Have you ever wondered how to respond when a strange man on the street offers you six magic beans in exchange for the family cow? Are you unclear on how one survives encounters with witches, dragons, giants, and worst of all, pixies? Then the Fairy Tale and Ballad Survival FAQ is exactly what you need to keep you alive long enough to get to "happily ever after." From elves and gnomes to magic mirrors and enchanted princesses, we'll try to address your biggest concerns.
As with all magical spells, results are not guaranteed. Enter the deep dark woods at your own risk.
Once upon a time...
Before you can be helped through the fairy tale or ballad in which you are trapped, we must first determine whether you're actually in a fairy tale, since the logic of such stories is not like our Earth logic. Playing by the rules of the real world is a good way to get yourself killed when you're in the enchanted forest. Ask yourself the following questions, and pray for a low score:
1. Are you the seventh son of a seventh son?
2. Do birds talk to you? (Disregard this question if the birds are parrots. Parrots don't count.)
3. Do the creatures of the forest clean your house?
4. When you talk, do a) jewels or b) reptiles and amphibians drop from your lips?
5. Are you an orphan?
6. Were you orphaned after your mother/father remarried, thus leaving you in the care of a stepparent who abuses you and uses you for manual labor?
7. No, seriously, do birds talk to you?
8. Do people tend to mutter about curses or prophecies when they think you're not listening?
9. Did you go for a nice picnic in the woods, fall asleep, and wake up to find yourself abandoned by your entire family?
10. Do you have an irresistible urge to prick your finger on things?
If the answer to more than half of these questions is "yes," you may well be stranded in a fairy tale. Walk carefully. Your next step could very easily be your last.
While there are many different types of fairy tale and ballad, there are a few things that are reasonably consistent across a wide range. None of these are universal, but they're a good starting point, if nothing else.
Q: What should I bring with me if I think there's a chance I'm going to wind up in a fairy tale?
A: A map, so you can avoid the fairy tale. Assuming that's somehow not possible, bring a large lunch, fifty yards of strong rope, a walking stick, sensible shoes, a spindle, a sweater, three iron nails, a silver knife, a flask full of water, tweezers, some ribbon, bug spray, and a camera. Because if you don't get pictures, nobody's ever going to believe you.
Q: What should my name be?
A: It is very important that, if you are in a fairy tale or ballad anywhere within the European tradition, you not be named "Janet," "Jack," "Margaret," or "Peter." If any of these happens to be your name, change it. If your name is related to one of these names, change it. If people call you "Pretty Peggy-o," change your name twice and move to a new town.
Q: If I think that I know my way around a fairy tale, and act accordingly when I find myself living one, am I ever going to be able to go home again?
A: Tragically, this is a question without a definite answer. Really, your best bet is to find a nice gingerbread cottage, settle down, and become the village witch. Just don't eat any kids and you'll be fine.
Q: Can I listen to the minstrels?
A: No. They will always get the details wrong.
Q: So I can just ignore the minstrels?
A: No. They get the details wrong, but they always get at least one thing right, and failing to remember their lyrics may well be enough to get you killed. Take lots of notes.
Q: Should I go near water ever?
A: No. Absolutely not. Water is the enemy. Avoid Millponds, rushing waters, singing waters, haunted shores, the river wide, the river narrow, and the banks of the great salt sea. If you must bathe—and really, it's a bad idea—never do it outdoors where somebody might stumble across you. You will not like the result.
Q: Is there anything I should keep in mind while making wishes or asking for advice?
A: Always be as specific as possible. The more precise your wording, the lower the chance that it can be turned against you. Of course, being human, you'll probably get it wrong anyway, but at least you'll make them work for it.
Q: There's going to be a grand ball! What should I do?
A: Learn how to dance in ballgowns that weigh more than you do, and how to run in glass slippers without slicing up your feet. All the rest is ever and always up to you.
Q: I have a fairy godmother, but she never lets me do anything fun. Is there some way to get rid of her?
A: The only known treatment for fairy godmothers is marriage, at which point they'll just nag you to have children that they can hover possessively over. Sadly, flyswatters do not come in the extra-extra-extra-large fairy godmother size.
Q: I've been given a choice between impossible housework or horrible death. What should I do?
A: Start crying as soon as you're alone. When something comes in response to your weeping, do not smash it, even though it will probably be vermin. The vermin will do your housework for you. No, seriously. Cockroaches and fairy tale princesses go together like milk and cookies. Creepy, creepy cookies with way too many legs.
Q: I'm supposed to be in disguise as a peasant, but my hair refuses to tangle and I just cannot stay dirty. What should I do?
A: Tuck it all in your hat, and be a male peasant. Failing that, skin a donkey and wear the hide everywhere you go. You'll be spotless inside there, but nobody's going to want to get close enough to check.
Q: My husband's out of town, and he said I can go in any room in the house but one that has a locked door. I have the key, though, and I'm dying of curiosity. Should I go in?
