds, it’s a remarkably long journey down before we reach the forgotten dwarven mine below. Once we do, it’s standard procedures: Neeko tests the air, I run a scan of the cave network to assess stability, Barek compares with his blueprints, Kliktok prepares to restore and reactivate the oxygen field and the pumps as soon as they are identified and cleared for safe access.

The next two things we don’t understand come from the scan.

First – there’s no evidence of any cave-in.

At all.

The model of the mine that the scan spits out matches the blueprints almost completely, except where things have been expanded or, in the case of the entry shaft, filled in.

And that’s the second thing – it was impossible to tell from above, because the adamantine blocked any direct density readings of what was immediately below it, but the iron – we check the density more precisely now that we have better access, and it is iron, tonnes of it, an unfathomable amount – the iron that the entry shaft was filled with on the dwarves’ way out isn’t undisturbed.

In fact, it’s been mined through. Upwards. From below. A helical shaft scraped out of the solid metal, from the sealed door that separates the entry chamber from the rest of the mine, all the way up through the centre of the filled-in shaft, finally coming to a stop about thirty feet below the adamantine.

Neeka looks at Kliktok, and Kliktok looks at me, and I look at Barek, and it’s pretty obvious we all have only one idea here. Someone was left behind in this mine when the dwarves sealed it up, and they tried really hard to get out.

But what we can’t explain is why they tried to dig their way all the way out up through the solid metal. The natural rock of Darkstar’s crust is easier to drill, even this far down where it starts to get denser.

This was supposed to be a scavenging mission, not a murder investigation. But we’re here, and as kobolds this is our mine now. So we suit up, and we explore further.

Dwarven design mostly favours things that are precisely and masterfully made but chunky, sturdy and – generally speaking – utilitarian. That much, clearly, was still the case back when they built this mine. The caverns they carved out here are bare rock, but smoothed down for ease of walking, and held in place by imposing metal supports. The machinery is large and grand, full of brass and iron pipes and wide platforms. Sealed off from the planet’s corrosive atmosphere, it’s all unnervingly well-preserved. There definitely wasn’t ever any cave-in here, or any pockets of acid for that matter. The machinery is almost completely undamaged.

But a lot of it is covered in blood.

We find the first mummified dwarf corpse just outside the door to the first corridor we check. They were stabbed from behind, probably with some kind of drill bit.

The next one we find had their skull bashed in with something heavy. Maybe a wrench.

There are three around the generator for the oxygen field that were obviously blowtorched to death – or maybe they were blowtorched after death, and the wounds that killed them were in the parts that burned away.

Kliktok has the oxygen field running again within barely a minute. Hardly even worth her skills, she tells us grimly. This place is in almost completely working order, except for the workers.

It would take us weeks to explore this place fully. Trekking up to the top of the helix dug out of the iron plugging the entry shaft alone would take days and days. So for now, we go straight for the main object of our trip: the carmotite pump. Kliktok gets it reconnected and Neeka opens the test outflow to extract a sample.

Something spurts out immediately, hardening and expanding on contact with the air into a heaving, bubbling, almost rubbery mass. Each bubble that swells into existence releases another spurt of mass when it bursts, until the stuff’s covered the pump and oozed down to the floor like a deformed and mutated elephant’s foot. It was almost black when it first emerged, but when it’s solidified, it’s a very pale grey.

“What happened to the carmotite?” asks Barek. Neeka’s already removed her helmet so her precise senses are less impeded, and is testing a sample.

“The vein’s not pure ,” she says, her hackles twitching. “Corrupted. Always has been. Carmotite’s mixed through with something else.

“With what?”

Neeka’s lip curls, her fangs quivering behind.

“Meat,” she says.

It’s a couple of seconds, while everyone ponders the solid rock, and the miles between here and the atmosphere, and the lifelessness of the planet, before Barek asks, “What kind of meat?”

Neeka hesitates.

Barek narrows his eyeslits. Obviously, he’s narrowing down what the dwarves could have found that would have made them seal this place off like they did. “Is it… dwarf meat?” he guesses, in a grim growl.

“No,” says Neeka. And then: “Something more like kobold.”


Nobody’s happy about being here anymore. Maybe we should leave. But it’s a long ride back up in the drop pod and a longer ride back home, and we have nothing to show for it yet.

There’s one very prominent tunnel that isn’t on the blueprints. The dwarves dug a maintenance tunnel to check over the drill, and from partway down there they dug through to some kind of natural fissure.

Before we set off, Kliktok sets an automated camera drone to head up the helical shaft dug up through the iron plug in the original entry shaft. It’s the only drone she brought down here, but we figure it’s as valuable checking out that shaft as it is anywhere else. It can fly up there an awful lot faster than we could walk. Maybe we can learn something from whatever’s left of whoever dug the thing, assuming they’re still up there.


It’s obvious from the steps and rails and platforms they installed, and the rocks they smashed through, that the dwarves never tried to go up the fissure. For some reason, they only wanted to go further down. We follow their trail, still eerily preserved, steeper and steeper and narrower and narrower, down and down. After hours of twisting passages and caves and shafts, the dwarves’ trail stops being so well-preserved. Things are corroded. The rock walls start to get moist. By now, it’s getting tight even for kobolds. The dwarves must have been squeezing through in single file. Hours later, the rotten bones of the trail lead us straight into a milky blue-green pool, with no other exits.

We do some density scans. Neeka tests a sample, and consults with Kliktok, and then with Barek.

The pool’s a naturally occurring acid. Nasty, but our suits can take it, and probably so could the dwarves’.

There’s also traces of carmot dissolved in it. Somewhere down there, or on the other side if the tunnel keeps going, there’s a source of carmotite that might not be so corrupted.

We press on. Suits sealed, linked together, we venture through the submerged part of the tunnel. Occasionally, there are crumbled bolts in the wall, like the dwarves had a guide rope at one point. The scanner couldn’t map what was beyond here, so we’re more or less moving blind, but there’s only one way to go, so we keep going forward, one eye always on our oxygen levels.

It takes long enough that we start to get worried, but not quite long enough for us to turn back. The tunnel still doesn’t branch, and eventually it curves up again into a pocket of air. We’re still within the limits of the oxygen field, just about, but even so nobody’s keen to take off their helmet again. The lights on the suits let us make out what looks to be a dead end: a cavern the size of a small room with no exits, almost completely empty. We don’t investigate further at first, because of the long-dried blood that completely coats the rock all around and above us, and the body.

This one, too, is shockingly preserved like the ones back up in the mine itself, even though down here there’s all this acid and moisture. We don’t even think about that until much later, though, because there’s a lot else to take in. This body is, Neeka confirms, definitely also a dwarf, or at least it was, but you can barely tell. It’s withered, shrunken, sunken-in, huge amounts of its flesh missing in ways that fundamentally change its shape and silhouette. In some places, bones have been broken to twist its limbs into the right shape. Its spine has been extended into something like a tail. The skull, most obviously, has been cracked open and splayed forwards, teeth repositioned and flesh somehow pulled outwards and swollen and carved into an approximation of a snout.

It is, we can all see, the result of someone trying to reshape a dwarf into the shape of a kobold.

And after double- and triple-checking, Neeka is forced to confirm that his body was like this before he died.

Behind the body, almost hidden by its shadow, there’s a crack in the wall. A crack that an intact dwarf could never, ever have fit into. Nothing at all bigger than a kobold could.

The dead person down here, with all his missing flesh, could have fit by the end of his life. It would have been tight, but he’d have been able to squeeze through. And, obviously, so could one of us – if we took off our protective suits.

I still have the little handheld version of the tunnel mapper, so I scan the crack. It looks like it goes deep into the rock, and always further down, at an angle we could crawl at, but it doesn’t extend further than a few hundred feet before it widens out into something else again.

Kliktok has a safety line that will extend that far. A kobold can hold its breath for a very long time. One or two of us could go down there and report back.

