We’re back, and it’s time once more for the Mythology of the Modern World. Today’s myth comes to us via a question asked by Paul Gadzikowski, legend of Microsoft Paint before it was cool. His question is one asked by many people, both children and people who had been children once upon a time. To whit:
Some of us mortals suspect that our toys come to life at night or when we leave the house, and that they have Rules of which the upshot is prohibiting our knowing they’re alive. Where did the Rules come from?
It really is something worth pondering, and to be honest Toy Story and its sequels haven’t helped. They get some of the concepts right, but not all of them — if nothing else, the truth behind our toys and their hidden lives don’t end with the toys holding hands as they descend down a gravel track towards the pure molten fire that represents their horrible, twisted deaths every time one of them gets discarded. For one thing, our toys don’t want our children (or the rest of us) sobbing our fucking eyes out in terror when we think of the toys we loved got thrown out after being broken!
Not that I’m bitter.
In order to understand the Rules, you have to understand what takes bits of plastic, wood, cloth, and batting and turn them into our best friends, our closest comforts, our companions, our imaginations, and our recipients of cathartic violence that doesn’t lead us to killing the neighbor’s dog instead.
In other words… you need to hear about the Souls of Toys.
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It’s easy to think of a toy as being a discrete object, the same as you or I. You get a Barbie, a Draculaura, a Starscream and a Shining Knight on a shelf, and if they are alive (or alive to you, which honestly is the same thing), it’s fair to think their existence is entirely confined to their molded plastic bodies. It’s also fair to think you’re seeing the most awesome double date in history. One can only hope that Shining Knight is there as a wingman, what since he got married and all. Not that Starscream needs the help — he’s smoooooth with the ladies. But I digress.
Regardless, the four toys in question are unquestionably alive, whether you’re there or not, but unlike you and I, their lives are not confined to their physical form. Living toys have souls, and those souls have luminous bodies — ones we cannot perceive quite so easily.
Those bodies are sculpted, naturally enough, by elves. Toy elves are a specialized race of the fey — a form of Brownie crossed with those spirits who cobble shoes and bake things — the makers and dreamers and kind spirits who love humanity and especially love children, and live far to the North as the Backworlds are measured. Children the world over have sometimes heard their toys talking about their childhoods in the toyshops of the North, where the elves sip cocoa and debate the merits of the PS4 versus the XBox One (hey — they had to have them there long before we got them here. Think about it.) It’s natural that they would assume the North in metaphysical senses meant the ‘north’ of mundane planet Earth, which is why we assume they live at the North Pole.
Whether or not they work for someone named Kris or Kringle or Claus or the like is not for me to say. Obviously there’s some kind of organizational structure — I mean, duh — but it’s not one that we’re supposed to be too clued into, I think. Understand, while I have a number of contacts and friends who keep me appraised of the world beyond this one, letting me tell these tales to you, sometimes they either don’t know the answers or aren’t allowed to give them to me. In this case, I learned about most of this from Anthry, a stuffed white tiger who is a pacifist vegetarian — actually, she’s ovo-lacto — who works as a senior Comfort Plush and who is given to being ‘chatty.’ But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When the luminous forms of toys are crafted, taken from the stuff of dreams and the hope of shadows and a certain mixture of stardust and thermosetting polymers, they’re subjected to a battery of tests to ensure they’re practically perfect in every way, as the old short story goes. Once this has been established, then and only then are they joined to a soul — and where those souls come from is not for us to know, and that’s all I’ll say about that. The joining process is a joyous one, of course, and everyone involved — all the elves and the other ensouled toy forms around them celebrate with joy. And then and only then are the new luminous toys sent forth from the toy shop….
…to central dispatch and processing. Because there was no way any of this was going to happen without bureaucracy. But you knew that, right? And as far as the rules, such as they are? Well, this is where toys learn them. Honestly, they’re mostly practical, and they’re often adjusted depending on where they end up — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Central dispatch and processing is located within one of the half worlds, and is a combination of warehouse, dormitory, school and airport terminal. The myriad luminous toys — new and old alike — pass through there (at least much of the time) waiting for assignments and learning both what they need to do in the world and what the rules are when they get there. These rules are important, mind, because toys so often work with children, and you can’t just let someone wing it with a child. They learn that in most cases toys are going to end up a part of a household with many toys, not just one or two, and that as with any household there’s going to be interpersonal relationships and conflicts, and none of those things are allowed to spill out onto the human beings they live with.
And, like any other students, the toys smile and nod and pretend to listen and are bored, because we get it already, grandpa. And like any other teacher, the old clapping cymbal monkey who was just trying to help these kids shakes his head and goes home, and at the end of the day drinks beer and talks to his wife (an early nineties Furby who hit it big in the tech boom and retired early, marrying the monkey — easily thirty years her senior — after a really hard night of drinking. They stay together for the kids.) about how when he was a kid just starting out toys were made out of wood, felt and wire and these kids didn’t respect their elders the way they used to.
