Hargot Sneak Peak: "It's a Kind of Magic"
I have a few good luck charms; little externalized pieces of myself that I don’t like to leave my apartment without. There’s my snapback and my heart-shaped sunglasses, which I like to have on me even if it’s too dark for them to be of any use. There’s my purse, a little faux leather number shaped like a typewriter. It’s falling apart, the strap held on with a combination of twist ties and frayed yarn, but it’s far too important to me to trade in for something more practical. Each of them represents a sort of outward manifestation of my self-conception and help me to hold on to a sense of consistent identity when my self doubt makes that a tall order indeed. Chief among these trinkets is the necklace I wear. At first glance it might not appear to be anything spectacular; to most people, even a closer look might not yield anything remarkable. It’s a scuffed silver pendant, about the size of a quarter, and engraved on it is the phrase “I still believe in 398.2.” If you’re a hardcore library junkie, that might mean something to you, but for the uninitiated, “398.2” is the Dewey Decimal designation for fairy tales.
Now, fairy tales are funny things. Much like the Good People who lend them their name, they’re slippery little buggers, flippant little tricksters that caper and dance around the heart and mind. Often times they’re downright mean-spirited, but the fact remains that couched within each tale is a certain essential truth. The truths found in fairy tales are rarely as simple as the tales themselves, and usually have little to do with the story’s moral. These truths are little fragments of mirror, glimpses of ourselves upon which it is far too easy to slip and draw blood.
However, if one arranges those jagged pieces into a whole, you find something altogether more heartening. You see the overarching truth that links those slivers and shards together: There’s magic in this odd old world. All you have to do is peer into this looking glass and see it.
I remember vividly the first time I stopped believing in magic. I was in first grade, and already I had began to run into many of the problems that would plague me throughout my entire public schooling journey. Even at that age I was already a socially awkward ball of anxiety, though it wouldn’t be diagnosed as such until years later. Then I was simply a ‘problem child’, the panic attacks I would suffer at school given the embarrassing label of ‘meltdowns’. As a child (and, I admit, the feeling still pops up to this day), I often felt as if I were wearing an invisible dunce cap, a reminder that I was an inconvenience to the world around me, and that I damn well better be aware of that fact.
Thusly, I ended up in the office of a psychiatrist or psychologist or some sort of mental health -ist. In my mental scrapbook he looks exactly like Dr. Phil, who my Nana watched with religious devotion, though that’s likely just one of the mind’s little tricks of memory, casting a familiar face to fill in a faceless gap. I sat in his office, chipper and animated. Though I was already well acquainted with anxiety around my peers at school, I was universally open and trusting around adults. I was a bright kid, and I often found myself much more capable of holding interesting conversations with grown ups than with children my age. I didn’t know exactly why I was there, but I didn’t care. Here was someone who listened and seemed interested in what I had to say.
At some point during the session, he pulled a ballpoint pen from the pocket of his lapel and looked down at me with what I’m now sure must have been a sterile mockery of a smile. “This,” he said, “is my magic pen. It grants wishes. All you have to do is click the button and say your wish out loud, and I promise it will come true.”
Of course, I took the pen with reverence and wonder. It was as if someone had handed me Aladdin’s lamp. I did as he said, stating my wish aloud. I remember it clearly, what I said that day, though I’d rather keep that detail to myself. It’s one of those small pieces of childhood ephemera, like a seashell you found and pocketed as you walked along the beach, that would seem silly if seen by anyone else, and so you keep them tucked into a desk drawer or on a high shelf so that they remain wholly yours. I hope you can understand and forgive this omission.
I left that office with a bounce in my step, sure that when I got home my wish would have come true. When we arrived and it did not, I kept my faith. Over the next few days I waited, and as the days bled into weeks, my expectation grew thinner and thinner until it had eroded altogether.
I look back on that now, remembering how much it hurt. It was the first time I clearly recall being lied to by an adult, though at the time the pain was much more abstract and less defined. Now, it hurts because of how unnecessary it was. It would have been so easy for him to just ask me what I would wish for. Instead I was lied to, and my world was gilded with a new cruelty.
