I couldn’t face the truth, so I started tellin’ lies. Can you ever forgive me? (Hearth’s Warming Eve/Family Appreciation Day)

Liars, every one of them.
Except maybe the one in the middle.

It’s January 7, 2012. The top song is LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” which works as a parody of the songs we’ve mostly had this season, and the top movie is The Devil Inside, about which I know nothing. In real news this week, the death toll of the Syrian uprising passes 5,000, Iran successfully tests two long-range missiles, and the U.S. Republican Presidential primary is officially underway, with Mitt Romney winning Iowa and Michele Bachmann dropping out. Also, it’s my mom’s 63rd birthday.

As a general rule, any time you have a story within a story or a narrator who refers to themselves in the first person, I recommend keeping an eye out for any tricks they’re playing on you; odds are there is some unreliable narration afoot.

“Hearth’s Warming Eve” is no exception. Some of the story the Mane Six perform for the audience (both in-story and out) is extremely unlikely, and there are clues throughout the episode that it may be more feel-good legend than accurate depiction of Equestrian history.

The term “unreliable narrator” was coined by Wayne C. Booth, who also gave us “implied author” and is just generally amazing if you have any interest in literary theory, in 1961. However, the concept has been in use for much longer: Poe, for instance, made great use of highly emotive and outburst-ridden narratives to help make the reader unsettled and show the severity of what occurred to the narrator. Lovecraft combined narrators who would normally be assumed by readers of the time to be reliable (highly educated scions of “good families”; members of high-knowledge professions such as doctors and scientists) with narration similar to Poe’s to create narration that the reader was both inclined to trust and yet could not credit, paralleling his placing of monstrous fever-image creatures in familiar New England settings. But the technique is much older than that; Hamlet, for example, is either “mad” or pretending to be, and either way some of his pronouncements can be believed by the audience and others cannot. Examples of unreliable narrators go all the way back to ancient Greek drama.

How do we know that Granny Smith is unreliable? One of the first things she does, after the opening credits, is admit that she has difficulty remembering things. Memory gaps are a major red flag for a narrator’s reliability–how can we know that what she does remember is accurate? That she isn’t confusing different events? But beyond that we have her behavior. The requirements she reveals for making Zap Apple jam, such as dressing in rabbit costumes and hopping in circles while singing, or painting pink polka dots all over the house, are the sorts of things Pinkie Pie would come up with. Indeed, between her silliness, apparent obliviousness to Apple Bloom’s attempts to get rid of her, and the inevitability of her return, she resembles Pinkie Pie very strongly in this episode. As a result, can her “And that’s how Ponyville was founded” be trusted any more than Pinkie’s “And that’s how Equestria was made?”

And she does have motive to make up the story. For all her apparent obliviousness, and whether we regard her as reliable or not, Granny Smith shows real hidden depths in this episode. She tells exactly the story that’s needed to resolve Apple Bloom’s difficulties, which suggests she isn’t anywhere near as oblivious as she seems (so she has memory problems and is actively putting up a front–the reasons not to take her story at face value continue to mount). She has watched at least one child of her own grow up (possibly more, if Applejack has aunts and uncles, which seems likely), as well as Applejack and Big Macintosh. She is no doubt aware that Apple Bloom is at that age where she is trying to establish her identity as her own person, independent from her family, and therefore finds everything her family members do intensely embarrassing. Even if she is only intuitively aware of the psychology–even if she doesn’t know it at all–she sees Apple Bloom hiding from Diamond Tiara during the shopping trip. During the trip she uses her oblivious front to prevent Apple Bloom from denying her family (which, as matriarch of a family as clannish as the Apples, is no doubt a serious infraction in her eyes). She knows she still has to address the underlying problem, however, so she needs to make Apple Bloom appreciate her family and (perhaps more importantly for a young adolescent) see that her peers appreciate her family, too.

So we have a motive for the story-within-a-story to be constructed a particular way, and reason to suspect its author(s) aren’t being (or can’t be) entirely truthful. But that alone is not enough to declare unreliable narration; there must be some contradiction within the story itself, either internally or between the story and our own knowledge.