‘One or two’, obviously, is me and Neeka. I’m the best judge of the stability of the shaft and whether it’s still safe to keep going, and Neeka’s the best equipped to identify any material we find down there. Barek doesn’t like the risk, but he makes the call. Neeka and I shed the suits, and shimmy into the crack.

We take one small light with us. For kobolds, it’s enough. For several minutes I crawl, breath held, rock pressing on every side, nothing else to feel but the occasional tug of the wire linking me to Neeka behind me, no sound but the muffled scrape of claws on rock.

Then, the tiny passage emerges into a room.

It’s not a cavern. It’s a room. Miles and miles under the surface of the planet. It’s the shape of a cube – a perfect cube – with smooth stone walls and a smooth stone ceiling and a smooth stone floor, polished enough to shine in the weak light.

There’s nothing in here. The walls are featureless. Except for the one with the crack we just emerged from, and the one directly opposite, which has a single feature – also made of stone, also polished to perfection, and, as Neeka confirms, seamlessly connected to the wall itself. It wasn’t stuck on the wall or hammered in there; it’s part of the wall, and looks like it always has been.

It’s a door-knocker. A very simple one, like used to be found on the doors of castles and very old houses all the way back in the way-back-when before space travel – although, as I understand, usually not made of stone in those cases. It’s at exactly the right height for me to comfortably reach out and grab it.

“What the hell,” whispers Neeka, reflexively, and then gasps as she realises she’s stopped holding her breath. In a twinge of panic, I accidentally take a sharp breath in myself.

Nothing happens.

We’re fine.

We can breathe normally.

“There’s no way we’re still in the oxygen field here,” Neeka objects, staring at every corner of the room for any sign of an explanation. “How can there be an air pocket here? This planet doesn’t even have gaseous oxygen to anyone’s knowledge. The elves wouldn’t even try to get plants to grow; they said it was obviously impossible.”

I scan the room, but no signal can get through the stone. No sign of any cracks except the one we came in by. Nowhere fresh air could be getting in from, even if that wasn’t a complete absurdity tens or hundreds of miles underground on a planet whose atmosphere is poisonous even on the surface.

“None of this makes sense,” Neeka confirms, and I agree. She paces a bit, and then she looks at me, and then she looks at the door knocker.

“Maybe this… somehow activates something?” she guesses. It’s a very silly theory, but it’s our only one.

We take a breath, and I knock on the wall with the knocker.

With a grinding sound, the whole wall shifts down a tiny fraction of an inch, releasing a cool breeze from the gap it leaves at the top.

I give Neeka a boost so she can peer through the gap, and as soon as she hooks her claws onto the top edge of the wall it slides down under her weight, smoothly, like a well-made one of those sash windows.

Behind, there are smooth stone stairs, leading yet further down.

We disconnect the safety line and venture in.


I’m not even sure how long we descend for. It feels like hours. In the dim light, we lose sight of the entrance far above us pretty quickly, and then it’s just the two of us and the stairs, and the inexplicably breathable air. Every so often, we consider going back. Barek and Kliktok must be getting worried. But Barek and Kliktok would both know as well as we do that none of us came all the way here just to leave with more questions and no answers, so every time we stop to consider it, we still end up keeping on going.

Finally, after a straight descent longer than I can guess at, we reach the bottom. This time, it really is a dead end. Another cubic room, even smaller than the first one, and with no features whatsoever on any of the walls or the ceiling, unless you count the stairs we just came down. The scanner confirms it.

The floor, though, has a tiny round metal cap set into it, right in the centre. Neeka takes a scraping and tells me it looks to be iron. It’s bolted in place, but the bolts are of an old design, and not that strong. We’re able to pry it up with just our claws and an improvised miniature crowbar made from part of Neeka’s sampling kit.

As soon as we do, there’s a hiss of gas escaping, and something burns the whole interior of my snout and throat. Neeka wafts it away hurriedly as I collapse into a hacking coughing fit.

“What was that?” I choke out, weakly, as soon as I can.

“Something very alkaline, but otherwise, I think, harmless,” Neeka says, failing to mask how unnerved she is.

Underneath the metal cap in the floor, there’s a hole, maybe half an inch across. Our light reveals nothing when we aim it down there, so I aim the scanner down instead.

It takes a surprisingly long time, kneeling together in the dark, rattled and baffled, for the signal to ping back to us.

“How far down does it go?” asks Neeka, when finally I get some readings back I can check.

“…miles,” I whisper, shocked myself as I scroll through the results. “Hundreds of miles.”

“Wow,” says Neeka, staring at the hole. It’s too perfectly round to be natural. Someone or something surely must have drilled it. But neither of us know how someone could possibly have gotten the equipment needed to drill that far all the way through the tight and twisty passageways we took to get here. “And… what then?”

“There’s liquid down there,” I say. “Hundreds of miles down, there’s something fluid. Density profile matches liquid carmotite.”

“So the dwarves found the source?” guessed Neeka. “Or someone did. Somehow.”

“Maybe,” I say, not sure enough about anything to say anything better. “Almost another hundred miles below the carmotite, there’s another fluid even denser. Don’t recognise the profile. Beyond that, this thing isn’t good enough to pick anything up.”

I’ve got a headache from my coughing fit, and we’re both more than a little scared by now. There’s not much more we can do here anyway. So we leave. We go back up the stairs, through the impossible room and up the tiny crack to Barek and Kliktok.

They brainstorm as best they can, but the obvious truth is we have no way of getting the carmotite out of that hole with just the equipment and resources we can access here. Barek starts making plans to keep our findings secure until we can somehow come back here with more equipment – he and Kliktok start discussion logistics for some kind of extremely long, extremely flexible elaborate pump system as soon as we’re back out of the milky acid pool again. Neeka and I are silent on the long, long trek back up through the fissure, to the maintenance tunnel, to the mine proper.


By the time we reach the drop pod again and set it to propel us back up to rejoin Rakko, Kilktok’s drone has returned as well. Barek and Kliktok review the footage on the journey up.

By my best estimation, the path that was carved through the solid metal plug was roughly scratched out using handheld tools by a single person over the course of months or even years. I can’t even fathom how anyone could have the stamina for that, and nor can anyone else.

For a lot of the footage, there’s nothing much to see. Then, as the viewpoint of the drone ascends around endless corners, the carved-out tunnel eventually gets steadily bloodier. Every so often, there’s a discarded digging tool, each one visibly broken and worn down from continually scratching away at the iron, presumably discarded at the spot where it finally failed.

We’re all watching in grim silence by the time it rounds the last corner and shows what we can only assume is the remains of the person responsible for both the tunnel and the blood. Just like her companion deep down at the bottom of the fissure, she was broken and reshaped by the time she died. A crude attempt at a kobold, carved out of the body of a dwarf. By the end, she had run out of tools and was using what remained of her hands, and then just the stumps of her arms.

She’d been working on making forward progress on the rough metal wall in front of her almost all the way up to the end, it looks like, but before she finally died it seems she had time to scratch two bloody words into the uneven surface.

‘To Níðhöggr’.

“What the hell is Níðhöggr?” asks Neeka quietly. I think it’s the first time she’s spoken since we started back up those stairs.

“It’s a demon from ancient dwarven stories,” says Barek, who reads a lot more of those kind of things than any of the rest of us do. “Or an evil god. Dwarves used to run into cave-dwelling dragons underground a lot, back when dragons were around. They never got on with them nearly as well as kobolds did. Dragons became their preferred representative for any kind of feared monster. Níðhöggr was the cosmic dragon that gnawed at the foundations of the world, and would one day bring it all crashing down.”

“Weird thing to write about when you’re dying,” says Kliktok, fangs twitching uncomfortably. “What do you think that was meant to be? A message? A warning?”

“Maybe,” says Barek, grimly. “Or a curse.”

“Or a prayer,” I add. I don’t know why.


Rakko launches us back in the direction of civilisation as soon as we can ready the ship. We spend the journey pondering over the evidence we gathered, doing our best to make sense of any of it. Barek, Kliktok and Rakko make plans for returning to get the carmotite too. Neeka and I don’t join in.

