Fairy Tale Contract Law

Welcome to Part 7 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Kathleen Jennings as moderator, Sascha Stronach and AJ Lancaster. The panel description was as follows:

Our panellists consider various bargains made in fairy tales and fairy tale fantasy, and what that means for the laws of the land of fables: How could Rumpelstiltskin’s contract been enforced? What court could hold Jack (of Beanstalk fame) guilty of trespassing? When does a promise become a curse, or a quest a contract?

I love fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and creating my own, so when I saw this panel was going to happen, I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

Who Makes The Rules?

When reading fairy tales, it can be rather nebulous to determine if a law is intrinsic or something instituted by a peoples.

The power dynamic is sometimes part of the story. Who knows the rules and can enforce them (Baba Yaga or Rumplestiltskin)?

In folk horror, the rules are unclear, and the rules will come and bite you. In fantasy, the rules typically come from the author or the rulers, something a little more knowable.

Although?

The punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

Like a force of nature itself. Fairy tale contracts are a way of reassuring people — if they follow the rules, they’ll be safe.

But, the saving grace of fairy tale law is there is usually a loophole. The petty details are what keeps the capricious being from completely destroying you.

Consent Matters

While in the modern era, a contract cannot be legally binding if the signer doesn’t understand it, that rule is clearly not true in fairy tale law. Perhaps, fairy law represents a shift in culture… whether one’s word is something that can be trusted?

However, the fairies can’t demand something for nothing. In order for it to be a contract, no matter how capricious it seems, the fairy has to have given you something. This is why folks are warned not to eat or drink anything in the fae realms.

No matter how ignorant of the rules the victim of fairy tale contract law might be, the mortal has usually done something to — consciously or not — agree to the contract.

Even if they don’t believe in it themselves: think of Sarah in the movie, Labyrinth, bargaining her little brother away.

One way to get trapped is either making false claims, or having someone make them on your behalf, such as the woman in Rumpelstiltskin. Her father’s claim that she could spin straw into gold started the whole mess and dragged the titular character into the story.

But? Cheating can get you out. While the fairy folk might rant and stomp until they stomp their way out of the mortal realm, they can’t deny your win. Likely because they cheated you into this contract in the first place. But, by doing the impossible, the character is shown to deserve their prize.

Common Tropes

Firstborns are often promised in fairy tales — perhaps as a way of winning back land that the humans stole from the fairy folk? With these tales being written in a time when the first born often was the sole (or primary) inheritor.

The youngest — of three, or seven, or nine usually — is typically the one to save the day. Because, in a time where the firstborn inherits, by the time you get to the last-born, they’re expected to get by on nothing but their wits.


While fairy tale contract law can be cruel and capricious, one can usually escape if you follow the rules, and think outside the box.

What are your favorite fairy tales? What loopholes have stuck with you?

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Appeal of Portal Fantasy

Portal fantasy has always been popular. From tales of fairy circles to Narnia, we’ve always enjoyed watching people from familiar places enter fantastic realms.

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Seanan McGuire, Vina Prasad, Genevieve Cogman, and Kathryn Sullivan discussed what it was about portal fantasy that kept people coming back for more.

What Is Portal Fantasy?

In a portal fantasy, the main character is transported from our world to another. This allows us to see the new world through the eyes of someone with our context. (NOTE: The Japanese version is called: Isekai )

Usually, the protagonist is either young and/or dissatisfied with their life and looking for an escape.

But, the portal to go home has to be hard to reach. If it’s like flipping a button, it’s just a story about someone who lives in two (or more) worlds.

But aren’t portal fantasies just big fairytales?

Well, while fairytales are a subset of folklore, in those, you know where the portal world is and how to access it. And you choose to go there (or at least risk it).

Portal fantasies, you stumble into, and you have to find out the rules as you go along.

Introductions to Portal Fantasies

  • Most of the 80s cartoons
  • Doctor Who
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Digimon
  • Narnia
  • own daydreams
  • John Carter of Mars
  • Irish Mythology
  • Dante’s Inferno

Favorite Portal Fantasy Tropes

  • When the main character tries to introduce something they know from their own world that seems obvious… and then finds out WHY things were the way they were.
  • The kids who go through the portal are never the cool or popular kids. It’s the weird kids. And? Whatever the kids’ weirdness is, that weirdness is the reason they succeed in the portal world.