Regardless, eventually the luminous toy is given an assignment, and takes the Pod to a local distribution hub. What’s the Pod? Mass transportation. Toys gotta get where they’re going somehow, right? Not all toys transform into supersonic jets. At the local hub, they wait until the right physical toy is found, and at just the right time they’re sent down and drop inside.
Generally, that time is when they’re in a toy store or a Target or what have you. That’s right. Most of the time toys don’t have souls until they’re actually in the store — and not all the toys that are in the story have those souls to begin with. If you take the time to look, you can tell the difference. A toy without a soul is… well… empty. It looks blank, it has nothing in it that catches your eye. It may be well made, but it seems almost pointless. And that may sound tragic, but it’s really not — a toy without a soul is plastic and cloth and the like, no more alive than the cap to a soda bottle.
However, a toy which becomes ensouled is different. If, as I said, you take the time to look, you can sense something in them. Their eyes (if they have eyes) catch yours. You can maybe hear a whisper deep in your imagination. You can tell — if you want to take the time — that there’s something more there. Something to potentially love. Or at least something to potentially have a blast playing with. Either way, really.
When that recognition happens — call it a ping — you can listen, and wait to see if the toy will talk to you in your imagination. Sometimes it will be hard. Some toys are quiet, and shy, and some peoples’ imagination is pretty damn deaf, especially after years of neglect. On the other hand, some other toys won’t shut up for Love or Money. Listening to a toy you can usually figure out if you’re a good matched pair. If so, you can always buy the toy. On the other hand, sometimes even loud toys will let you know in no uncertain terms that they’re not for you. They’re for someone else. Or they’re working. Oh yes. Some toys have to keep the toy department running at least somewhat smoothly, and ironically some of them will be the loudest in your ears.
And sometimes, you’ll hear that ping. You’ll find a toy. You’ll know it’s for you — that it’s meant for you. And then you’ll check the price and yikes, no way you can pick it up just then. That’s okay — don’t sweat it. A toy like that will follow you. When payday comes, even if you can’t find that original physical toy, you can look for another form — at a different store, or even in a different type of toy. Maybe that specific transforming Red Megaforce Ranger won’t be there any more, but you’ll get that ping off a Masterclass Red Megaforce Ranger instead — or you may even find that ping in a Laser Eyes Man of Steel Superman instead. There are a lot of possibilities. The point if this — if an ensouled toy is meant for you, it’ll find you when you’re ready. You can’t lose it. It’s all right. Don’t panic. Stop crying, damn it. We’re in the middle of WalMart and everyone’s looking, and Jesus Christ you’re thirty-four years old and an accountant! There will literally be other Lyra Heartstringses!
However, when we say the toys become ensouled, that doesn’t mean the luminous toys within them are confined to their physical forms. That would be horrifying if you think about it. If the physical toy were the only means by which the true toy could move… all the toys in boxes or wrapped in plastic on hanging cards would be trapped, sometimes for months at a time. No, the physical toy is just an anchor — the luminous toy can and does move around all it wants — they go out, play the video games, call out for toy Chinese food… they generally have a good time. And they don’t wait for the lights to go out, either — they’re pretty active all the time. Once again, the only way to perceive them is through the imagination. Well, and LSD works pretty well.
This holds true when you get home as well. The toys in question will settle in quickly, finding their place in your house’s toy ecosystem. There are older toys and younger ones. Some will have jobs outside the home, others will work in the house, and still others won’t have jobs but will contribute in other ways. And of course, they’ll all be ready to play at a moment’s notice. Of course, they’ll be moving around pretty much all the time. Most of the time, they’ll be in luminous form, but sometimes they’ll still be in their physical body. The original question asked about the rules that enforced their not being caught physically moving, but honestly they don’t worry about that. If someone doesn’t have the imagination to notice them moving outside of their physical form, they generally won’t notice them moving inside it either. People are just like that.
I mentioned jobs before. Not all toys work, naturally, but a good number of them do. When they work outside the home, they generally duck out, catch the Pod, and head out to their jobs. Sometimes it’ll be fighting Decepticons or ruling over Equestria (weirdly, lots of Megatrons rule Equestria now, and a lot of Princess Celestias are actually working as baristas at Starbucks — just how these things work out). But, you’ll also hear about any number of less… adventurous jobs. Some toys work as bank tellers, or deliver pizzas (lioness toys are well known for being delivery lionesses. Tip them well if they bring your pizza — they’re lionesses. They can eat you.) Some toys telecommute into toy bodies in other location — office toys and the like. A stuffed ocelot of my acquaintance commutes each morning from his home — where he plays with the family and spends time with the other toys — to the CBC studios in Toronto, where he acts as personal assistant plush to Brent Bambury himself.