From that day on, I regarded any sort of magic with suspicion. Even the stories in which I had believed wholeheartedly, such as Santa Claus or leprechauns, had lost some of their lustre, and though I pretended unshakeable faith in them for years to come, I think I knew then. I think I knew the moment I clicked that pen.
It was very long time before I learned to believe again.
I was friendless for most of my childhood. For a stretch of about ten years, I had no real emotional relationships with anyone my age. There were acquaintances with whom I was friendly, but I existed on the fringe, never really fitting comfortably in with my peers. This was partly due to my anxiety and the problems it caused me in school, but it’s also undeniable that I was simply a bit too odd for most kids to feel comfortable around me. I thought deeply, but often lacked the necessary social skills to manifest those thoughts in a way that made sense to those around me. On top of that, the ‘meltdowns’ I mentioned earlier branded me as something of a pariah; no one wanted to be associated with the weird kid who cried in class at seemingly arbitrary provocations. To top it off, I was always a tad on the fey side, and found myself wearing the label of faggot long before I knew what being gay meant (let alone that I would grow up to, at least in a sense, prove them right). I was, for a very long time, incontrovertibly lonely—but that’s not to say I was alone.
During those isolated years, I found emotional intimacy between the yellowed pages of books, amidst the carefully regimented ink that painted strange horizons across my mind’s eye. Books became my dearest companions, both opening doors to untold worlds and acting as gentle guides through the cruel world in which I already lived and had such difficulty in navigating. I was a voracious consumer of literature; I would read almost anything, and was devouring books far above my reading level from an early age. I read quaint little adventure stories about children my age, and I was fascinated by the glimpses of the adult world I found in the classics. In first grade I met Wells’s The Time Machine, and it became the first science fiction book I ever read. I was part of the generation weaned on Harry Potter and Magic Tree House. Indeed, it was the fantasy stories that spoke to me most clearly. There was something about magic that enticed my young mind. Even though the real world had lost that enchanted shine, in the worlds on the page, it was alive and kicking.
In second grade, I came across Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. It changed my life. It provided a darker lens through which to view the familiar swords and sorcerers with whom I was already so well acquainted. Yet it was more than that. Something about the book made it feel true in a way that other fantasy I had met up to that point, as enjoyable as it was, did not. As much as I daydreamed about attending Hogwarts or opening the closet to find a lamppost in a snowy clearing, I knew that those were only illusions. Comfortable illusions but still no more real than the pocket magic machinations of a streetside conjurer.
"...the real world had lost that enchanted shine,
in the worlds on the page, it was alive and kicking.
Something about Delain, the world of The Eyes of the Dragon, felt real in a visceral way that was unlike anything else I have ever read. It felt like it had all really happened. Not in the here and now, but somewhere out there in this weird and wide universe. I was secretly sure there was a Prince Thomas and a butler named Dennis, and that they were chasing a dark wizard named Flagg through others worlds and across peculiar skylines. In short, it was the book that made me fall in love with fairy tales. It was the kindling that gave the first spark to replace that which had been taken away in that psychiatrist’s office. For years that spark would grow no larger than an ember, but it was lit all the same.
I’m not sure how I first heard about Dungeons & Dragons. I remember being enamored by the concept. The idea that there was this sprawling playground in which I could live out a few of those fantasies, in which I could be more than the self with whom I was, the vast majority of the time, wholly dissatisfied, was enormously appealing to me. The catch was that in order to play a game, you require more than one person. This was, of course, too tall an order for my friendless little existence.
And so I contented myself with the familiar territory of fiction, spending unknowable hours sailing across paper seas in search of little islands where, for just a little bit, I could pretend that everything was okay.
“Would you mind being a wee bit gentler with that spear?” Jubilee asks. “I mean, I understand that you have to be a little rough, since you are kidnapping us, but that really—OW!” The jagged end of the pike pokes between Jubilee’s shoulder blades, and for what is perhaps the fourth time in her life, she shuts up.
