Fantasyland: A Fable


There was a scribe who in his youth had received training at the magical school Fantasyland. One day the word went around that the school might benefit from his bringing his trade there.

“You can write what you like,” coaxed the prince who ruled the school, “and be paid for it. You can associate with gifted colleagues. You can make your work known throughout the kingdom. You can be in charge of important matters. You can even visit foreign lands on our behalf.”

This sounded promising. The scribe packed up his entire life and transported it over many miles of roads, hills, and rivers to take up residence near Fantasyland. He looked forward to beginning his new life while held by the old familiar magic.

When he arrived, however, no one was on hand to greet him.

“Where should I put my desk and pot of ink?” he asked the doorman, who shrugged.

It took months just to find a permanent room to work in. It wasn’t the fault of the people in charge of such things, the scribe saw. They were all overwhelmed with labors to carry out.

The main labor was dropping everything whenever the prince had a new idea, at which time all efforts at every level were redirected to bringing the idea, whatever it was, to life. Concerns about its workability fell on deaf ears; other ideas were pushed aside; space was cleared for visitors eager to find out more about the latest magical revelation; wizardly teachers had to be present to talk about spell-casting, transmutation, and fables from the elder days; torches had to be lit and cattle cleared away so the prince could open the proceedings in person. It was all a lot of disruptive extra bother, and it could never be predicted.

No sooner had the bemused scribe taken up quill and parchment when the headmaster (also overworked) came with an announcement:

“The official in charge of bringing students to Fantasyland has left. We would like you to stand in.”

“But I have had no training in that manner of service.”

“It’s temporary.”

It was still temporary several months later, and officials of every sort continued to leave. But the scribe had yet to do much of what he had been hired to do. He listened to complaints from everyone—students, laborers, overseers, wizards—while trying to learn an entirely new role left empty by several harried predecessors. He visited no other kingdoms and wrote little but procedures for the argumentative to fight about.

Like other officials of Fantasyland, he also spent much of his time meeting with people. There were meetings for everything: meetings to inform, meetings to solve problems, even meetings to prepare for other meetings. The meetings were full of high officials’ talking, but the school seemed never to improve as a result of all the talking and meeting. So in addition to not doing his real job (which felt increasingly unreal), the scribe was forever out of time to do much of anything but meet.

Meanwhile, the office of the queen of the land dispatched messengers to inform Fantasyland that a retinue of court officials were planning to come for an inspection. In charge of this as well, the scribe rounded up reliable people to plan and organize for the visit instead of the usual make-it-up-as-you-go. He spent his evenings scribing hundreds of pages to document what the visitors would want to know. Geese whose quills he wore out writing fled the vicinity before they found themselves naked.

It was difficult to find solid truths to report. What puzzled the scribe most was that, unlike places where he had associated with others in good faith, key people at Fantasyland seemed intent on lying. They had lied to bring him there by painting a false picture of how the school was run, and by whom. Now they lied about opportunities, resources, important things, petty things, monied things, and pretty much everything.

The worst of the lot were those who claimed to have no ambitions at all while manipulating every trusting person they could sway. They stood, they claimed, for love, for healing, for soul. But in secret, they stood for vanity, advantage, and influence.

Stranger still, these liars seemed not to mind the lying. It cost them no real effort, they were that used to doing it. “All in all,” the scribe spoke aloud to try to grasp the surreality of it, “the worst of them lack the emotional maturity to even be ashamed of their own habit of deceit.” He shook his head in wonder.

For those lower down, lying had begun as a tactic for managing an impulsive prince who refused to manage himself, belittled those beneath him, and made everyone forever nervous and miserable; Fantasyland was in continual chaos. Over time, lying had become a way of life in a place presented as a unique site of boundless magical possibility but, behind the scenes, kept going by honest if ill-rewarded labor. Hard-working but demoralized people who had not yet moved on and who received contempt from above instead of recognition or prizes struggled day after day alongside scoundrels who could not be dislodged because the prince favored them. His enablers went on pretending that everything was fine.

The real magic resided with the unhappy but wise and gifted wizards who taught there, but even they had trouble affording their lodgings, bread, and cheese. It was the wizards who made it worthwhile to attend.

Because of the prince’s glib lies, evasions, and attempts to charm, the visiting court officials grew suspicious and alert. They had seen this sort of show plenty of times before. Initially friendly but now on their guard, they decided to dig deeper. They interviewed everybody and turned dusty pages in moldering account books. Then they went away and reported to the court.

The “prince,” it came out, was just a nobly titled enfant terrible hoarding gold ducats while those below him made do as best they could. Without the wizards’ magic (and a loyal headmaster to patch up the chaos), this “prince” would have been stuck selling worn-out buttons repainted to gleam like amulets. More disenchanted departures followed these revelations.

Now, a group of elders was supposed to oversee the school, provide wisdom, and make sure Fantasyland did right by everyone. But, committed instead to talking much while doing little, they ate expensive lunches and ignored the gathering warnings sent by the court of the queen. Instead of serving as guides, they had become accomplices.

Furthermore, the “prince” blamed the scribe for the court’s unhappiness with Fantasyland. When things soured, as they did so often because of the ceaseless whimsicality and chaos, it was always someone else’s fault.

The time had come, the scribe knew, to depart. Once again he would uproot himself and hope to find more fertile soil. Perhaps Fantasyland would fall one day, not tomorrow but down the road, poisoned by its self-contradictions. Perhaps it would evolve somehow and fully thrive, for the magic to be found there was powerful, lasting, and real. In spite of everything, he believed in the mission of the school and admired the dedicated people who actually carried it out. But he could not remain to see the outcome.

It occurred to the scribe then that although he had at first believed himself transplanted to a heavenly realm, he had actually landed in the Underworld.

Maybe he had needed to. He had known about deception and darkness. But maybe his training had been incomplete without the ordeal of watching what he loved but could not help slowly degenerate. Maybe one had to see that and feel its effects to truly learn discernment without escaping into cynicism.

For the world, though beautiful and even miraculous, is darkened by the shadows of treachery. Some of the treacherous are common bullies easy enough to recognize. But others are disguised better, posing even to themselves as humane, spiritual, magical, and visionary. Only the alert stand any chance against the selfishly unscrupulous who ever wait in the wings to have it all their way.

The lore taught at the school mentioned tales of another magical realm, Camelot, similarly undermined from within. The old king of that place had found his demise on the battlefield along with most of his officials: noble knights and fawning courtiers, tellers of truth and cold-hearted schemers. In the end, good and bad, heroes and enablers, perished together.

But the wizards and scribes escaped. And the tale survived too, as a warning.

Back among friends, the scribe marveled. He now held a position more uplifting than the one falsely promised by Fantasyland. New opportunities blossomed on every side. Before him waited more of the creative work he loved than he could ever get to. He laughed.

Sometimes you have to descend in order to rise.