And the contradictions are most definitely there, up to being built into the story. Specifically, the tale of Equestria’s founding we see is structured like a fairy tale, with its “once upon a time” beginning, stock characters, quest, and “harmony ever after” ending. This is notable, because one of the major distinctions between fairy tales and other forms of folklore is that, unlike legends or myths, fairy tales are not meant to be believed by the audience; they are intentional fictions. At the same time, unlike fables and parables, fairy tales are not primarily pedagogical; they are meant to entertain, not necessarily to instruct. A fairy tale may have a moral, but it is generally not the main focus of the story. This story of the founding of Equestria, however, does have a heavy-handed moral bent that serves as the main focus of the story, somewhat belying its fairy tale structure. In short, its Christmas-pageant-like setting is not a place one would expect to hear history, it is not structured or presented like history, appears to be a cross between a fairy tale and a fable, and extremely vague about when it happened. It seems likely the only reason fans have embraced this as a “true” history of Equestria is the lack of information from any other source. None of this is proof that it is (diegetically) false; simply that it is not structured like a true story.

But leaving structure aside, are there any real contradictions within the story itself? Actual presented facts that contradict facts we’ve had established elsewhere? And yes, if one looks closely such contradictions do appear.

It makes no sense for apparently quite good growing land, like Ponyville, to be within sight of the capital and yet uninhabited, even given the nearby Everfree Forest as a deterrent. In additions, it’s highly unlikely that Granny discovered something as complex as the Zap Apple jam recipe in what’s implied to be only 70-90 trial-and-error iterations, especially if she was making something good enough to be a major draw to the town within its first years of operations (as suggested by the fact that she doesn’t visually age between discovering the apples and Stinking Rich first selling them–she is still a young filly, probably just past getting her cutie mark).

An unreliable narrator is not necessarily a bad narrator. There are many reasons to employ the technique, and the exact effect largely depends on what the truth is, and what the narrator’s apparent motivations in concealing it are. So what is the likely truth, and what do the changes tell us about the narrator?

Most likely, this story is complete fiction. Remember that some time after its founding, Discord ruled Equestria; the true story of its founding was probably lost. However, given that Equestria is dominated by a feudal structure (as opposed to the military structure implied by the pegasi having a general or the republican structure implied by the Earth ponies’ chancellor), it seems likely that Equestria was initially dominated by unicorns, perhaps even by means of conquering the other tribes. Regardless of the mechanism, the unicorns seem to have been dominant at first, and it seems likely that (given they share the role given to the unicorns in this story) Celestia and Luna were originally unicorns. It is thus all the more admirable that Equestria has achieved harmony between the three tribes, and such lies are unnecessary. We can only hope that the true story is out there and taught in schools, and this is just a bit of historical fiction for entertainment.

Liars, every one of them.
Except maybe the one in the middle.

It’s December 17, 2011. The top song is still the same Rihanna, and the top movie is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I thought was pretty good but paled against the first. In real news, Time names “The Protester” as its Person of the Year, the 2010 U.S. Census results show one in two residents of that country is low-income or poor, and in its first report on the subject, the U.N. calls for the worldwide protection of LGBT rights. Also it’d be my dad’s 70th birthday, if he were alive.

As a general rule, any time you have a story within a story or a narrator who refers to themselves in the first person, I recommend keeping an eye out for any tricks they’re playing on you; odds are there is some unreliable narration afoot.

“Apple Family Reunion” is no exception. Some of what Granny Smith tells Apple Bloom (and by extension the audience) is extremely unlikely, and there are clues throughout the episode that, while more or less honest, she may not actually be a great source for information.

The term “unreliable narrator” was coined by Wayne C. Booth, who also gave us “implied author” and is just generally amazing if you have any interest in literary theory, in 1961. However, the concept has been in use for much longer: Poe, for instance, made great use of highly emotive and outburst-ridden narratives to help make the reader unsettled and show the severity of what occurred to the narrator. Lovecraft combined narrators who would normally be assumed by readers of the time to be reliable (highly educated scions of “good families”; members of high-knowledge professions such as doctors and scientists) with narration similar to Poe’s to create narration that the reader was both inclined to trust and yet could not credit, paralleling his placing of monstrous fever-image creatures in familiar New England settings. But the technique is much older than that; Hamlet, for example, is either “mad” or pretending to be, and either way some of his pronouncements can be believed by the audience and others cannot. Examples of unreliable narrators go all the way back to ancient Greek drama.

How do we know that the play is unreliable? The first clue is that Spike narrates it–the same Spike whose point of view was used to make adorable Owlowiscious seem evil. He’s already been established as an unreliable narrator, in other words. The format in which the play is presented also suggests unreliability; Christmas pageants are not known for their adherence to strict historical accuracy, after all. Beyond that, there is the vagueness–the legend of Nightmare Moon at least specified a timespan of a thousand years. This story gives us no idea how long ago it takes place, which seems immediately suspect for history, or how long the blizzards lasted–was it one extremely bad winter? A steadily worsening climate over decades? We don’t know. Of course this is a performance, meant to entertain rather than teach history, so we shouldn’t expect citations–but its status as a performance is precisely what makes it suspect!