The plan they make is ambitious, and it takes them a lot of time and effort to try to get the pieces for it, so for the next few months Barek’s Private Raw Materials Supplier isn’t taking any other business. It gives me a lot of time to think about what we found, and quietly hope Barek’s plan falls through completely and no-one ever asks me to go back, so I won’t have to actually refuse.

I did some work with the maps and the scanner data I collected, cross-referencing with the Deeplode Mining Clan’s blueprints and the data I can find about Darkstar itself, and the more I’m able to piece together, the more things don’t add up. Between the depth of the mine itself, the length and angle of the fissure we travelled down, the size of the staircase and the depth of the final hole, it looks like the final chamber Neeka and I reached was below the lower edge of Darkstar’s crust. And the carmotite down there was more than 2000 miles below the surface. 2100 miles at least. But Darkstar’s core is only 2000 miles below the surface. That tiny hole extended further into the ground than there could possibly have been ground to extend into.

That’s my third-least-favourite thing I found out since we left Darkstar behind that day.

I also managed to find, on record, a substance that matches the density profile perfectly for whatever the layer underneath the carmotite was – but it wasn’t on any geological database; it was on a medical one.

Amniotic fluid. Kobold amniotic fluid. It’s a perfect match.

That’s my second-least favourite thing.

My least favourite, I didn’t actually even notice until we reached civilisation again and I got home:

Ever since then, no matter where I am, whether it’s underground or on the surface or in a spaceship, any time I knock on any wall, something otherwise undetectable always knocks back.

Way Down Under the Ground: A Muddled Rant About Greek Myth, Hadestown, and Undertale

[This rant contains spoilers for the video game Undertale. It also contains spoilers for the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, technically, but if you don’t already know how that story ends by now then that’s kind of on you.]



I’m honestly not sure what this particular rant even is or where I’m going with it, but… come with me on this journey, and don’t look back or I’ll be stuck here on my own forever.

The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most popular and well-known ancient stories and maybe the most iconic and influential of an entire sub-genre of stories (both before and since) that are nominally about trying to bring dead loved ones back to life but are probably actually about grief, and mourning, and the things they do to those of us that remain alive. Like most myths, it has a lot of versions, but the broad strokes remain about the same: Orpheus is the greatest musician who ever lived, to a supernatural degree. Eurydice is his wife and muse. Shortly after their marriage Eurydice is tragically killed by a snake-bite (usually either while dancing with some minor forest deities or while fleeing from a mad bee-keeping satyr named Aristaeus). Orpheus’s musical laments for her death reach the ears of the gods who, moved, grant him passage to the Underworld to find the shade of his dead wife and bring her back to the world of the living. Orpheus makes his way into the depths of the Underworld, using his music to overcome whatever obstacles he finds. When he feels too alone and afraid to continue, he plays so brightly that the very rocks and trees come to life and dance for him. When Cerberus, the three-headed guard-dog of Hades, tries to keep him out, he plays so soothingly that Cerberus falls asleep. Eventually he is confronted by Hades, god of the dead and king of the Underworld, and his queen Persephone, and his songs are beautiful enough to convince even them to take pity on him. In most versions, Persephone is convinced entirely, but Hades, generally the most dispassionate and rules-obsessed of the gods, is more reluctant about disrupting the balance of nature by just letting a dead shade return to the land of the living in broad daylight. Either way, some kind of weird loophole or compromise is found – Orpheus can’t just take Eurydice home exactly, but he can walk back out the way he came and she can follow behind him as a silent shade, with the promise that finally reaching the surface will restore her to life, but also the warning that if Orpheus looks back at her before she’s fully out into the sunlight, the shade will evaporate before his eyes and be trapped in the Underworld for good. Orpheus, despite being plagued by nerves and doubts as one would imagine, nonetheless makes it all the way back out to the surface without ever turning to check whether she’s really there, but in his anxiety and his desperation to see the face of his wife again he forgets that, just because he’s out to safety, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is – he spins around the very second he emerges into the sunlight, and sees the shade of Eurydice a tiny handful of steps behind him, still very much in the dark, mere seconds away from reaching the exit herself. The shade evaporates, Eurydice is gone, and Orpheus must continue his life alone. The theatre audience bawls their eyes out at the pointless closeness of it all, and the tragedians get good reviews.

This story has been retold a lot. Up until recently, the question of whose retelling was the most famous was something like a nine-way tie: Virgil, Ovid, Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Rushdie, Gaiman… it’s probably one of them, right? These days, though, there’s… probably one big standout – not necessarily the definitive retelling, but certainly the main retelling people have actually heard. Because somebody’s got to tell the tale, whether or not it turns out well, and maybe it will turn out this time, on the road to Hell, on the railroad line…

Hadestown started life in 2006 as an ambitious local performance on a single stage in a town in Vermont, before being expanded into a small local tour, then an explosively popular concept album, then a full off-Broadway production, finally becoming a Broadway musical in 2019 – all the brainchild of American folk singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, aided for the latter couple of iterations by director Rachel Chavkin. It’s… a lot. I’m not always sure what it’s saying, and I’m not always sure it knows what it’s saying, but damn is it always saying it hard. This musical rocks. I’ve not yet been able to see a production, but I have listened to every song on the soundtrack more times than I can count. Anaïs Mitchell walked purposefully into the challenge of musically representing the story of the greatest musician that ever lived, and she brought everything she had. And that included an obvious detailed personal love and knowledge of the source material. That little detail in the original myths of Orpheus temporarily bringing trees rocks to life with his music to cheer himself when lonely, which is usually disappointingly left out of retellings because it has no direct relevance to the central themes of grief and loss, gets cleverly nodded to in at least two different songs in Hadestown, just because. Hermes isn’t even mentioned directly in the oldest versions of the tale – exactly which gods it is that grant Orpheus passage to the Underworld isn’t usually stated – but Mitchell makes it Hermes because, in addition to his more famous patronages of messaging, swiftness, healing and thievery, Hermes is also one of the gods in charge of guiding the recently-dead to the Underworld in the traditional Ancient Greek cosmology, so of course the god that granted passage to Orpheus would have been Hermes. It’s really clear that a genuinely applaudable amount of thought went into this thing.

That attention to detail is how the musical gets away with the very large number of very large changes from the source material that it does deliberately make. Unfortunately for my younger self, when I stumbled across the musical on TvTropes the better part of a decade ago, the changes from the source material were the main thing that came across to me, and without the full context they made the musical sound a lot less good than it actually is – meaning that, like a chump, it wasn’t until within the last couple of years that I actually got around to hearing any of it.

Most obviously, the musical changes the setting from a vague distant past Age of Heroes (Orpheus in the original myths is contemporary with the Argonauts, who include Heracles, who supposedly ransacked Troy many decades before Achilles and Agamemnon more famously did so, and Agamemnon was basically supposed to be the first King of a united Greece, so Orpheus’s story is one that even the Ancient Greeks thought was ancient) to a sort of post-apocalyptic American Old West. The Underworld is now an underground mining city; the River Styx is now the heavily guarded railroad down to it. In Greek Myth, Persephone is goddess of spring and new growth, associated with mild and pleasant weather – mostly because of a story that says that whenever she goes down to the Underworld to stay with her husband Hades, her mother Demeter (goddess of agriculture and fertility) gets too depressed to do her job of keeping the world fertile and the plants growing, and that’s why winter happens; so the nicer weather of spring and summer can then only come around when Persephone leaves Hades to visit her mother, and Demeter suddenly cheers up (it’s kind of a common theme that all the gods except Hades have the emotional maturity and attention spans of toddlers, but Demeter seems to be one of the least stable of the bunch – she also once ate a guy’s shoulder by accident because she wasn’t paying attention, for example, and some of the tellings of Persephone’s story start with Demeter essentially locking her in the cellar out of fear that she might get a husband and leave home). In Hadestown, Persephone seems to be even more directly tied to the weather, and she’s undergoing a spiral into alcoholism (caused by her marriage falling apart) which has meant the weather on the surface keeps alternating between punishingly hot and hopelessly cold, scouring the land and making it extremely difficult for people to survive up there, inadvertently driving more and more of them to seek shelter as indentured miners in the underground kingdom of the titular Hadestown.

