Telling Stories

by Tom Morey

I am not personally acquainted with anyone who has never told a lie. When asked to write on the subject “My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It”, Mark Twain wrote:

If you had asked about my first truth it would have been easier for me and kinder of you, for I remember that fairly well. I remember it as if it were last week. The family think it was week before, but that is flattery and probably has a selfish project back of it….

He goes on to make the point that children begin lying as soon as they realize that crying gets them the same attention whether or not the cause for crying is there or not; lying begins well before we know how to speak.

I bring up the subject of lying for several reasons:

  1. The words “fiction” and “lie” are synonyms (much like “telling stories” and “lying” are in the vernacular). It can reasonably be assumed – we will call this “Theory 1a” – that the person who is an accomplished creator of fiction has all the skills necessary to be an enormously talented liar. We may also postulate –– let’s call this “Theory 1b” –– that anyone who shows an ability to lie stands some chance of being a good story-teller. We will see where these theories take us as this piece unfolds.
  2. We get the opportunity to see almost every substantial character in the Harry Potter novels attempt to tell lies of one sort or another. How good they are at it, and when they are good at it, may give some interesting insights – particularly as regards to the best and worst liars of the lot.
  3. I like the wordplay that results from the fact that great authors –– like J. K. Rowling –– not only indulge in “telling stories”, they craft tales that give insight into themselves and the world – in other words, they create very “telling stories” indeed.

Where the Truth Lies

Let’’s kick this off by looking at someone whose ability to lie with insouciance has been a subject of some comment by the author: Ginny Weasley.

  1. Harry is surprised with what ease Ginny lies to her mother that Crookshanks is the one throwing dungbombs at the door behind which the Order is meeting in OotP.
  2. George and Fred are surprised (and impressed) that Ginny learned to play Quidditch by breaking into the broom shed and “borrowing” each of her brothers brooms in turn without their knowing it. This once again is from OotP.
  3. Ginny’s lie about someone setting off “garroting gas” in the corridor, to help Harry break into Umbridge’’s office in OotP, is told easily and convincingly, and she suggests it quickly when she realizes something needs to be done to keep people out of that corridor.

It is worth testing Theory 1b at this point to see whether or not Ginny, who is a convincing liar, is also a good story-teller as well. As a matter of fact:

  1. She is a good mimic. She does impressions of the quidditch playing of Ron, Harry and others, to the great entertainment of the team in HBP; she also successfully imitates Umbridge at the first informal DA gathering in the Hog’’s Head in OotP. Mimicry is an essential part of a storyteller’s art.
  2. As a younger girl, she liked to write down her thoughts and feelings. Obviously, this backfired with Riddle’’s diary, but the implication is that she would have done much writing even without his baneful influence.
  3. Even though excessively communicative –– at least according to Ron –– Ginny struggled when she was younger with expressing herself in front of the boy she liked the most. That might typically lead to the types of internalization that give author’s insight and human beings compassion –– Ginny seems to have these qualities in abundance. Her staunch defense of the unpopular Luna in the face of teasing is an example.

All of this leads me to wonder – has Ginny, in many ways, become more of an exemplar of the author of the Harry Potter series than even Hermione or Harry? Certainly, Ginny and Ron’’s quarreling sounds a lot more like what JKR describes herself going through with HER sister, Di, than anything only-child Hermione has ever experienced. JKR also describes herself (in her biography on her website) as entertaining her sister by telling stories –– when they weren’’t fighting.

It also went uncommented on at the time, but Ginny was not made a prefect when she first became eligible in the last book. Yet, she is recognized as remarkable by people as widely divergent as Slughorn and Zabini. She might be seen as something of a “late bloomer” –– at least relative to the studious overachiever, Hermione; this might also be seen as in some ways paralleling the author’’s experiences.

A Clue Men See In Being Able to Lie

The greatest liar of the Harry Potter series must be Severus Snape. He has lied with impunity to either one of, or both of, the greatest Legilimens of his age.

Voldemort believes that he “always knows” when he is being lied to –– or at least he says so (Voldemort himself is an inveterate liar). But, the evidence seems to be there that Voldemort does in fact believe in the infallibility of his own Legilimency. For one thing, he is not paranoid or suspicious of his followers; he seems perfectly confident in his power to read their minds, as it were. For another thing, he is unable to tell that Dumbledore was lying to him during their battle at the Ministry of Magic. It seems to never occur to him someone might successfully lie to him – and hubris, as we know, is always punished in great classical literature.

But back to Snape: there is some story that Snape told Dumbledore that we have yet to hear. Speculation has existed for some time that Snape was in love with Lily, and since DD was the only one who knew – Snape being such a good liar –– DD believed that he had an ironclad reason to trust that Snape regretted passing Voldemort the information that led to the Potter’s’ deaths. There are other theories that could fit the facts as we know them so far. Unlike Voldemort, Dumbledore did not believe his Legilimency was infallible; his belief in Snape was a judgment of the kind we all have to make in the face of imperfect information. Whether or not Snape was lying to him we do not yet know.

Playing the Liar Like a Harp

To create fiction is, in essence, to create tremendous, sprawling, entertaining lies. I hate being lied to, but love fiction, so go figure. The same skills that make one a convincing liar can make one a good story-teller, and vice-versa. That can be seen in the Harry Potter books through Ginny, who shares some of the author’’s imaginative and humanistic traits. The venality of the dishonesty of Voldemort, Lucius Malfoy, and other Death Eaters is pointed out in the series; the importance of being a good liar in a good cause is also a point brought out repeatedly in the series.

But then, you can’t expect a writer of fiction to have nothing good to say about lying.