Herding them through the marsh is a group of squat batrachian creatures, brandishing their crude weapons. The leader points at the gigantic frog which follows in their wake. “The next one who talks gets fed to the frog.”
Jubilee is bursting at the seams with questions, but she somehow manages to keep a lid on them, at least until they reach the village. It is a loose collection of mud mounds that might, if one was feeling charitable, be described as huts. More frog people watch with interest as the adventurers are prodded towards the center of the village. There sits the king; it’s easy to tell, because he’s the biggest and slimiest of the lot, with a yellow gemstone precariously balanced atop his head to act as a crown. Leaning forward with interest, the smattering of wives that surround him scatter.
“Well, well,” he ribbits. “What have we here?”
“Adventurers,” says the leader of the raiding party.
Jubilee starts to speak, but is met with a swift kick in the shin from Halley.
“Fools, more like,” says the king, looking them greedily up and down. “What sort of treasure did they have?”
The leader rumbles a command to the other bullywugs, who quickly place the spoils in a pile before the king. Amidst the bric a brac is a small mound of gold, an incomplete set of croquet balls, a few stoppered vials of different colored potions. Stepping forward, the leader kneels. “They also had this strange and mysterious weapon,” she says. There on her webbed palms lies a shimmery pink object—a goblin dildo that Rita had found and pocketed one the party’s very first adventure.
The king gives a loud ribbit of approval before turning to the party. “Now, then—” he begins, but his words are cut short when a fireball flies from Halley’s outstretched palms. It crashes into one of the huts, and the whole village erupts into chaos. Frogs run in every direction, bumping into each other and their houses. Soon more fireballs follow the first as Halley lets loose in every direction.
Rita looks at the king, who gives a loud croak of fear. Frantically looking for some escape, he sees none, and so grabs his nearest wife and hurls her through the air at the pirate. The wife lands dazed in the muck before hopping off to join the disorder all around.
The air seems to shake as a loud crack echoes through the village, and the maelstrom of mayhem breaks instantly. All eyes turn to the throne of muck where the king lays dead, and then to Rita, who is holding her revolver outstretched.
The bullywugs are silent for a moment, the humid air stagnant, and then one of the wives steps forward. “You killed the king.”
“Er,” Rita begins. “Yeah sorry about that—”
The bullywug continues. “That makes you the king.” The stillness breaks as celebration breaks out, leaving the sea hag uncharacteristically bemused. She is told that she has inherited nine wives and roughly a thousand step-children, and the gemstone that the old king had worn as a crown is thrust into her hands. Balancing it atop her head, she appraises her new subjects. Silence falls as she clears her throat, amphibious eyes watching with expectation from every angle.
“Today,” Rita begins, “is a historic day. Today you have been released from the tyranny of your old king—and it saddens me to say it, but your new king needs to leave you. Do not despair; though I won’t be here in person, I will be in spirit. Still, you will rebuild your village not as subjects, but as your own people. I hereby declare you free people. Free frog people. Freeple.”
Cheers rise from the crowd as the party is escorted to the edge of the village. When asked about the mysterious pink weapon, Rita leaves it to her new wives as a symbol of goodwill.
And so the party returns to their quest to find the missing dryad, ending the tale of the Emancipation of the Freeple.
Though I didn’t play D&D, a significant chunk of my childhood was spent burrowing through the supplementary novels. When I was eleven or so, I stumbled into the world of Krynn, the setting of the Dragonlance books, a campaign setting for the game that I’m pretty sure was already defunct by the time I was reading them. The books quickly became an addiction. I would check out large stacks of them from the library, zipping through them in a day a piece or so. It didn’t matter most of the books that weren’t by the main wife and husband team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were absolute tripe.
It was a world in which I was comfortable spending my days, a solace in what was probably the roughest patch of my school career. On the surface they were uncomplicated stories of good and evil. Though there were deeper layers waiting to mined if the reader so chose, I was mostly content to surf across the surface, escaping from the torment I faced from my fellow students, from my depression, from my parents’ impending divorce. Those years I spent adventuring along with the Heroes of the Lance are some of my fondest childhood memories, though I wished dearly that I could do more than act as a passive observer in these stories.