A: In fairy tales and ballads, that room is always locked for a reason. In the real world, that would be the room where he keeps his porn, or maybe just some old junk he hasn't thrown away yet. Sadly, you're in a fairy tale, which means that "some old junk" is probably "the heads of all his previous wives." The slightly less upsetting option is "the magic bath/looking glass which allows him to maintain his handsome human form." So ask yourself...is curiosity worth decapitation or being married to a giant hedgehog? No? I didn't think so.
There are deep dark forests everywhere, people seem to be uncommonly afraid of wolves waiting for them in the strangest places, and everyone wants you to be careful of offending the fae. You're probably in a European fairy tale, and your odds of survival are not good. To improve your chances, please consult our helpful guide to staying alive...at least for now.
Q: Do I have to keep my promises?
A: Yes. The most important thing you can do in a fairy tale is keep your promises. If you don't keep your promises, basically everything in the world receives narrative permission to stomp you.
Q: People keep issuing obscure and meaningless warnings. Is there any way to get them to tell me something useful?
A: No. The warnings will cease to be obscure and meaningless as soon as it's too late to do anything about them. Sorry about that.
Q: I see an odd-looking person in a crowd which no one else seems to see. Should I talk to them?
A: If they are old and venerable, yes, as it is probably a wise enchanter or enchantress, looking for someone to bless. If they are beautiful and haughty-looking, no, as it is probably an evil fairy, looking for someone to curse. If you are female, and it is a handsome, worried-looking man, no, as it is one of the Fair Folk looking for a midwife, and you won't enjoy what that entails.
If they are talking wildly to the air and wearing mismatched socks, congratulations, you have found the village crazy person.
Q: Golden balls are the latest thing. Can I have one?
A: No. Golden balls are the most dangerous toys in the entire world. Why don't you play with something safe, like a pissed-off asp? At least it'll kill you quickly.
Q: Should I eat this apple?
A: No. Pomegranates are also on the no-no list, as is any unidentified meat. It could be squirrel. It could also be your missing brother. Generally just a bad scene all the way around.
Q: Is it cool to trade my cow for magic beans?
A: Only if you think it's cool to destroy your hometown when the giants come down looking for revenge. For more reasons that this is a bad idea, please see the musical Into the Woods. You have now been warned.
Q: I would like to visit that tower over there. Is that a good idea?
A: No. The odds of the tower containing either a witch or a captive princess are remarkably high, and you won't enjoy the consequences of spending time with either one. Try to avoid any building more than three stories high.
Q: My wife is having strange cravings for a specific plant that grows in the garden of our local witch. Is it okay to steal her some?
A: Never steal anything from a witch. Either tell your wife to develop a new obsession, or find yourself a nice greengrocer with a decent produce section. If you can't get it legally, she can't have any.
Q: I gave this old person some of my lunch and she/he told me I should go find some other old person and give them my lunch, too! What the hell?
A: When an elder in a fairy tale gives you directions, follow them. The odds of them being a powerful enchanter or witch are just too high to do anything else. Sure, you may lose a few sandwiches to folks that are just hungry, but that's the price you pay for living to see the end of the story.
Q: Somebody expects me to fight or marry a hideous giant but all I have is this stick that somebody gave me or I took from my mother's grave. What should I do?
A: You have a stick? You will triumph with such ease and grace that songs will be sung in your honor for a hundred generations. Although you may get a splinter. Go fight or marry that hideous giant. It'll work out.
Q: I have two siblings and they're both hotter and better off than me, but they went to seek their fortunes and never came back and my parents hate me! Should I go, too?
A: Yes. Being the least popular child always guarantees being the most successful one, at least in fairy tales. No one knows quite why this works, but it does, so you should roll with it.
Q: I've been locked in a tower and my hair is getting awfully long. Is there a way to take care of this before something crawls into it and dies?
A: I would be more worried about princes, if I were you. I suggest finding something sharp and just sawing it all off. Sure, you'll look a little funny, but you'll have a lot less to be concerned about. Also, you can then braid your hair and use it to descend the tower, thus sparing yourself further captivity. Everybody wins!
Q: There's this talking frog that says he's a prince. What are the repercussions of cooking it for dinner?
A: There are none. Make sure you bread the whole frog evenly.
Q: I'm a princess, but I sleep like a rock. Is there some special class or something where I learn how to detect peas between the mattresses, or do I have to check each time?
A: If your future husband only wants to marry you because you can't sleep through the night, he's a sadist. Find someone who understands that your ability to sleep through anything is an asset, as it increases the odds that you'll be able to continue sharing a bed after you find out that he snores like a wheat thresher.
Q: Help! I'm cursed to do something or be someone else during the night-time, like be a swan or dance until I've worn out my shoes! What should I do?
A: At least you're not cursed to sleep for a hundred years. Suck it up and embrace your inner waterfowl already. Or find an understanding husband who's willing to chop your feet off. It's your call.
