Ask the Trope Fairy: Labors Lost
Ask the Trope Fairy is an advice column for characters navigating science fiction and fantasy realms.
Note: Today's Letter was forwarded to the Trope Fairy by Pythia, the Oracle at Delphi, who felt she was too close to the situation to assess it fairly, having originally advised the letter writer to begin their quest of twelve labors.
Dear Trope Fairy,
I swear to you, I am not trying to get out of my punishment. I deserve it. Entirely.
But please, hear my cry. Hear my pleas. Show me a way out of this place I have been in for so many years.
Several years ago, in a fit of madness, I did a terrible, unforgivable thing. I destroyed the people I loved most, who trusted me absolutely. I ended my own family.
When my mind returned, I sought you [the Oracle at Delphi] out to find a way to atone for my terrible sins. You set me to complete twelve labors for King E— — to earn my redemption. At his direction, I have killed the Nemean lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Ceryneian Hind, the Erymanthian Boar, the Symphalion birds, the Cretan Bull, the Mares of D— —, and the Cattle of G— —. I have cleaned the Augean stables, fetched the Belt of Queen H— — and the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, and even tamed Cerberus in the Underworld.
But it is not enough. It will never be enough. King E— — declared several of the labors void because I had assistance or completed things in a different way than he imagined I would. I have done more for him, and gladly. I would do all twelve over again.
Because I do not feel cleansed. I do not feel redeemed. I feel no more free of what I did to my wife and children than when I started.
Perhaps I do not deserve to, and these labors were only intended as more punishment. Or work for me to do because I cannot be trusted with idle hands.
But please, am I doomed to labor forever with nor relief? Will it ever be enough? Will I never find forgiveness? Will I never deserve anything but this?
The Greek Work Horse Seeking Redemption
Dear Seeking Redemption In All the Wrong Places,
I hope you do not mind the transfer, but the Oracle at Delphi referred you to me when she received your second, heartbroken appeal for redemption. Pythia and I often see things differently, as do most who come from different realms in the cosmos, but we both have our share of wisdom.
You ask me why, after years upon years doing penance with your twelve(+) labors, after doing feats the have made you famous and saved countless lives, after suffering to pull off the impossible and winning the help of many honorable friends (and Theseus), you still feel no closer to being forgiven for what you did to your family.
I am afraid the answer is simple. You have worked hard to make amends, but not to the people you have most harmed.
Your service to King E— — cannot directly atone for your crimes against M— — and your children. The great cruelty you committed was not against the victims of the Nemean Lion or the Stymphalion Birds. It was against M— — and your innocent children and the family and townsfolk who knew them.
You must offer atonement to them.
If they have family who survived them (and you), then go to those people and offer your services. If not, you know the way to the Underworld to ask their shades.
But, and this is very important, do not demand that they give you a task to earn forgiveness. Because that brings me to my second point.
The first step of forgiveness is not a concrete task of atonement. It is the internal work of self-reflection to not only understand that what you did was wrong (which you knew from the start) but what led you to make this mistake. You must look, unflinchingly, at the darkness in your soul that led you down this path. Without reaching for excuses like a “madness” sent upon you. You must look inward and find the evil parts of your nature that came alive that day.
You must do the work to become a different person, one who would never make this mistake.
Only then will you be ready to offer those you have harmed true repentance. Whether they want anything besides an apology from you at that point should be worked out between you and them. Leave the gods, the oracle, and King E — out of this.
Look within, and when you are no longer the person who could be tricked or “madded” or just enraged enough to commit slaughter, then and only then will you be ready to earn your redemption.
Even if you are not offered forgiveness, you will be the kind of person who would never make this mistake again. And that work, unlike the random tasks of a jealous king, is well worth doing for its own sake.
Transcribed and annotated by Katy Mulvaney with permission from the League of Fairy Surrogates and the Interdimensional Meta — Fantasy Council. The Trope Fairy can be reached by baking a small cake and placing your note underneath. Feed the cake to a neighborhood dog who should appear soon after you are finished baking. If you look out of the corner of your eye, you should be able to see the second and third heads but do not be alarmed. As long as your cake has not collapsed, your tribute has been accepted and the letter will be delivered forthwith.