As I grew up and my tastes changed, my interest in Dragonlance waned, but I still found the idea of Dungeons & Dragons scintillating. I had no idea that, years later, it would go a long way towards saving my life.
Near the end of 2017, I decided I was going to take the express lane off the mortal coil. After a three-week stint in the hospital, I found myself back in the same old world, and all the things that had spurred me towards slitting my wrists in the first place were still there (although the hefty bill that left the ward with me acted as a significant deterrent. I still have no idea how the hell I’m gonna pay that sucker off, but hey, knowing that I literally can’t afford another suicide attempt really puts things in perspective). I began desperately looking for positive experiences to which I could cling to to stay afloat.
So when my best friend told me she was putting together a group of people to play Dungeons & Dragons every week, I leapt at the opportunity. Every member of my group is a queer woman. It cannot be understated as to how healing that sort of environment is in a world that extracts a hefty emotional toll for the simple act of being. The comfort and kinship that comes from being completely surrounded by other women from across the queer spectrum is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as safe as I do when I meet with these amazing ladies, all of whom are funny, fierce, and kind. Being around them is to be handed a key to a part of myself I’ve never before been able to open; in their presence I’m allowed to be a truer version of myself than anywhere else. To be part of such a group has been a far more effective antidepressant than any pill I’ve ever popped.
However, it goes deeper than that real life safe space; the game itself provides a world where the obstacles that I as a queer person face daily simply don’t exist. Fictional though the world in which we play may be, the power that it holds is real. Once a week, we get to exist in a space where our identities are as commonplace as the cobbles on the street or the carriages that clatter across them. The setting our dungeon master has crafted is replete with queer inhabitants of every stripe. There’s Kane, the tiefling landlord of the inn where our party stays, and Keith the snake-headed cook, both of whom just so happen to be trans. The head of the oceanic temple/local aquarium and touch pool is happily married to Kya, a lizardfolk sailor. Our druid is dating Althea Starflower, a dominatrix and powerful socialite. Though it may be mere fantasy, to our group this world is very real. It’s a place in which we can be wholly, authentically ourselves. It’s a world in which our only concerns are fighting evil snake people or rescuing baby sea serpents, not struggling to remain faithful to ourselves in a world where our identities are fraught with consequence.
"Pride is resistance..."
[Photo credit: Angela_Yuriko_Smith ; Image description: a ship at sea, surrounded by a sky full of stars]
As a trans woman in particular, the game has been instrumental in boosting my confidence and solidifying my sense of self after years of wading through the fog of my own identity and finding only more uncertainty and questions. My character, Jubilee Thistletwig, is everything I aspire to be: fearless, fiercely loyal to her friends, motivated, empathetic. She’s also the product of childhood wish fulfillment; when I was younger I always wanted to play a kender, a race from the Dragonlance setting. They’re a sort of anti-hobbit—driven by insatiable wanderlust, and incurably curious to the point that their mortality rate waterfalls right off the charts. This last fact is particularly comforting to most of the population, as kender, despite their unfailing courtesy, tend to act as pint-size cyclones, dragging chaos in their wake wherever they ramble. In the fantastical city of New Kohl Town, I know who I am without any reservations. For a few hours every week, the dysphoria and the doubt melts away as I settle into the groove of being someone who does not have to worry about who she sees when she looks in the mirror.
“An absolute pleasure to meet all of you,” says the marid in a smooth voice. “I’m Eugine. You all look a little worse for wear. Why don’t I just fix you up, hmm?”
With a snap of his fingers, the party finds that they are fully recovered from their battles on the floor below. The damage done by the suits of armor and the giant tree is seeped away, leaving them all feeling rested and relaxed—except for Thomasin, who eyes the djinn with distrust.
“What’s the catch?” she asks.
“The catch. There’s always a catch.”
“Oh,” says the marid, “there’s the matter of payment, of course. But ‘catch’ is rather crass, don’t you think?”