What is the Appeal of Portal Fantasy?

  • Wish fulfillment – one day, as a kid, you wake up and realize that you’re not actually going to become a unicorn/space princess
  • Being the one with the answers – you go into the fantasy world knowing so much more about technology and mechanicals possibilities, that you can actually change society.
  • Different expectations – in a fantasy world, they can value something that is a detriment, or that nobody cares about in the real world
  • Teaching the value of home/what you already have – Sometimes, home sucks and you’re better off elsewhere. But, for most of us, being reminded to look at what we have helps us see, with all our struggles and issues, it’s not that bad.

Are you a fan of portal fantasy?

What are your favorite portal fantasies?
How do people get them right… and how do people get them wrong?

Let me know in the comments below and join me next week, for more writing tips and writerly musings
.

CSI: Fantasy Edition

When you’re writing a story, there’s usually SOMETHING the main character doesn’t know and has to figure out. Sometimes, it’s what someone else is thinking. It could be, where to find the mcguffin? But often? There’s a whole mystery to solve! With a body growing cold.

At Balticon53, Gail Martin, Kim TheComicBookGoddess, David Keener, and Keith DeCandido, lead by their moderator, and retired Baltimore detective, John L. French discussed the fun and peculiarities of dealing with investigation — fantasy-style!

The Principles of Forensics

No investigation should begin without the principle of that grandfather of forensics, Dr. Edmond Locard*. His exchange principle states that “every contact leaves a trace.”

Once an incident has been found, if there is any suspicion that it was not natural in cause, two jobs have been left for an investigator.

  1. Document the scene
  2. Find evidence that conclusively leads to the culprit

Determining cause of death – fantasy style

These days, everyone’s an amateur detective buff. Things we take for granted — from fingerprints to blood splatter patterns to autopsies were not accepted until the 1900s. In your fantasy world, you should make sure that your detectives don’t use techniques they have no reason to know.

For those violent crimes? Well.

With a body? Just like in real life, if a death cannot be determined to be a homicide, the investigation usually ends right there. Either marked down as “natural causes” or “undetermined.”

Without even a body? Well, before the modern era, it was common for people to go missing. Some were restarting their lives elsewhere — voluntarily or not. And others weren’t so lucky.

Of course, in a violent world, mercenaries, soldiers, and professional killers, (not to mention medical personnel) would have reason to know the appearance of common wounds or effects of their standard weapons (or magics or poisons).

Plus, with magic, depending on your world, you could find out a lot.

  • In worlds with necromancy, you could simply raise a murdered person and ask, or at least have the body lead you to the killer.
  • In worlds with sympathetic magic, the weapon or some left item could act as a compass to direct you to the killer or thief.
  • In worlds with trauma-based illusion spells, you could have an instant replay of the scene.

Ways The Panelists Use Magic In Their Detecting

Not all of our panelists have written detectives, but they all had good pointers or examples. And reminded us, even if you have magic, it’s a better story when it comes with complications of its own.

Keith – His world has a wizard (or 2) who have mastered a ‘peel-back spell’, that can show what happened. Given no audience, the wizard gets there before it’s been too long, and has the energy to cast the spell. And things done in the shadows… remain in the shadows.

Gail – Her world has necromancy, so she can find her leads! But, she can’t let the cops know how she knows what she knows.

Kim – Reminded us that homicide detectives have to be the smartest, because their victim is dead.

David – His world has magicians who can pull memories from both the living and the dead — only, the dead’s memories are often fragmented.

John – As a real life detective reminded us that when looking for motive, often, a homicide is merely an assault gone too far.


All-in-all, a dynamic and fun panel, that I wished could have covered more. Do you have any tips of the trade that our panelists didn’t get a chance to mention? Share them in the comments below.

Thank you for tuning in, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips from my over-24-hours-of-Balticon53-programming to share!


*My notes literally had Picard Licard, not Dr. Edmund Locard. I thought that he actually had a rhyming name, and wasn’t sure it wasn’t actually just Captain Picard theorizing on the holodeck. Thank you google for correcting me.