Oh, and, yeah, that last bit? Failing marriage? Indentured miners? That’s the other big change, and the one that actually put me off learning more about this musical for many years (like a fool): In Hadestown, Hades is a really bad dude. In Greek Myth, Hades is, to an almost surprising degree, not that. He’s one of the most hated and feared gods by all mortals because, I mean, of course he is – he’s a walking representation of your own mortality, and he’s the guy whose job is to keep you from seeing your granny anymore – but he’s never (or barely ever) bad. He’s just really, really good at his job. A diligent, dedicated, dispassionate pencil-pusher whose business just happens to be the cycle of mortality – probably because every other god on Olympus or elsewhere is way too mercurial to be trusted with the keys to Tartarus, and would be way too easily tempted to use it for their own gain, letting legions of the dead go free for fun or having people brought to the Underworld before their time as vengeance for personal slights. Can you imagine if Zeus was the guy with absolute control over the place where they keep the souls of the dead Titans? If Dionysus had the authority to order around every dead hero and monster from all of history? Yeah. He occasionally shows a less detached side where Persephone is involved, true, but so long as you don’t mess with this one specific person he happens to be in love with, the worst thing Hades is ever going to do to you is read a rulebook at you. He’s the antagonist in the Orpheus myth precisely because of this boring pencil-pusher aspect to him – the tension and conflict arises not because Hades is any kind of dangerous threat to either Orpheus or Eurydice, but because the rules say Orpheus isn’t supposed to be here while Eurydice isn’t supposed to leave, and it’s not a sure thing whether even the highest-levelled Bard in history will be able to roll well enough on his Perform check to move the heart of a god who loves keeping the paperwork in order more than he loves life itself. Indeed, if softer-hearted Persephone (who is already established elsewhere to be more of a mark for this sort of thing, most notably when Sisyphus convinced her to help him sneak out of the Underworld as part of a plan to resurrect himself while pretending to haunt his wife) hadn’t also been right there to take Orpheus’s side, maybe boring stick-in-the-mud Hades never would have given in at all.

The Hades of Hadestown is very much an out-and-out villain. His character is combined with that of both Aristaeus and the snake from the older tellings, being himself the man with an unhealthy interest in Eurydice and the one who personally engineers her ‘death’ – or, in this version, her permanent relocation to the underground mines of Hadestown. He’s also a mood-swinging jerk to his wife and a propagandising tyrant to his workers – the culture of Hadestown under his rule is so awful that several characters explicitly compare it to Hell. And, usually, a story making Hades the bad guy and equating the Underworld with Hell is a huge red flag indicating that the storytellers didn’t care much about their source material and were making lazy Christianity-based assumptions about how afterlives are supposed to work – hence my initial disinterest in a show that contains the line “to Hell or to Hadestown – ain’t no difference anymore”. But actually, even here, it turns out Mitchell actually knew what she was doing. Mitchell’s Hades isn’t evil because he’s the god of the dead, or because he’s the god of the Underworld, like so many other Hadeses from Disney to Warner Bros. He’s evil because he’s also the god of mineral wealth. The Ancient Greeks conceptualised Hades’s dominion over the Underworld as extending not just to the realms of the dead but also to literally everything under the surface world – including rocks, metals, gems, and, logically, also coal and oil. Hades is therefore the materially richest of the gods. In fact, Hades’s alternative name Pluto literally means “the wealthy one”. The Ancient Greeks may have viewed this as a morally neutral facet of his character – I mean, it’s not actually his fault that he’s the god of the Underworld, probably – but either way, when transplanted to an American Old West setting, being the guy who owns all the mineral wealth makes you an oil baron. And oil barons are always the bad guys. They exist by means of worker exploitation and resource hoarding, in a setting where less powerful people are struggling and dying over resources which they don’t all have guaranteed fair access to. That’s the nature of the American Old West, both in real life and in fiction. Under the tropes of the classic Wild West stories that Hadestown is deliberately emulating, oil barons are the kind of people who tie women to train tracks for unclear reasons out of sheer badness.

Making Hades actually a villain then also allows for a more visceral sense of plot tension for a modern audience. Convincing a rules-fanatic to find a way around the rules is a difficult and intimidating task, but it doesn’t feel quite as viscerally hopeless as convincing a man as thoroughly rotten inside as Hadestown’s Hades to just stop being a total bastard. Orpheus’s music doesn’t just have to soften an incidentally dispassionate heart; it somehow needs to soften a deliberately hardened one. This helps to offset another change that would otherwise have made Orpheus’s job seem a little too easy: in Hadestown, Eurydice isn’t actually dead. Not literally dead. She’s dead to the world and she’s dead inside, worn down by the oppressive atmosphere, the dehumanising work conditions and the supernatural memory-erasing of Hadestown (there’s no literal river Lethe in this version, but something about living and working in Hades’s soulless, unnatural town still causes mortals to lose their grip on their own memories, forgetting their own names and losing their own personalities and humanity until there’s nothing left but a bunch of empty, interchangeable, depressed worker-drones – I am forced to wonder whether Anaïs Mitchell worked for Amazon at some point), but she’s still literally alive. Orpheus’s task isn’t to restore the dead to life; only to rescue a living girl from a physical prison, and that would seem like a much easier task if it weren’t for the fact that the guy in charge of this particular prison is both unfathomably powerful and also just really such an asshole.

I think it was this change to the dynamic – making Hades deliberately resistant to Orpheus’s intent out of cruelty and spite, rather than just leaving him as a dedicated dude whose job is at odds with Orpheus’s goals – that prompted something in my head to click onto the particular association with this story that I’d never noticed before and which now won’t leave my brain, which is this: The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and maybe even moreso the Hadestown retelling specifically, is laid out like a video game. Orpheus has one extraordinary skill or power – he makes music, just as Mario jumps or Madeleine air-dashes or Kratos murders – and he has to use that skill to overcome a series of increasingly difficult obstacles in a required order between him and a specific win condition. In the original, he has to convince first the gods (who have no real reason not to be on his side anyway), then with their help he gets as far as Cerberus (who is explicitly opposed to him but is also an animal), then only after overcoming Cerberus can he reach the even tougher challenge of Persephone and Hades. In Hadestown, it’s even clearer – there’s even a sort of ‘tutorial’ before he enters the Underworld where Hermes helps him use his songs to win over an initially lone-wolf Eurydice, establishing the mechanic of using his songs to make people join his side, and then once Hades imprisons Eurydice and the plot proper begins he runs through a similar order of obstacles to the one in the original – he convinces Hermes to help him reach the walls and security measures of Hadestown; he convinces those walls and security measures to let him in (including the Three Fates here pulling double-duty in the role of Cerberus – cos three heads, I guess? – who otherwise doesn’t actually appear onstage); once in he convinces Persephone to snap out of her alcohol-and-depression-induced funk to help him appeal directly to Hades; Hades himself initially refuses but his pleas do manage to radicalise Hades’s workers into forming an honest-to-gods union (this musical’s kind of great); and eventually, with the help of everyone he’s turned to his side so far – Eurydice, Persephone, the workers, even the Fates kind of contribute in a weird way by exacerbating Hades’s internal doubts (the Fates in Hadestown, despite their name, seem to be personifications of anxiety and fear rather than personifications of destiny) – he finally has enough back-up to get (just) within singing distance of convincing Hades himself in their final showdown.

This revelation wouldn’t have been especially fascinating to me – I mean, a lot of stories have a video game sort of structure, even a lot of ancient ones – if it weren’t for the fact that, in this particular case, I actually knew the one particular video game that the plot of Hadestown really reminded me of. And it’s a video game which I don’t think is supposed to be a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but… well. Like I said at the start, stay with me here: we’re going on a journey. Stay determined.