“Just stop the bullshit and tell us what you want,” snaps Thomasin.
“Of course,” says the marid, his lip curling cruelly. “Nothing of any consequence, really—a memory should do. But not just any memory. An important one. I’ll take it, and you’ll lose all recollection of it. I think that sounds like a fair deal, don’t you?”
Jubilee looks at each member of the party, and then steps forward, offering the marid a cheerful smile. “I’ll do it,” she says. “I forget important things all the time. Go ahead, take whatever you want. I probably wouldn’t remember it anyway.”
Before the marid can respond, Rita steps forward. “I’ve got something better,” she says.
“Oh?” asks the marid, intrigued. “And what would that be?” He probes into Rita’s mind, probing, and his eyebrows raise in surprise. “Oh. Oh. Yes, I think that will do quite nicely. That is delicious.”
As he reaches into the sea hag’s mind, she feels an odd sensation as the memory leaves her mind. It is the recollection of killing and eating her human parents after her transformation into the monster she is now, and as it fades into nothing, so does the last scrap of regret she has carried all these years. She is finally without any inhibition or remorse.
“Now,” says the marid, “if that’s all…”
“Oh!” says Jubilee, perking up. “Do you think you could, y’know, magic me up a soft pretzel?”
“Of course,” says the marid, and Jubilee is delighted as it appears before her.
“Wowzers! So, do you need a memory from me too?”
“No,” says the marid, his lip again twisting into a satisfied sneer. “Let’s just say that you owe me… a favor.”
As the marid fades away, the newest member of the party, an elven rogue named Mario Paprika, leans in towards Halley. “So, uh… is this how things always are with you guys?
Halley simply gives a deep sigh, rolls her eyes, and heads towards the next room.
Now, for those of you not in the know, D&D has undergone something of a renaissance over the last few years—that is to say, it’s been completely overrun by queer folks. It’s become extremely popular with members of every group across our rainbow alphabet soup, particularly among women and femme-aligned folks.
It’s interesting that we’ve taken something often associated with the toxic masculinity so prevalent in mainstream nerd culture and made it our own, but perhaps not surprising. After all, role playing games provide an outlet in which LGBTQ+ folks can simply exist without the friction that comes with being a queer person in real life. Of particular note is the way that queers play the game tend to subvert the traditional roles present courtesy of it being a descendent of Eurocentric high fantasy courtesy of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien. Fantasy as a genre is built around a mythologizing the world around us. When one looks at the current trend of queer D&D players, what we see emerging is a new mythology, one not intended or foreseen by those that created the game. Where the official rules might state that orcs are chaotic evil creatures, queer players are likely to look at these sorts of generalizations and chuck them right out the window in favor of a more nuanced exploration of these traditional fantasy tropes. Why wouldn’t we when we ourselves have been mythologized by mainstream culture as monsters? Why would the marginalized not empathize with the monstrous?
In this new mythology, we’re carving out places for ourselves in which we can exist in equilibrium with our identities. Where pride does not need to be a shield to protect us from the harmful attitudes that pervade our lives, but instead can exist unfettered. Fundamentally, Pride is resistance. In a world whose edges are often so sharp, a world where misery is all too often our mistress, I believe that joy is the simplest form of resistance. In these realms of fantasy and fairy tales, we find a safe haven where we are allowed to be without reservation, where the struggles we face are the sorts of adventures we read about as children. This new mythology is defined by radical joy.
The bond I have with my group is unlike anything else I’ve ever felt. The camaraderie that arises from building a new world together, a world in which we are allowed to revel in the honesty of our own being, is powerful and potent.
And if that isn’t real magic, then I don’t know what is.
V.F. Thompson is a Mid Michigan-based writer of odd curiosities and curious oddities. Though she lives mostly in the realm of fantasy, she occasionally dabbles in real life. When not writing, she enjoys comic books, trying new recipes, and a well-brewed cup of Earl Grey. She currently resides in Kalamazoo, which she assures you is a real place. Follow her on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.