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Lies Told To Children

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This is false from beginning to end, of course. But there's more than one kind of lie. There are lies like the notion that electrons go around atoms in sedate planetary orbits: false but useful, good for making pictures in your head. And then there are the other kind.

You'll have to decide for yourself which sort this is. Imagine—

Imagine that you were born in a fairy-tale kingdom that shines like a diamond. Imagine you grew up there. And imagine that every day, in a thousand tiny ways, that kingdom whispered, we are the only real, true people in the world.

Oh, there are other lands outside your kingdom. You know that. But they're full of ogres and goblins and trolls, brutes that club each other to death for a scrap of cloth or a mouthful of meat. Ugly and foul-smelling and cruel, not a real, true person among them.

You've never been afraid of the monsters. You don't have to be. Everyone in your fairy-tale kingdom is a magician, and besides, there are thick strong walls between you and them. Now and then you give in to your curiosity and read some of the books from outside, or touch a goblin-woven tapestry, and wonder at it; how could senseless beings make something that's just a little bit beautiful? And now and then you get an itch under your skin, an urge to run and run until somehow you learn to fly, over the fields and through the forests and up the mountains and on, to places you've never seen.

Now and then, it's so bad you want to scream. But you're not sure where you could go. There are no real, true people outside the kingdom.

Now, imagine that you become an exile. The reason doesn't matter; that's a different fairy tale. Perhaps this kingdom isn't as paradisiacal as all that; perhaps it subjects its children to a secret rite that carries a risk of madness, and you can't live in a society that lets such a thing pass. Perhaps you're trying to protect something important; perhaps you're trying to protect someone. Perhaps a little bit of it—all right, a lot of it—is that itch beneath your skin. But whatever the reason, you leave.

It feels like diving off the edge of a flat world.

Outside the kingdom, you meet ogres and goblins and trolls for the first time, and they're exactly what you expected. Ugly, foul-smelling, cruel. You get on all right, of course. You're extremely clever, more than any brute. You can hunch over or pull faces and make them think you're one of them. You can walk through their cities or ride their roads and they'll never know. There's as much exhilaration as unease in it.

Then, one day, something goes wrong. A pair of trolls shove their way into your wagon, demanding to know who you are and where you came from and how you came by all your impossible treasures. And you realize that you've been lying to yourself, that you are afraid of them. They maul their own for a loaf of bread; what would they do to you, for the things you possess? You're a stranger. Not even of their kind.

So you panic. You flee. Of course, they're already in your wagon, so they come too, but at least they can't bring back a mob with torches.

When you come to a rest, when you look outside, you've arrived in a savage country. You've barely gone outside to get your bearings before you're attacked by an ogre.

You realize, all in an instant, that sometimes being extremely clever doesn't matter. Sometimes, the only thing that matters is that one creature has a club and the other one doesn't. You're the one that doesn't. You're going to die here, in violence and terror.

When the ogre stumbles and drops the club, you grab it without a second thought. You have to kill it. You have to kill it before it gets up and smashes your skull. You have to kill it now.

And then one of the trolls you fled with takes the club away from you and asks how you could possibly think to murder another person.

And oh, it stays with you. It galls. You, enlightened child of a glorious people, being scolded by a near-animal. The very idea! What could it possibly have to teach you about mercy? They're only a heartbeat away from cannibalism.

Although, they haven't hurt you. Haven't even threatened you.

They're frightened of you. An enigmatic stranger who wrenched them away from everything they knew and won't even explain himself in words they understand, a being who uses magic they believe impossible—of course they're frightened of you. But they haven't hurt you.

Really, when you think about it, they're better at this fear business than you are. You reacted like a savage. He acted like a person. That word keeps running around in your brain: person. There are no real, true people outside your kingdom, you've always known that, and yet—

You think of the goblins you met when you first left your kingdom. They didn't act like goblins, now that you think about it. They welcomed you and gave you food and let you draw water from their wells. Nobody seemed to be murdering anyone, not when you passed by. You remember thinking how crude they were, how unpleasant; now you remember that they tipped their hats and said hello when you passed them in the streets.

The next time you look at the two trolls, you notice that they aren't actually as ugly as you thought. They look disconcertingly like real, true people. They still smell peculiar, but not bad, not once you get accustomed. Their language isn't mere grunting; it's crude and imprecise, but there's a certain joy in it.

They even act like real, true people. They're generous and friendly and brave sometimes to a fault. More and more, when you think about them, you don't think of them as the trolls. They have names. You introduce them as your assistants or your traveling companions. You take their advice; sometimes you even acknowledge that it was useful.

You can't recall the exact moment when you change, because there wasn't an exact moment. But one day, you're passing through a village of ogres when a dragon comes raging out of the mountains. And instead of doing the obvious thing—instead of getting in your wagon and fleeing for your life—you grab some fireworks and naphtha and dash towards the beast, not because you want to, but because you're slightly less panicked than everyone else, and if you don't do something it's going to kill people.

It isn't until later, after the dragon is chased away and the dust has settled and you and your friends have moved on, that you realize you just thought something extraordinary. It was going to kill people.

Real true people. All around you. Everywhere in the universe.

So as you travel onward, you make a point of stopping and talking. Of learning names. Of making friends. Because it doesn't matter how clever you are; sometimes you're blind, and it took two strangers to teach you to see. Two people who grew up thinking the world was flat and the sun was pulled by horses made your universe a billion times bigger than you ever imagined it could be. And they made you so much bigger than you once were. Braver. Wiser. Even a bit kind.

Imagine what you might learn from the next friend you make.