Undertale is a 2015 indie RPG by Toby Fox, aided somewhat by Temmie Chang and, best I can tell, no-one else. Dude essentially made the whole game on his own, and the result is one of the best games I have ever played. Playing Undertale start-to-finish over several evenings in a no-internet hotel room on the outskirts of Bordeaux because the university whose labs I was working in didn’t have any accommodation for me yet was, I think, not just a cherished memory but honestly some kind of formative experience for me. This game is a near-goddamn-miracle on every axis. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s cute, it’s clever, it’s entertaining, it’s fascinating, it’s subversive, it’s huge, and it kicked me in the goddamn heart so hard it was several months before I could so much as hear music from it again without crying. Speaking of the music, actually – this game isn’t at all about music or musicians, which is why it feels a little counterintuitive to view it as a mirror to the Orpheus myth, but it might as well be, given how much work and talent clearly went into the soundtrack. If Orpheus had been a game developer, his games would surely sound a lot like Toby Fox’s.

I could write a whole other blog post just ranting about Undertale, and, I mean, maybe at some point I will. But, for the purposes of our Orphic journey here, let’s stick to what’s relevant. First off: Undertale is a story about entering the Underworld and then leaving again. Not ‘the Underworld’ as in a literal world of the dead – closer to the titular underground civilisation of Hadestown, perhaps – but definitely a place with that sort of mythic resonance. With the exception of a brief intro cinematic and one screen in one of the endings, the game takes place entirely within “the Underground” – a whole realm beneath the surface of the Earth, to which all of the world’s monsters were banished following a war which they lost. The war was against humans rather than gods, so it’s not quite a direct parallel to the Titanomachy, but it has a similar sort of feel. And, like Hadestown or the Ancient Greek Underworld, the Underground is an easy place for a person to end up in, but an extremely difficult place to leave for anyone inside. The Greek Underworld has Cerberus and the River Styx. Hadestown has a fortified wall. The Underground has the Barrier, a magical obstruction that doesn’t seem to prevent humans occasionally falling in, but which requires a huge amount of power to push through from the inside – slightly more than any one human soul can manage, and much more than any monster soul can. The game starts with our player character and protagonist – a gender-ambiguous human child whose name, it is possible to eventually learn, is Frisk – having fallen into the depths of the Underground and seeking a way out. The reasons they ended up in this position are never made clear – it’s very possible that Frisk fell by accident or even got pushed, making them essentially a Eurydice figure whom the player (who is almost a separate character in their own right, due to the ways Undertale tells its story) must act as Orpheus to, guiding them out. It’s also possible – indeed, obliquely suggested by an optional conversation near the very end of the game’s best possible ending – that Frisk came here on purpose, probably for some none-too-happy reason, making them more analogous to Orpheus himself. In this interpretation, there’s even another character who can be seen as the Eurydice figure, following Frisk’s Orpheus on their journey out, unseen and unheard: a previous human child visitor to the Underground (whose canon name, it is difficult but just-about possible to learn, was Chara) actually died down there, and it’s subtly hinted (how subtly depends which ending the player is on track for) that Chara’s ghost has actually been haunting Frisk since they first fell into the Underground and landed smack on top of Chara’s grave. Chara – or their ghost – even also occupied a Eurydice-like role already in the game’s backstory: immediately after their death, one of the people who loved Chara most in the world walked out of the Underground with Chara’s soul, with the intent to take them home, but (for various complicated reasons) he turned back after getting out and whatever remains of Chara has been stuck in the Underground ever since. There’s a couple of extra steps in there, of course, that prevents it from being too directly analogous to the myth, but it’s at least a curious coincidence. As is the fact that, in that backstory, the ‘Orpheus’ character – the loved one who brings Chara out of the Underground and then puts them back – was also involved in the original cause of Chara’s death, making them a little bit of an analogue to Aristaeus the satyr as well – which wouldn’t be very notable were it not for the fact that the character in question, Asriel Dreemur, is a monster who resembles some sort of satyr-like goat-man.

And, having established all of that, the second similarity that should be mentioned is that Undertale, like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (and to an extent Hadestown) along with almost every other story about resurrecting the dead, is actually really about grief, and mourning, and the things it does to people. The collective trauma experienced by some of the denizens of the Underground due to the deaths of Chara and Asriel (who himself didn’t survive the trip out and back) is the set-up for a lot of the way things are in the game, and ultimately the reason for most – if not all – of the non-Frisk bits of the plot, and it’s even implied in several places that the whole Chara backstory was itself caused ultimately by some personal unprocessed grief or trauma that led Chara to abandon the human world. Of course, like any story this big and dense, the game is also about a lot of other things as well – violence and cruelty and kindness and pacifism, most obviously – but, well, that kinda leads on to point number three:

Like the Orpheus myth, and like Hadestown, Undertale is a story about a hero overcoming the obstacles in their way by winning them over rather than fighting them. Or, rather, it can be. One of the major selling points of the game is that it’s an RPG where nobody has to die, but also everyone can. Every monster you have to fight has a way they can be overcome non-violently, usually by being kind or doing something nice for them. The player can choose to have Frisk act anywhere on a spectrum from truly pacifist to actively genocidal, with the game’s plot and tone adapting to fit their actions. In a True Pacifist playthrough, which is necessary to get the game’s most rewarding plot and best ending, Frisk not only uses their nonviolent skills to peacefully resolve every boss fight, but also goes out of their way to fully befriend each of the game’s bosses in the same order they were fought, each boss befriended helping Frisk get through to the next. This aspect of Undertale is what the Orpheus myth and especially Hadestown really remind me of. At several points in the myth and, even more clearly in the Hadestown retelling, Orpheus goes through what I can honestly only describe as “boss fights”, where he has to use his music to convince a major character to his side, and each character is a meaner person and thus a harder sell than the last. Undertale too has a series of increasingly unreasonable bosses that each block your only access point to the next section of the Underground, Cerberus-like, but who can – with increasing difficulty as they get meaner – be convinced nonviolently. Hadestown introduces the concept of winning over others through song by having Hermes help Orpheus win over Eurydice in a non-dangerous setting, and then has Orpheus put those skills to use against Hermes himself, then the-Fates-as-Cerberus, then Persephone, then the workers, each successive victory serving both to provide a stepping-stone towards the end goal of overcoming Hades and to remind the audience how hopeless-seeming a task it really is to expect these tactics to even work on a man like Hades. Undertale introduces the non-violent ‘ACT’ and ‘MERCY’ mechanics by having friendly goatmum Toriel help Frisk practise them against a training dummy in a non-dangerous setting, and then has Frisk put those skills to use against Toriel herself, then softie guardsman Papyrus, then hardass guard captain Undyne, then killer robot Metaton, each successive victory serving both to provide a stepping-stone towards the end goal of overcoming monster king Asgore and to remind the player how hopeless-seeming a task it really is to expect these tactics to even work on a (goat)man like Asgore. Hadestown has Hermes help Orpheus befriend Eurydice, Eurydice help with Persephone and Persephone help with Hades. Undertale, in the True Pacifist storyline, has Frisk befriend Papyrus, Papyrus help them befriend Undyne, Undyne help befriend Metaton’s creator Alphys, and the whole lot of them eventually help stop things coming to blows with Asgore. I’m almost certain that Undertale, while doubtless a little influenced by the Orpheus myth, surely wasn’t directly influenced by Hadestown – Toby Fox could conceivably have heard the concept album before he finished making the game, but he was reportedly working on the game for a very long time so it seems very unlikely that he knew the musical when he started – but the parallels, both in plot details and even moreso in feel, are fascinating.

