Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

The Power of Positive Lying

Lynne Murray says:

I have been thinking recently about the power of art to reframe reality. Novels, for example are a fancy form of extended lying, with the same kind of embroidery and polishing that turns simple anecdotes into family legends. The truth may be useful when one is in therapy, but the legend will tell you quite a lot about the person doing the telling.

Humans learn by stories and even anecdotes better than by facts and figures, and legends creep in and out of fiction as needed.

Case in point, when I was researching alternative wedding ceremonies for Bride of the Living Dead, the romantic comedy for women who love horror movies too much” I found a lot of material on “handfasting.” Most of the online sites devoted to such things described it as a medieval Scottish ceremony that had traditionally accompanied a kind of trial marriage “for a year and a day.” I’ve got a few Scots on a branch of my family tree so I especially liked the idea that such a sensible custom had once existed.

The only problem was that further research revealed that this particular tradition was totally bogus.

As medieval scholar Sharon L. Krossa points out:

[A]fter formal betrothals called “handfastings” had ceased to be actually practiced in Scotland, a curious myth arose in the late 18th century that “handfasting” referred [to] a trial marriage of a year and a day after which the partners could either marry permanently or part freely and that this kind of “handfasting” had been practiced in former times but not currently.

What began as a English tourist’s tall tale about those wild and crazy Scots in the 1790s was picked up by Sir Walter Scott, who used it in his 1820 novel The Monastery,

Obviously not every wizard story becomes a Harry Potter, As the most popular exploder of legends, puts it. “[L]egends are expressions of adult fears and concerns…”

The handfasting trial marriage story may have begun as a legend in the Snopes vein, something that no one in the 1790s had ever witnessed but was really supposed to have happened. Sir Walter Scott wove it into his tapestry and helped turn it into one of those things that many people “know” because it’s been talked about so often and researched so seldom.

The do-it-yourself with no permanent commitment, and revisit it after a year aspect of the handfasting legend resonates differently with current views on relationships. The idea that such a custom really existed in Scotland appeals to a nostalgic affinity for all things Celtic. Plus it seems a very heartfelt way to express commitment without bringing in any organized religion, which gives it an edge among those who want an alternative ceremony.

What interests me is how Sir Walter Scott’s book got into reality for real.

Artists can make up any world we want, turn weaknesses into strengths and show sides of things no one dreamed of. For example in her last novel, Fledgling, author Octavia E. Butler created a black vampire who was empowered by the melanin in her skin to be able to walk in the sunlight without burning as lighter-skinned vampires could not. She also created a vampire species where females have more power than males because their venom is stronger.

Why not?

The pay for turning daily life into plausible fiction may not be much, but the payoff of turning the world on its head and taking the reader along to see a different way is the reason many, if not most, novelists stay in the game.

One Response to “The Power of Positive Lying”

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