And there is a strong motive for this story to be less than entirely accurate. As the title says, friendship and cooperation are powerful sources of magic in Friendship Is Magic. Equestria is a realm beset by frequent monster attacks; it needs all the magic it can get, and so the powers that be have a vested interest in discouraging racism (one of the most striking differences between Equestria and our own civilization, where resentments between linguistically and ethnically distinct segments of the population are exploited to prevent an alliance of the lower and middle classes against the upper). Suggesting that widespread ethnic conflict, even nonviolent conflict, will attract Windigoes and bring about horrible blizzards serves this purpose well. But even beyond that, as we will see when we dig into this story’s contradiction, there are hints of unpleasantness in Equestria’s past that this story helps to paper over, serving a function similar to the U.S. Thanksgiving narrative, which emphasizes cooperation between newly arrived settlers and Native Americans, ignoring the bloody and violent history of genocide and forced relocations that followed. Note that none of this is a motivation for Spike or the Mane Six; they are simply performing the show they were given, which is at least implied to be a traditional part of Hearth’s Warming Eve. No–the true unreliable narrator here is the unseen author of the play they perform.

So we have a motive for the story-within-a-story to be constructed a particular way, and reason to suspect its author(s) aren’t being (or can’t be) entirely truthful. But that alone is not enough to declare unreliable narration; there must be some contradiction within the story itself, either internally or between the story and our own knowledge.

And the contradictions are most definitely there, up to being built into the story itself. Granny Smith’s story, despite being ostensibly true, has all the hallmarks of a “tall tale,” a genre prevalent in the rural U.S. where speakers take turns trying to outdo one another in a virtuosic exercise of telling the most elaborate, outlandish, ridiculous tale they can. The traditional tall tale starts with a relatively mundane circumstance or activity, and then escalates, becoming more and more absurdist as it continues, employing exaggeration, hyperbole, and puns to create humorous, outlandish scenarios. Granny Smith’s story is no different, progressing from the fairly believable notion of a nomadic family receiving a land grant and having a tough first year, to exaggerations such as an entire meal consisting of three peas each, to pun-based absurdities such as the timberwolves, and from there to the completely over-the-top such as magic trees that grow instantly and apples that disappear (not fall or get eaten by wildlife, magically vanish) after five days. Now, many of these details are actually confirmed as true in this or later episodes, but that should enhance our suspicion: This story is structured as a tall tale, so there must be something in it that’s false. If not the exaggerated details, then what?

But leaving structure aside, are there any real contradictions within the story itself? Actual presented facts that contradict facts we’ve had established elsewhere? And yes, if one looks closely such contradictions do appear.

The most obvious one is that the personalities of the characters in the play are suspiciously apropos to their actors: Rarity and Rainbow Dash’s characters are self-aggrandizing and overconfident, while Applejack’s and Twilight Sparkle’s are hardworking and put-upon, and Fluttershy’s is a doormat. This could just be good casting, if not for Pinkie Pie’s character, who is as cartoonishly “crazy” as she is and would have been overthrown in a real crisis. In that respect, at least, the play is clearly false–but there’s another contradiction. If Equestria was founded equally by all three tribes, why do its leaders have the same title as the unicorn expedition’s leader?

An unreliable narrator is not necessarily a bad narrator. There are many reasons to employ the technique, and the exact effect largely depends on what the truth is, and what the narrator’s apparent motivations in concealing it are. So what is the likely truth, and what do the changes tell us about the narrator?

It seems likely that Ponyville was inhabited, though perhaps sparsely, well before Granny Smith’s family moved there. In turn, it could be that Zap Apples were already somewhat known. Granny likely (at a fairly young age, which is still pretty  impressive) perfected a recipe that was already out there, and that led to Ponyville growing from scattered small-hold farmers to a true town with a name. Her story is not an outright lie–if it were, one would think Cheerilee would have both the knowledge and motivation to object–but an exaggeration and simplification to make Apple Bloom appreciate her family more and get the other kids to stop teasing her about Granny. It’s a legend and a lie-to-children, but ultimately not a harmful one. Granny Smith’s heart is in the right place, and the kids will doubtless learn better as they continue in school; no real harm is done, although Apple Bloom will likely be embarrassed again when she learns the truth.