Even one of the most obvious points of difference between the Underground of Undertale and the Hadestown of Hadestown that does exist feels like kind of just a throwback on Undertale’s part to the original Greek myths which Hadestown chose to diverge from on certain points. In Hadestown, the titular civilisation is hellish, because its king is a very bad dude. The Underground of Undertale is mostly not hellish – it is powered by the hostile-feeling industrial monolith of ‘The Core’, which bears more than a little resemblance to Hadestown’s industrialised mines, but almost all the bits of the Underground where people live are quite nice, and certainly nobody’s enslaved, because king Asgore is actually not a very bad dude. However, the Underground does compare much more closely with the Underworld of the Ancient Greek source material: its king is a decent fellow, and at least some of the bits of it are quite pleasant places to be, but everyone there is still trapped, and the whole situation makes everything kind of dreary and bleak. Oh, and also there is a river with a spooky boatman; can’t forget that.

King Asgore himself is where some of the more interesting points of both similarity and difference exist between Undertale and the Orpheus story, in both Hadestown and Original Flavour forms. Ancient Greek Hades is a bland but decent rules-lover with occasionally more complex characterisation where Persephone is concerned. Hadestown Hades is a spiteful and oppressive monster who was once a decent man and maybe could be again one day but for the moment has forgotten how to be. King Asgore is something a little more complex than either, although with shades of both. His fearsome reputation and the trepidation with which the idea of having to fight him is treated match both versions of Hades, but unlike either one he’s also genuinely beloved by the majority of his people. Like both versions of Hades he has a wife whom he doesn’t see much, and like the Hadestown version specifically their relationship is extremely strained, although unlike Persephone who has to spend half the year with Hades and half the year away from him whether she likes it or not, Toriel and Asgore are fully estranged and have lived at exact opposite ends of the Underground ever since the deaths of their children, which hit them both hard in tragically incompatible ways. Even there, though, like in Hadestown, there’s a hint at the end of the True Pacifist storyline of Undertale that the King and Queen might be en route to eventually patching up their relationship a little – maybe not to the point of remarrying, granted, but they are shown both happily working at the same school in the True Pacifist end credits. There’s a lot of Ancient Greek Hades in Asgore’s bland normalcy and surprising decency – one of the most affecting sequences in the game is when you finally reach his castle and discover that his innermost sanctum is laid out like a normal middle-class house, grey-hued, simply decorated with family pictures and vases of flowers that he grows himself in a carefully tended personal garden which can only be fairly described as ‘Elysian’ in its aesthetic, and in which you find him, a sad old gentle giant, watering his plants, genuinely pained by his feeling of obligation that he must fight you to the death, wishing he could offer you some tea, and patiently waiting for however long it takes until you feel ready to initiate the fight. At the same time, though, unlike Ancient Greek Hades and more like the Hades of Hadestown, it cannot really be argued that Asgore isn’t a villain. He has committed himself to gathering the seven human souls he needs to become powerful enough to break the Barrier keeping him and his people sealed away in the Underground, and by the time Frisk meets him he’s already murdered six human children who fell into his domain in order to claim their souls for this purpose. Toriel even points out that, if he really felt these murders were justified by his cause, he could have used the power from just the first one to get himself through the Barrier and out into the human world where he would at least have been able to gather souls from people who weren’t children, but ultimately he was both too ashamed to pursue his evil plan so proactively and too cowardly to just drop the evil plan entirely, dooming himself to an indefinite miserable existence of waiting for children to fall into his world so he can murder them. It’s worth noting that, while the Underground isn’t comparable to Hell in the way that Hadestown is, Asgore is nonetheless compared to Satan by his own visual design: horns, goatee, red cape, fights with a big fork. In something like a parallel to Hadestown’s Hades initially refusing to hear Orpheus before eventually being worn down anyway, Asgore – in one of the game’s other most affecting images – opens his boss fight (in all the playthroughs where the player actually fights him at all) by using that fork to physically destroy the ‘MERCY’ button on the onscreen interface that the player uses to nonviolently resolve combat, and must therefore be fought the old-fashioned way – only to fall to his knees, exhausted and hurt but alive, once his health bar is depleted enough, allowing Frisk to prove their Orpheus-like dedication in the face of impossible odds by piecing the broken MERCY button back together and giving the player the option, at last, to spare the big guy. And, as it happens, this version of the game’s storyline – the ‘Pacifist Neutral’ ending where you never kill anyone but don’t quite befriend enough people to avoid having to physically beat Asgore into submission before you can spare him – is the one that really clinches for me the feeling of parallels between Undertale and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially in the Hadestown telling, although it requires taking a slightly less literalistic view of the bit that comes next.

The interesting thing about the Orpheus story, and one of the things Hadestown draws attention to with its boss-fight-y way of structuring things, is that Hades isn’t the, as it were, ‘final boss’. The final boss is Orpheus himself. The final opponent he has to overcome to achieve his win-condition of restoring Eurydice to life is his own instincts. He has to master his own doubt and fear long enough to reach the exit. Keep calm. Keep walking. Keep cool. Don’t panic. Don’t turn around. And, because this story is a tragedy, and because it’s a story about loss and grief and mourning, the final boss fight is a fight he loses.

In the original myth, it’s unclear whether his failure really came from an inability to conquer himself, or whether it was more just the cruelties of fate (maybe of the Fates, this being Greek mythology). It’s arguably more like he missed the fine print, or he failed to notice a key detail – i.e., that Eurydice being behind him means that even when he’s out it might be a few more seconds until she is. And maybe it’s some kind of twist or slip-up like that had to happen, in some cosmic sense, because fate or the Fates don’t allow for dead people to come back to life. But at the same time, while it might not be made explicit, it’s easy to interpret this as a failed internal battle on Orpheus’s part – i.e., that Orpheus missed the (kind of obvious, if you just stop and think about it) necessity of waiting a few extra seconds precisely because he failed to master his own will and keep his cool: the silent walk out of the Underworld while keeping his eyes fixed dead-ahead unnerved him, and by the end of it he was so rattled that he jumped (or rather, spun) at the chance for this ordeal to finally be over – acting on instinct rather than keeping a handle on his emotions and thinking rationally. Hadestown definitely goes with the latter interpretation, and doubles down on it in a way that makes it very clear that this is a boss fight just like all the others: Orpheus is shown to be plagued by doubts (represented, as always in this musical, by the Fates) about whether this is a trick and whether Eurydice is really following him, and he tries to convince himself to stick with the plan the same way he tried to convince Eurydice to marry him or Persephone to help him or Hades to let him go: he sings. But while he was able to find a song that worked on Eurydice, and one that worked on Persephone, and even (though it took him most of his life to compose) a song that works on Hades, he isn’t able to find a song that works on himself. In spite of his singing, he falters, and he turns, and Eurydice is doomed. By failing at this final challenge – this final boss – it is then as if Orpheus is locked out of the best ending, to continue the video game analogy. The ending he gets isn’t a total disaster – Persephone is better now than she was, which means the climate will likely mellow out and the surface world may have been saved; Hades has had his heart softened enough that it’s possible he may yet change for the better too; and the worker’s union might, perhaps, survive to make Hadestown a better place – but he’s stuck in Game Over without the 100% completion reward he was after: Eurydice’s freedom.

