Women in fairy tale princess dresses wander a garden with flowers.

The Middle Child's Practical Guide to Surviving a Fairy Tale

May 2016 | Illustration by Galen Dara

It’s happened. Your worst nightmare. A younger, prettier, differently gendered, or completely simpleminded younger sibling has entered your life, right at the moment when it’s become increasingly clear that your mother is not long for this world and you will soon be facing an Evil Stepmother, if you are lucky to have any mother at all. Or, still worse, you may still have a mother, one so overwhelmed by the pressures of raising a large family that she is no longer able to argue with your father when he proposes killing all of you off to benefit this new lucky youngest child, or she is now prone to making terrible magical curses that can only be defeated through seven years of weaving nettles, which you know the little brat isn’t going to do, because come on, look at the kid.

We’ve been there. We know your pain. We know your danger. We know the terror of finding out that your parent has agreed to marry off a child to a monster — and the secret, hidden relief of finding out that child isn’t you. We know what it’s like to spend years hiding in a tiny cabin in a cold forest, or as a bird. We know what it’s like to have to dance night after night without getting a single line of dialogue, much less a name. We know — although this is sometimes more of a stepsister issue — what it feels like to have toes and heels cut off, as your sister dances off in the arms of a prince. We know what you feel when you see your next-youngest sibling bursting into tears when he sees that his left arm is still covered with feathers, when you realize that none of you will ever be quite human again.

We have some practical advice for you:


1. Try, if possible, to get a name. Our research has discovered that fairy tale characters with names enjoy a nearly 38% greater survival rate over characters without names. Obtaining that name, especially if you are sibling number seven out of twelve, will be difficult, but try to persevere. Accept a nickname if you have to, especially a degrading one like “Simpleton” or “Dunderhead” or “Total Waste of Space.” Those sorts of nicknames, after all, have benefited many fairy tale youngest children, in particular the youngest children of kings and extremely wretched peasants. Who knows? With a name like Dunderhead, you might even experience the good fortune of watching that younger sibling die, allowing you to step into the favored youngest sibling spot.


2. Resist any compulsion you might feel to act in a cruel or cold manner to animals and random people met on your journey, especially bad-tempered dwarfs, seemingly helpless old ladies, crippled elderly, or men slinging unwanted advice who just happen to be ex-soldiers. We get it, we really do. You’re in too much of a hurry to deal with these bystanders, especially since your youngest sibling took your favorite bag despite knowing that it was yours which meant you had to waste several hours getting a new one, and that’s not even mentioning the time you found honey all over your brushes and combs and knew exactly who to blame, even though by then you already had honey in your hair so it was too late, not to mention all of the other problems that little angelic-seeming monster has already caused you. And look, we don’t like ants and bees either, and we don’t entirely trust foxes, talking bears, golden geese, and people who want to waste your time before giving you vital information necessary to save your life either. As said, we get it.

But we also know that sort of mishap is the exact sort of thing that will lead to your death, enchantment, dismemberment, humiliation, and/or the agony of seeing your arrogant and incompetent younger sibling who couldn’t have accomplished anything without magical assistance running the kingdom. Resist this compulsion. Be kind.


3. Also resist any compulsion you might feel to act in a cruel manner towards your youngest sibling, particularly but not only if you are a girl, even if your youngest sibling is deliberately acting in a provokingly virtuous manner, almost daring you to snap the little angel’s neck.

Unless, of course, your youngest sister is really a stepsister named Cinderella, in which case, you should stop reading this and turn towards Practical Advice for Stepsisters (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), which provides guidance on emergency foot treatment as well as an extensive list of podiatrists in your local area.

Everyone else remember: you may later need this sibling to free you from an enchantment, a curse, or — if you are from a merchant’s family that has suffered terrible misfortunes and is currently under the hopeful eye of an enchanted beast — poverty which will at least seem dire to you.


4. And speaking of siblings, if your oldest sibling begins to act in a patronizing, cruel, or arrogant manner, run. This will not end well.


5. If you are a member of a royal family, consider the benefits of a middle-class life. These include, but are not limited to, rarely becoming the target of an evil fairy with a grudge; rarely getting assaulted by firebirds intent on stealing your family’s magical fruit; never waiting impatiently for a parent to just freaking decide already who will take over the kingdom instead of setting what are — let’s be honest — pointless tasks with little to no relationship to competent royal administration; remarkably decent food; and somewhat fewer encounters with enchanted beasts desperate to find a spouse.


6. Avoid all of the following: dark terrifying forests, glass mountains, easily offended fairies, evil-minded fairies, fairies in general, witches, giants, enchanted food, griffins, bands of robbers, and quests. Especially quests. Come to think of it, this is excellent advice for everyone. Read a book instead.


7. Ensure that all instruments in your vicinity are manufactured from wood, metal, animal guts, and/or acrylic string. Do not, under any circumstances, remain near an instrument created from human bone.


8. If — well, let’s be honest here, more like when — you inevitably find yourself at the coronation of your youngest sibling, painfully considering your own precarious finances and physical health, remember all of the monarchs in history who died young thanks to assassinations, war, and vengeful fairies.


9. If your youngest sibling has married a monster or beast that is generally only seen at night, do not encourage this sibling to (a) look at the monster with a candle, (b) kill the monster, or (c) spend a single second considering the fine quality of the monster’s pelt and whether or not it could be turned into a fur coat. Just enjoy all of the funds sent your way thanks to the monster’s inevitable guilt trip.


10. If you are unfortunate enough to be transformed into a bird, use this opportunity to do a little sightseeing. Overnight accommodation for birds in distant lands is not, we must admit, anything close to the luxury you are probably accustomed to (unless you are one of the aforementioned extremely wretched peasants), but to compensate for this, you’ll enjoy outstanding, bird’s-eye views of all of the world’s greatest sights.


11. If you happen to find yourself dancing at the edge of an underground lake, dimly lit with gold and silver lights, enjoy it for as long as you can. Someone — probably your youngest sibling, but possibly a random soldier or enchanted royal — is bound to ruin it.


12. Accept that you will never be as beautiful, or as loved, as your aggravatingly perfect youngest sibling. Invest in fine clothes and jewels to distract people from this, or take up a hobby. For multiple reasons, we suggest focusing on a practical skill, like stone-carving, illuminating manuscripts, fluency in several languages, weaving, embroidery, or knitting. With the latter three, we recommend focusing on learning how to create fine items from yarn twisted from nettles. It’s a skill you might need.


13. Warning: even if you follow every piece of advice outlined above, you may still feel your story clinging to you, trying to keep you in your palace, your cottage, your transformed self. You may find yourself needing to be cruel to strangers, to ignore the needs of your sibling, to obey the impulses set by an evil stepmother, an ineffective king, a wicked fairy.

Shake it off.

Remember.

You are more than your story.

You are more than a fairy tale.

Even if right now your skin is covered in feathers.

About the Author

Mari Ness is not quite as obsessed with myth and fairy tales as her fiction might suggest.  Her fiction and poetry have appeared in multiple places, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Nightmare, and she blogs weekly at Tor.com on various geeky subjects, most recently about Disney animated movies and their literary sources. For more, check out her blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at @mari_ness

© 2016 Mari Ness