You've managed to get yourself marooned in a piece of folklore from the British Isles, and now the Fair Folk are probably out to get you. That's not good. It can always get worse, however, so I recommend you consult the following FAQ to try to stay alive...at least for now.
Q: What is the best way to respond to a challenge offered by one of the fey?
A: Apologize profusely and pray they take it back. Failing that, don't lose.
Q: How do I tell if my child has been replaced by a changeling?
A: If your baby suddenly starts screaming for no apparent reason, loses weight, and withers away almost overnight, it's either very ill (probably with colic) or a changeling. In the real world, vote "colic." In a ballad, sadly, vote "changeling.
To get a changeling to reveal itself, you can either boil eggshells—they have serious trouble resisting the urge to comment when you do something that stupid—or throw the baby into the fire, thus prompting the fairy folk to come and take it back. Please do not pitch any babies into fireplaces unless you have already been presented with absolute proof that you are in a ballad. Seriously. Babies are not a suitable charcoal substitute.
Q: Is it okay for me to eat and drink in Fairyland?
A: No. Do not eat or drink anything which you did not bring with you. If you do, you run the risk of being held captive forever, or at least until the fairies get tired of you, by which point everything you have ever loved will be dead and gone. Carry protein bars whenever you think there's a chance you may find yourself trapped in the Land of the Young. You'll be glad you did.
Q: Should I trust the fairies?
Q: What about the really cute ones, like the pixies?
A: The cuter it is, the worse it is for your health. Do not trust anything that is both cute and fae. It probably wants to play skip-the-rope with your intestines...and you may not be dead when it gets started.
Q: The fairies are offering me something I've always wanted. Can I take it?
A: All fairy gifts come with a price, and that price is almost definitely more than you're going to want to pay. Take nothing without an iron-clad contract that's been reviewed by half a dozen lawyers. Even then, it's risky, and you probably shouldn't.
Q: My wife refuses to let me watch her bathe. What should I do?
A: Don't watch her bathe! Look, the odds are good that your wife turns into a giant snake, grows scales, or does something else she thinks you won't like when she touches the bathwater. Let bath time be private time, because otherwise, you're going to be in Fairy Divorce Court. Here's a hint: you won't like it there.
Q: How can I protect myself from the fairies?
A: Iron is your friend. So is silver. Carry both, if you possibly can.
Q: I was visiting the site of this famous historical fairy ring, and when I looked up, there was no one else around. What should I do?
You appear to have found yourself stranded in a classic folk ballad. You're basically screwed. But we will still at least attempt to help, even as we all acknowledge that it's futile. Also, can we have your stuff?
Q: Should I rove out on a Midsummer morning?
A: No. Nor should you rove out on a May morning, on a lovely morning, on an evening in July, or any other time. Eschew roving out altogether. It's bad for your health.
Q: What do I do with this fiddle made of bone I just found?
A: You know that really rich dude who lives nearby and just got married to the totally banging wife whose little sister died under mysterious circumstances? Well, congratulations: you're holding the sister's corpse, handily reconfigured into fiddle-form. You have two choices, here. Take the fiddle to the rich guy's house and out his bride as a murderess, or sell it to the nearest second-hand store and use the money to buy tickets to someplace that isn't the site of a murder ballad.
I recommend Fiji.
Q: Should I listen to my mother/father/true love when they tell me not to do something but won't explain why?
Q: Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
A: No. And you shouldn't either.
Q: My true love is going away! How can I be sure I'll recognize him when he comes back?
A: Well, first off, you're in a ballad, so you'd better come to terms with the fact that he's going to be gone for the next seven years. Take up a time-consuming hobby, and don't remarry or tryst with any highwaymen, as that way lies madness. Before he hits the road, do something weird and symbolic to his appearance, thus guaranteeing that you'll be able to recognize him. Jewelry in the hair is a good bet.
Q: I've been away from my true love for a really long time. Should I put my head in the lap of a fair maiden so she can sing to me?
A: No. Not unless she bears a striking resemblance to a) your wife from seven years ago, b) that hot chambermaid your palace just hired, or c) that grumpy grandma-type who gave you some chestnuts last week.
Q: I was thinking of putting gold in my hair and prancing down to Carterhaugh! Is that cool?
A: No. I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair to come nor go by Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there. Don't be an idiot.
Q: There's this minstrel who won't stop following me. Can I make him leave?
A: No. Never annoy a minstrel if you can help it. You will wake up to find yourself a part of the oral tradition, immortalized forever in songs you won't like, and that people will never stop singing.
Q: Can I wear green?
A: No. Don't wear green anything, especially kirtles. If you must wear green, do not go anywhere near the roses red or the river wide.
Q: This weird old guy wants me to play a game of riddles with him. Is that okay?
A: No. Whether you win or lose, you're going to be in for trouble.
Q: An attractive member of the opposite sex wants me to go for a ride. Is that okay?
A: No. Not unless you're seriously interested in losing a hundred years or so.