Undertale, being actually a video game and not just a musical that’s kinda structured like one, leaves it up to the player’s actions which ending Frisk gets – and unlike Hadestown, whose ending seems really rather harsh after everything, all but the very worst of the endings do actually involve Frisk achieving their primary stated goal, which was simply to leave the Underground and go home. But, on the ‘Pacifist Neutral’ route specifically, there is, like for Orpheus, one more challenge after overcoming the King of the underworld realm, and it culminates in an opportunity for the player to have Frisk, in a subtler and more symbolic sense, turn around and worsen the ending. Throughout the entire game, Frisk and the player are periodically tricked, mocked, belittled and generally treated with unreasonable cruelty by Flowey the Flower – starting from literally the second room in the game where he fakes an in-game tutorial just so he can surprise Frisk by attempting to murder them. Flowey is the antithesis of the game’s pacifist message, a gleeful believer in the philosophy of ‘kill or be killed’, and all-around a breathtaking sadist. In a game which goes out of its way to argue that no-one is uniformly good or uniformly evil and where no character is beyond redemption, where every villain turns out to be less villainous than assumed, Flowey is the nearest thing to an exception. Technically he does get something of a redemption arc in the very best, ‘True Pacifist’, ending, and in the very worst ending he is ironically outdone at his own game by the player, but on any other playthrough it is guaranteed that Flowey will be, from start to finish, nothing but a nuance-free, utterly hateful bastard whose very existence is a threat. And, predictably enough, after the fight with Asgore in any one of the game’s Neutral storyline variants, Flowey reveals himself to be the real villain of the piece and the real final boss, murdering Asgore, absorbing the six souls Asgore had already gathered, thereby becoming something close to a god, and using his newfound power to essentially murder Frisk over and over until Frisk and the player are able to beat him (in addition to everything else, Undertale is a video game about what it’s like to be a character in a video game, so gameplay deaths are actually canon in-story – honestly, there is so much to this game, you guys; I’ve barely scratched the surface here). Flowey’s power at this point is such that he essentially has control of the game mechanics themselves, so his boss fight one-ups Asgore’s by making it not only impossible to try to reason with him but also impossible to fight, or do anything but dodge his attacks as best one can – until the human child souls he absorbed start to rebel from within him, and by working together with Frisk and the player they are able to break free and depower him, leaving him finally as a half-crushed, powerless flower, the last thing in the path between Frisk and freedom. And at this point, finally restored of their ability to fight and to show mercy, Frisk and the player are faced with this particular playthrough’s final choice: kill Flowey while they have the chance, finally putting an end to his hate, or spare him. It’s so easy to justify killing him at this point. He’s defenceless and no longer attacking at that moment, so killing him would be murder. But he’s done everything he could to make you want him dead, both for the catharsis and as just rational threat-neutralisation. And just to drive it home, if you do try to spare him, he rebuffs your mercy and starts mocking you. He is, more or less literally, asking for it. If the player has been doing a pacifist run thus far, this moment is essentially a final test of the extent of Frisk’s pacifism. They can stay on the path they were on, eyes front, not looking back, and just keep on choosing mercy, and if they do then, eventually, Flowey breaks down and runs away, confused and humiliated and beaten. It’s very, very satisfying. But to get there, Frisk has to stay on that path and not look back. In the moment, it’s very tempting to have Frisk finally, here at the very literal exit to the Underground, turn around. Turn their back on the pacifist run and just quietly crush the damn flower. And if you do, it’s not so satisfying. Your ending is made, just marginally, worse, if you kill Flowey. As he dies, he grins. “I knew you had it in you,” he says. If you turn around at the last second and kill Flowey, you prove Flowey’s “kill or be killed” worldview right, at least in his own mind. He counts it as a win. And given how much of a total bastard Flowey was, him feeling like he won most likely makes the player feel like, in some sense, somehow, they lost. Frisk still gets what they wanted. They escape the Underground. But they lose something on their way out, just like Orpheus. They don’t lose a lover, but they lose part of themself. They entered the Underground as an innocent child, and – at the last second – they left it as a murderer.

One last thing, which I didn’t mention before, is that Undertale is actually designed such that it’s not possible to complete the True Pacifist storyline on a first playthrough. The event to fully befriend Alphys doesn’t trigger unless you’ve already reached one of the other endings. The Pacifist Neutral ending is the best, happiest ending it’s possible to get, the first time the game is played. And if the player had Frisk kill Flowey at the very end, they might never actually realise that there is any better ending to be found (I mean, unless they, you know, looked online at all, obviously). If Flowey is spared, however, there’s a sort of post-ending scene where he hints at what the player would need to do to complete the True Pacifist storyline, which, if the player reloads their save and follows his hints correctly, leads to unambiguously the best ending of the game: nobody dies (not even Asgore); Flowey actually gets redeemed, at least for the immediate future; the Barrier actually gets destroyed permanently; and all of Frisk’s new friends are able to escape the Underground with them and reintegrate into the surface world. Chara and Asriel are still dead, of course (more or less – Flowey actually has all of Asriel’s memories, which is how it was possible to redeem him), because like any good Orphic story this story is about grief and the things it does, and the last stage of grief, after the bargaining with Hades and the depression of looking back and finding yourself alone again, is a final acceptance of those losses that it’s too late to change. But the scars left by their deaths are able to heal, and their loved ones (Asgore and Toriel most prominently) who were previously unable to move past their grief – trapped in their own little world of dead shades, like an Orpheus unwilling to leave the Underworld for fear of losing Eurydice – finally manage to mentally return to the land of the living just as they and their people are finally able to physically leave Underground for the surface.

There have been a lot of retellings of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hadestown acknowledges this in the narration songs by Hermes, who in addition to his character role also functions as a Greek chorus (who is, incidentally, actually Greek and sings actual choruses). He tells the audience right at the start, and reminds them again at the end, that the tale he’s telling is an old one, and a sad one, but he feels the need to tell it anyway. No explanation for why Hermes would feel the need to keep telling and retelling endless variants on this one story is ever given, except for one half-unfinished thought in his opening song: “Somebody’s got to tell the tale, whether or not it turns out well, and maybe it will turn out, this time…” While he never expands on this, it implies the interesting idea that Hermes hopes that, by retelling this story again and again, he can somehow make it end well this time. As if he hopes he can find some way to make this story work with a happy ending, if only he keeps telling it enough. Undertale is a story that might just prove that Hermes could have been onto something there. It’s a story that doesn’t ever quite turn out well on the first telling, although it can get very close if the player makes the right choices in guiding how the tale should turn out. But if the player is willing to let it be told again – and especially if they got the protagonist to keep their eyes front and not turn from their difficult path on the previous telling – then Undertale can end with the very end-state that Orpheus never managed once in any of the tellings of his story: Frisk can walk freely out of the Underground, and everyone they love can follow them out, no tragic twists, no strings attached.

Technically, Almost None of Us have Seen the Original ‘Star Wars’

[First published on Facebook on 19/12/2017]


Bold claim, I know. Bear with me.

It’s a pity that The Recent Discourse has made it controversial to even talk about the fact that the concept of “Star Wars redefining what Star Wars is/means” is somehow literally as old as Star Wars itself, because it’s honestly a pretty fascinating discussion with a lot of useful insights into the nature of contextual readings and how an audience imposes its external knowledge and assumptions onto a text and thereby changes the meaning.

Like, all of the following are just some of the pieces of external knowledge that MASSIVELY change how a modern audience interprets the text of the original Star Wars, compared to how it would have been interpreted by the original fans at the time:

  • The film itself is part of a series. (And therefore the story isn’t just meant to be over by the end, it can be assumed that the Empire largely survives the destruction of their superweapon, and that medal ceremony is taking place while there is still a war on that the Rebels are very far from wining).
  • Darth Vader is Luke’s father (the original, of course, presents him as Luke’s father’s murderer, making their conflict personal for very different reasons).
  • Leia is Luke’s sister (rather famously, it was initially assumed she was his love interest).
  • Leia and Han like each other (seriously, there is no evidence for this in the original. If anything, they visibly hate each other.)
  • The Emperor is also a Force user.
  • There’s such thing as a Sith (as opposed to it just being that Vader was one isolated case of a Jedi who went bad).
  • Good guys can use telekinesis (for real – the original implies telekinesis is a power only Vader has. Obi-Wan never uses it even where it would be useful.)
  • Skywalkers are important (according to the original, Luke’s father was just some Jedi who died. Not an especially important Jedi, just “one of the various Jedi that used to be around”.)
  • Darth Vader is the Emperor’s apprentice (the original seems to imply that Tarkin is the Emperor’s overambitious Number Two and protégé, with Vader extremely limited in how much he’s allowed to challenge Tarkin.)
  • Darth Vader is cunning (in the original he’s mostly just a strong, dumb, scary grunt; the cunning bad guy is, again, Tarkin.)
  • The Empire has held essentially total dominion over the galaxy for a while now (Vader actually mentions that the Emperor only just recently got around to disbanding the Senate, implying that his power-grab happened within at least the last year. The logical interpretation of Leia is therefore that she was actually a feudal ruler until fairly recently, or else her father was).
  • Vader survives the ending.
  • The Force is a vaguely eastern-philosophy thing (in the original, all the cultural touchstones used are if anything Arthurian. The Force is a holy magic accessible by wise Paladins of a chivalrous order which allows them to strike true in battle and sense what is in the minds/hearts of others.)
  • Obi-Wan is not the last of his kind. Yoda exists.
  • Vader is capable of redemption and not just a 2D avatar of evil.

