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Why We Tell Our Stories: An Introduction to the New Oxford Universal Collection of Folktales, Dreamings, and Myths, by Doctor Constance Nine

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The fairy tale, "Lyra and the Harpy with No Name," is only a small sequence within the well-known mythic arc, The Thousand Garden Cycle. These stories are believed to predate the Earth diaspora, and as such, have evolved and spread, adapting to the cultural beliefs and mores of people in widely disparate parts of the galaxy.

However, despite distance and time, the bones of these folk tales and legends are remarkably constant, leading to the declaration by some scholars that these stories appeal on a metaphysical level to all sentient beings, regardless of their humanoid, Earth origins.

This is particularly apparent when looking at the many different variations upon the story of Lyra's descent to the underworld -- despite superficial changes, such as the number and nature of her companions, the overall narrative is remarkably universal, whether it is told in the oceans of Delgar, or the space ports of Toronto.

Something about this particular legend has a timeless appeal, that renders it a story which nine out of ten children will be able to recite nearly word for word, or note for note, when asked (see Janus de Janussri's Dreadnought B study).

The following is a transcript taken from the records of an early Betelguese space station, translated into Standard by Dame Nora Alphonse Moonswidth. It is widely regarded as the earliest known form of the legend, and therefore is likely the closest we can come to the original story.


[begin transmission]

Fine, one more story, but you must promise to sleep after this.

Once upon a time, before the atom was split, there was a little girl. Her hair was bright as an F-class star and her tongue was as quick and sharp as a subspace ansible. Her name was Lyra, and she lived on Earth-That-Was.

Lyra had the greatness of her father, who was a brave and fierce prince, and the cunning of her mother, who was a beautiful and skilled liar, and with these gifts Lyra ran among the back-corridors of her world with her greatest friend, a boy with no power or wealth or cunning. For Lyra cared not for riches, nor for prestige. Her greatest joy was mischief, and her greatest comfort was the friend at her side. His name was Roger. They played on the banks of rivers, and ran through the corridors of their cities, and rejoiced in being alive and being young.

Rivers? Ah, you see, rivers are like the cables of electricity we thread through the walls of our ships, but instead of sparks, their currents run with water, and there were great slabs of terraform on their sides which turned to sticky mud when wet, and the children would throw them in great mock-battles with each other, like you with Moiran and Toby next door, when you dismantled the anti-grav thrusters and got into the protein supplements, and don't think I've forgotten you did that, either.

Now, hush. Back to the story.

Lyra and Roger were the best of friends, but one day, Roger was lost to Lyra, and he fell into the world of the dead. He even lost his daemon, and was alone entirely, and cold, and frightened.

Remember, you mustn't be afraid, for this story has a happy ending, but the world of the dead in those days was a place empty of all happiness, where all the dead in all the universes were kept prisoner. A vast empty space, with monsters called harpies, and no daemons at all.

And so Lyra wept, and never forgot her friend, even as she left her home on Earth-That-Was, and traveled and had many adventures, which I will tell you again another night. But I am sure you remember Will, with his quiet eyes and magic knife, and her friend Iorek, the armored bear, with his white fur and metal armor.

One day, after Roger had been dead for several years, Lyra learned that her friend, Will, with his magical knife, could cut a portal--like a wormhole, you see--to the World of the Dead.

When she discovered this, Lyra vowed that she would go there and bring her friend back.

No, said her mother, who was cruel and cunning, but loved her daughter very much. You mustn't go, for it is but a fairy tale, and you had best come with me, instead, where you will be safe.

No, said her father, who was proud and fierce, but needed above all things to keep his daughter safe. You mustn't go, and I shall send my knights and ladies after you, to keep you safe in the world of the living.

No, said the great armored bear, her close companion. You may go and do this thing, but you do not have to, and I fear that you will die in the attempt.

And Will said nothing at all, for he saw in her shining face that she would not be swayed, and he loved her the more for it.

I will go, Lyra said, with her proud chin high like her mother's and her fierce eyes flashing like her father's and her heart full of fear and determination and love, like no one else's but her own. For he was my companion on the banks of the river, and I loved him, and I cannot bear him to be cold and alone. I am afraid, but I have made a promise, and I have found a way to keep it, and so I must.

So the armored bear was shamed by her bravery, and her mother wept and turned her eyes to a new scheme to keep her child safe, and her father beat his breast and pretended not to feel fear. And Will only took her hand, and opened the wormhole to the world of the dead, and he and her father’s Knight and the Lady went with her.