      The power of an unreliable narrator is its ability to add density to a story. It allows exposition and character development to be folded together, so that the manner of giving the exposition becomes a form of characterization, and it allows characters to become more complex–or, in the case of revealing a traditional narrative to be unreliable, entire societies. These two episodes, paralleled and intertwined, remind us that even a children’s show can achieve complexity through such techniques.

      Next week: Hey, an Applejack episode! We haven’t had one of those in a while. *weeps*

      9 thoughts on “I couldn’t face the truth, so I started tellin’ lies. Can you ever forgive me? (Hearth’s Warming Eve/Family Appreciation Day)

      1. Did you think the original version of this double-analysis was unfit to put in the book or something? Did two episodes merit two pairs of analyses? Just buying a bit more time until you get back into the swing of things? Regardless it'd be nice to have a bit of italicized explanation above the post…
        (Plus the two episodes jump between columns a few times in this version… not sure if that's deliberate, but if it's not you might want to fix that.)

        Like

      2. Nope, it's completely intentional. I always planned to have two double-column articles on these two episodes, precisely because they're so similar, and also because I could think of two different approaches to take.

        As for the switching columns, yes, that's completely intentional too. There's a pattern to it.

        Plus I like to keep y'all on your toes.

        Like

      3. “As a general rule, any time you have… a narrator who refers to themselves in the first person, I recommend keeping an eye out for any tricks they're playing on you.”

        Like

      4. You can't put it off forever, you know.

        Anyway, my thoughts:

        I'm surprised you skipped over the biggest red flag as to the HWE pageant's accuracy: They say it took place long before the reign of Celestia and Luna, but Celestia and Luna are on the flag that is raised over the newly-founded Equestria.

        Now, there's a litany of possible explanations for this (“hey, we don't know what the Equestrian flag actually looked like back then, so let's use a modern one and hope the foals don't notice!”), but it goes into one of my major headcanons about religion as it relates to Equestria… I should probably save that for another time.

        Nevertheless, I don't think the pageant is an outright lie. If nothing else, Twilight would have stopped the whole play if she'd found any inaccuracies against what she'd been able to verify in researching every available work of writing on the subject… and Star Swirl the Bearded did write about the Windigoes, so they're apparently real. I do think it's telling a sanitized and cleaned-up version, since of course most of the little interpersonal (interponial?) details would be lost to history anyway, but I think at the macroeconomic and sociopolitical levels it's generally accurate.

        Also, Equestria isn't really “feudal,” since every local-government official we've encountered so far has had the title of an elected office. This implies a more democratic-republic governmental structure, but with the Alicorns monarchs as ultimate-overseers. Nothing quite like that exists on Earth, but of course, here on Earth, we're stuck with mortal monarchs.

        As for the princesses: We've seen one former-Unicorn and one former-Pegasus amongst the Alicorns, so my headcanon is that Celestia and Luna were originally Earth Ponies (another popular theory is that Celestia and Luna, unlike Twilight and Cadence, were born Alicorns… which is one explanation for why Celestia and Luna are both thousands of years old, yet Cadence seems to be aging normally).

        Now, on the topic of FAD:

        I think some strong evidence for the veracity of Granny Smith's story is that Diamond Tiara probably ran right home and asked her dad for the details, hoping he would tell her that it was nonsense… and if he had, she would have shown up at the end of the episode and let them know it for sure. And I think that Filthy Rich would know enough about his own family business's history to be able to confirm or deny a lot of the info.

        And I've completely forgotten where I was going with all this, and I should have been asleep three hours ago.

        Like

      5. I think the later half of your HWE theory rests far too heavily on the title of princess being common to both Equestria and Unicornia.

        Princess Platinum, unlike Celestia, is not an absolute monarch; she's acting on behalf of her father the king. So the titles are not equivalent.

        Like

      6. Had I more space (the two columns had to be exactly equal) I would have pointed out that it makes total sense for the ruler of a conquered or colonized territory to be one rank lower than the ruler of the homeland. See the Prince of Wales for an example.

        Presumably, the original realms were destroyed during the Discord thing.

        Like

      7. I think if Filthy is half as wise and clever as Granny Smith he probably would have recognized what she was trying to do and let her story go uncorrected as long as at least half of it was true. After all, he has a vested interest in getting her daughter on good terms with the Apple clan, and getting her to respect them is a good first step.

        Like

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