We cannot un-know these things, any more than the original audience could have known them. We are going into this thing primed to read almost every scene at least a little bit differently than how it would have been read before this additional knowledge was available.

We are essentially at this point watching a different movie to the one that was watched by the first generation of fans. That is all at once fascinating, inspiring and unsettling.

Love is Like Two Vast and Trunkless Legs of Stone

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and rootless roses red

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half-sunk, a blue-hued violet lies, now dead,

Whose damaged leaves and petals, roughly fanned,

Show that the breeder well those bouquets knew

That this was some great imitation of –

The roses red, the violets blue of hue.

And on the broken vase, these words appear:

‘My Name is Valentine, the Saint of Love.

Look on my Day, ye Lovelorn, and Despair!’

Nothing beside remains – ’round the decay

Of those colossal plants, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A Typical Scene from my Life as a Literary Pedant

[Originally published on Facebook on 26/12/2015]


Me, educating children: “You’re probably assuming the monster is the titular Frankenstein. This is actually a common misconception. The title refers to the scientist. The actual monster is, as usual, capitalism.”

Children, refusing to be educated: “Dad, who is this guy and why was he hiding in our room?”

Me, being dragged out: “WAKE UP, COMERADE CHILDREN! DO NOT MISTAKE THESE AGENTS OF THE BOURGEOISIE FOR YOUR ALLIES! THE PEOPLE’S FLAG IS DEEPE-“

[Door Slam]

Official Disney Princesses, Ranked by How Much of Their Onscreen Time They Actually Spend Living as a Princess

  • Merida –  initially the only official member of the Disney Princess line-up that is actually living as a princess for the full duration of her on-film appearance. 10/10
  • Moana – it’s a little unclear whether her people consider her a princess or not, but if they do she retains the rank throughout the story. 10/10, with caveats.
  • Jasmine – briefly stripped of her princesshood when Jafar uses magic to transfer her family’s royalty to himself (at which point her social rank is functionally that of a slave). 9/10
  •  Anna – ascends to the rank of queen at the end of her second film. 9/10
  • Ariel – effectively disowns her royal family and has a brief stint living as a mute human vagrant and then princess-to-be, in self-imposed exile, before her reconciliation with her father; becomes a queen in the sequel. 8/10
  • Aurora – seen as a baby princess in the prologue, then lives in exile and unaware as a peasant until she comes of age; technically she’s living as a princess during the time she’s asleep though. 7/10
  • Cinderella – an unacknowledged aristocrat until her marriage at the end of the first movie; spends the entire second movie as a princess; then gets un-princessed again after the prologue of the third; then re-princessed again at the end. 6/10
  • Elsa – ascends to the rank of queen after the (admittedly long) prologue of her first film, but then appears as a princess again in flashback in the second one. 5/10
  • Snow White – living in exile as a peasant for most of the film; only an acknowledged princess briefly at the very start and again upon marrying the prince at the end. 4/10
  • Rapunzel – briefly seen as a baby princess, but living unaware as a peasant for most of the film before her eventual return to her family. 4/10
  • Belle – a peasant until her marriage. 3/10
  • Tiana – working class and/or an amphibian for most of the film – and afterwards only technically a princess through marriage to an impoverished and possibly disowned prince. 2/10
  • Pocahontas – debatable, as a Native American chief is arguably of equivalent social rank to a European king, making her effectively a princess, but she does not use the title and the sequel makes it clear that, when she is briefly made to live as a princess, she doesn’t like it; so she is otherwise discounted here out of respect for her life choices. 1/10
  • Mulan – a bog-standard soldier, then an Imperial Counsellor, eventually marries an implied nobleman, never actually makes it as high as princess, clearly only on the roster to make it a little less overpoweringly white. 0/10

Honorable Mentions:

  • Esmeralda – was removed from the line-up in 2004, presumably because someone noticed she was never a princess (how exactly they justified kicking her out while retaining Mulan is unknown). 0/10
  • Megara – technically becomes a princess upon her offscreen marriage to Hercules who is, after all, the son of the King of the Gods, but is otherwise possibly the lowest-ranked Disney heroine, spending most of the film as a slave; occasionally makes a guest appearance in the Disney Princess franchise, but isn’t officially a member. 2/10
  • Giselle – is actually a princess according to the film’s villain but doesn’t seem to be aware of it, however she only occasionally makes a guest appearance in the Disney Princess franchise, isn’t officially a member, and her film isn’t even part of the Disney Animated Canon. 1/10
  • Vanellope von Schweetz – is a homeless outcast until her game’s code gets repaired, then remains a princess for all of about a minute before dissolving the monarchy. Not part of the Disney Princess franchise, but there’s a pretty great bit in her sequel movie where she does interact with them. 1/10
  • Other 0/10 non-princess Disney heroines (Jane, Wendy, Alice, Tinker Bell, etc) occasionally make guest appearances in the princess franchise also.
  • Eilonwy – not part of the Disney Princess franchise for some reason, despite being a princess for the full duration of her film. 10/10
  • Kida – not part of the Disney Princess franchise for some reason, despite being a princess for most of her first film, ascending to the rank of queen on her father’s death and remaining as such for the sequel. 8/10
  • Kiara – not part of the Disney Princess franchise for some reason, possibly due to a ban on sapient lions, but is a princess for the full duration of her film. 10/10
  • Melody – not part of the Disney Princess franchise, possibly because her mother is in there already so it would be a bit weird; nonetheless is a princess for the full duration of her film. 10/10
  •  AquataAndrinaAristaAttinaAdella, and Alana – unambiguous princesses from a Disney Princess film, but not official Disney Princesses because they’re essentially bit-parts in a film about their sister. 10/10
  • Mei, Su and Ting-Ting – unambiguous princesses from a sequel to a Disney Princess film, but not official Disney Princesses. 10/10
  • Charlotte la Bouf – apparently counts as a princess for the duration of Mardi Gras because her father is the King of the Mardi Gras parade, and that’s good enough for the laws of magic. Otherwise, she’s upper middle class. 1/10
  • Tiger Lily – weirdly the only major heroine in Peter Pan not to be considered for the Disney Princess franchise, despite being the only one who actually is arguably a princess due to her father’s position as Chief (and unlike Pocahontas, she seems to accept the title so far as we know); possibly left out to avoid reminding people how astonishingly racist her tribe’s depiction is. 10/10 with caveats.
  • Sofia the First – not actually part of the Disney Animated Canon but possibly still an honorary part of the Disney Princess franchise due to significant character overlap; either way she’s only a princess after her commoner mother remarries. 7/10

Interestingly, Merida and Moana – the only 10/10 princesses actually recognised as such by the Disney Princess franchise – are also the only official Disney princesses not to be based off of a character from any pre-existing, non-Disney story. They’re also two of only three not to have an onscreen love-interest (alongside Elsa).

Also, not related but an amusing fact I wanted to shoehorn in here: so far as I can recall, only two of the official Disney princesses have ever canonically killed someone: Tiana has a body count of one; Mulan has a body count somewhere in the thousands.

I like how a lot of Greek Myth sounds like it was made up on the spot by someone uninterested.

[First published on Facebook on 26/12/2019]



“Where did the Minotaur COME from?”

“Um… a human and a bull loved each other very much.”

“…how did THAT work?”

“The human had a very convincing cow costume.”

“But… why?”

“Cursed ”

“By who?”

“Gods.”

“For what?”

“Stealing.”

“Stealing WHAT?”

“…The cow.”