They left their daemons on the shore of the living, for no daemons could enter that dead realm. Though all beings have daemons, it was only Lyra whose had a name and a physical form, Pantalaimon, her lifelong companion. And though the Knight and the Lady and Will were pained by the separation, it was hardest for Lyra, who left Pantalaimon alone upon the shore. But she was determined, and he with her, and so they both allowed the sundering, however hard and painful and cruel.

Soon thereafter they were met by the gatekeepers of the dead, who looked fierce and rotten and half-made, cobbled together from scraps of other beings. They were called harpies, and Lyra and Will and the Knight and the Lady thought them monsters, for very monstrous they looked, and smelled, and acted.

But Lyra, who was brave and determined, despite her fear and pain, stepped forward and said, What is your name? I am Lyra, and I must enter the world of the dead, for you have my friend Roger, and he is sorely alone.

And the harpy replied, in a voice like metal grating on metal, I have no name, and your Roger may be alone, but this is the fate of all beings, and I will not let you pass.

Lyra, whose name means lie, or story, or song, offered to the harpy with no name a gift of a story in exchange for entrance to the world of the dead, and the harpies paused their harsh noises and clacking claws, for they had been locked down in the darkness for longer than most, and they hungered above all else for stories.

But Lyra, whose quick tongue had saved her from the evil bear king, and the child-snatchers, and the witch-priests, was undone here, for the harpies could not eat lies, and so they flew at her, screaming, and only the quickness of Will and the Lady and the Knight saved her, and they snuck through the gate and into the world of the dead.

Then they were surrounded on all sides by all those who had ever lived ,then died, locked down in the pit with no sun or air or daemons to keep them warm, and many had forgotten their own names.

Lyra wept to see them, and to give her friends comfort, she began to tell them stories of Roger, of how she and he had run back and forth across the banks of the river, and played in the warm hot sun, and made small mischiefs and stole boats and loaves of bread and got sick off the gallon of fermented fruit they found in the room of an old engineer one morning.

And the dead gathered close, and asked for more.

And so Lyra told them of the smells of the mud, and the feel of it between her fingers, and the taste of berries and bread, and the color that the sun turned when it shone upon fresh green leaves.

Think on that, my love -- she did not tell stories of the exciting battles or intrigues or the many worlds she'd seen. She told the dead of the simple things she had loved, the moments that we all have and share. What would you have told the harpies? You would tell them about how you mashed protein nine into Moiran's hair and how she shrieked so loud that all the cleaning bots came running and skidded everywhere on the spilled supplements on the floor. Or the time we passed a nebula and saw a star being born, all rose-gold and clouds, do you remember that?

Those are the sorts of stories Lyra told, and then she looked up and found all the harpies watching her, and they no longer looked so frightening or monstrous.

The harpy with no name landed and said, We cannot eat lies, but these stories, these we can eat, as you eat bread and drink fermented fruit drinks, and in return, we will allow your friend Will to cut a hole in this world.

And so Will, with his magic knife, was able to pierce the veil of the dead, and all those who had died could be led to it, to escape their prison and rejoin their daemons again, and return to the universe, to be reborn as stars and green growing things, and young children in warm beds.

And they made a deal with the harpy, who Lyra named Gracious Wings, for she caught Lyra as she fell and saved her from a great hole at the edge of the world, that the harpies would lead the newly dead to the outside world in exchange for a story.

Even you, who have not yet seen your sixth cycle, can tell a story, can't you? That is the gift Lyra Silvertongue gave us all.

And Lyra and Will did indeed one day return to the world of the living, and find their daemons again, but that is another story.

Now, sleep, and I will wake you in the morning.

[End transmission]


Of course, though the question is purely academic and the likelihood of these characters being based on living beings is slim, no one can help but feel comforted by the ideals this story puts forth: that when we die, the rest of the universe awaits, and that our daemons and all our other loved ones will be there, ready to reunite with us.

All we have to do to reach them is to love being alive, and tell the story of our love after we pass.

There are far worse messages for a folk tale or legend to spread. And far worse role models than Lyra Silvertongue to follow into the dark.

Perhaps that is why this story about death has never died.

For more variations on the legend of Lyra and the Harpy with No Name, see Alessandro Crow’s work, The Descent of the Living and the Rise of the Dead: The Journeys of Lyra Silvertongue (Stardate 50,023, University of New Oxford, Moon of Titan).


Footnote: de Janussri's Dreadnought B study was conducted by over sixty-three anthropologists, travelling throughout twelve galaxies. Their epic two hundred volume work is well worth reading, but can be summarized thus: over 89% of young beings, whether humanoid, dendritic, or telepathic, can recite the basics of the story of Lyra’s descent and ascent from the underworld, and perhaps most significantly, can all put into coherent words the moral of the tale: we all must live life to the fullest, and tell stories after.

If Earth has no other legacy than this, our ancestors must be content.