For the toys who don’t work outside the home, some ‘just’ play, of course. Others keep watch for any mean spirits or bad influences. Still others administer house functions, or maintain the toy infrastructure — toys have their own apartments, kitchen facilities and the like, just out of view, in the ceiling, beneath the floorboards, behind the couch, at the backs of cabinets and any number of other places. Some toys are young — especially the newborn toys just made in the toyshops and sent down for their first assignments — and so they need to go to school the same as kids do. And, as mentioned above, some are Comfort toys. You know the sort — the toys that you turn to when you’re scared or miserable or just can’t cope. The stuffed animal you need to sleep with to have good dreams. The drum you beat when you need to get the bad things out. The action figures that take your mind away from misery. The rag doll you can tell all your secrets. Comfort toys are among the most important of all the toys — as such, they need to go through a pretty sophisticated certification process, followed by internships. It can be a hard job with miserable hours — that teddy bear you sleep with by definition is up all night long — but most comfort toys wouldn’t do anything else.
The best way to learn what your toys do for a living is to ask, of course. As we said, you mostly hear their answers (and see their movements) via your imagination. That can be difficult, but it’s easier to focus it in if you give them a hand — pick them up, move them around, let them speak with your voice. If you have a friend, or a sibling, or a spouse who can help with this, so much the better. And if it seems ridiculous to do so… you may have an atrophied imagination, and you need to spend a lot more time working with your toys. Likewise, if you’re talking to your daughter, say, and she informs you that her stuffed frog Mister Bob works at the Apple Store in Bethesda, Maryland, don’t shake your head and wonder if your kid is hearing too much advertising. Believe her. She’s telling you the truth.
One thing I should mention — I was dismissive about the ridiculous notion that toys that end up in the attic after their children grow up, or that get broken or lost spend all their time pining for a child who will never come home, or end up in a landfill or incinerator or all the rest. I know any number of you — especially you adults out there, who should be the only ones reading this because of the warning in the sidebar, right Quinn? — have been feeling bad since you saw those movies, no matter how heartwarming you felt they were right up until the implications sunk in. This is because, as I said, toys are luminous beings. As they get neglected or ignored, they spend more and more time attending to their own affairs. When it becomes clear the human they were working with has moved on… well, so does the toy.
Similarly, if your toy gets lost or thrown out… well, sure. It hurts. I get that. That physical toy means a lot to you. I don’t mean to minimize that. But if you go and get a new toy to replace it… well, check it. Listen. Listen with your imagination. Guess what? Your toy — your luminous toy — will be right there. You can’t lose a toy like that. It’ll follow you.
But, in those situations where a human is done with a given toy, they’ll feel badly, of course. Still, life will go on. They return to their local distribution hub, or even go back to central processing. Maybe they take some time, have a vacation, focus on their other work, finally write that novel — you know how it is. And while they’re up there, the dispatchers check to see if their assignment will ever need them back. If not… well, they get a new assignment, and descend into a new physical body, and get picked up by the one they were meant for, and they do what they love. With each round, they do more things and get more experience, and the tenor of their voice changes with time. It’s a glorious thing.
Likewise, if you were rough with your toys, understand that your toys were almost certainly empty at the time or were trained stunt toys, ready and willing to endure that kind of play or cathartic release. You can’t really hurt them, and they won’t stop loving you. Unless, you know, you’re an asshole. Don’t be an asshole to your toys.
And some of you are reading this… and suddenly you’re choked up, because your imagination just sparked, a little bit. You remember that one toy — the one you loved so much. The comfort toy you clung to when you needed it. The toy who spoke the loudest — your best friend in the whole wide world. And here you are, an adult and long away from such things, and suddenly you would give anything — anything — to have that toy back.
It’s all right. It’s okay. Tonight, go down to a toy store. A big chain, or a small shop, or even a website. Go where you most expect your toy would be. And once there? Start looking. Find a toy of the right type — it won’t be the same exact toy, but it might be close. Find that toy. Pick it up. Look at it. Look in its eyes. Listen. Not just with your ears, but with your imagination. Listen.
It may not be at the first store, or the second. You may come across other toys that are awake and alive, but not quite right. You may see a lot of empty toys. Don’t get discouraged.
And sooner or later. You’ll hear it. That ping. That voice. And you’ll know. You’ll know. It’s that toy. That one you loved.
And it still loves you.
Go ahead. Buy it. Bring it home. And no matter your age, take it out. Put it together. Transform it. Comb its mane. Pull its string. Look it in the eyes and squeeze its plush body. Use that imagination. Get your spouse to help. Or your kids. Especially your kids. They probably have better exercised imaginations — they’ll get yours off the couch, and get it listening to your toy.
And then ask it where it’s been. It’ll have a lot of stories to tell you. Make sure you introduce it to the other toys, so it can settle into the household.
And if it’s the only toy in the household, consider picking up some others. You know. To keep it company. Look for the ping. Make sure they’re not working, of course. Maybe have one for the office, too. You know. Just to keep the toy workforce employed. Stimulate the economy. You know how it is.
Besides — that Classics Thundercracker is cool.