Here is a brief study I put together. It is designed to synthesize some of my favorite past times. It was directed at high school students with little exposure to philosophy. Consequently, some of it will be far beneath the readers on this blog. Nonetheless, it should be fun to get a discussion going regarding philosophical elements in literature.
Philosophy and Literature
Often, in human history, our most cherished philosophies are demonstrated in our most beloved literature. Authors become the voice of the people in expressing their deepest desires, struggles, and fears. Literature has the power to communicate truth about reality with potent symbolism, and the poetic articulation of yearnings common to human experience. In this regard, the pen truly is mightier than the sword, even an ancient elvish sword.
The Fantasy genre (not counting the myth and fables from whence it came) has only just recently come to be appreciated by the general population; however, it has held a fiercely loyal fan base for decades. Fantasy literature is characterized by elements of magic or the supernatural as they occur in the reality of the author’s work. It borrows heavily from themes in ancient myth and fairy tales, and, as such, is largely predisposed to metaphysical ponderings. Fantasy literature relies upon the philosophical axioms of metaphysics in order to create a framework for the plot, setting, or other literary elements. This is especially true for those authors gifted enough to create entire worlds, complete with systems and rules for the magical/supernatural. Consequently, the author can bring the reader to a true appreciation regarding the role of the supernatural in our lives today.
Therefore, it will be beneficial to explore the metaphysical structures used in the literary devices of three of Fantasy’s most prolific authors: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. One of the distinguishing characteristics of these authors’ novels, in a literary sense, is the expansive nature of the worlds that each created. In a philosophical sense, they are significant because of the profound questions these worlds pose to readers about the nature of reality. Consequently, it is not only the questions posed by the existence of these worlds alone, but also that these worlds are developed enough to account for the existence of the fantastic and are “heavy” enough to facilitate our own minds’ journeys through them.[ii] These are works of fiction that stand up to repeated readings, and have captured the imaginations of people in a diverse array of media like film, television, and video games.
The Lord of the Rings takes place in Middle-Earth, the setting for Tolkien’s “Alternate pre-history” to the human epoch on Earth. It is a world that supposes that Elves, Dwarves, and supernatural creatures, along with their struggles, were a real, shared part of Earth’s ancient history. While this is only one of many theories regarding Tolkien’s use of Middle-Earth as a setting (the world of middle-earth is, indeed, substantial enough to stand on its own), it creates a framework for us to evaluate the philosophical questions that Tolkien’s work seems to provoke for the reader in our reality.
“In Narnia children escaping a modern European war encounter a faun, a dwarf, a Snow Queen who is not even of that world, centaurs, a big bad wolf, talking beavers, a giant, dryads, naiads, a unicorn, a huge lion who made the land, and even Father Christmas, complete with gifts.”[iii] Narnia is not unlike middle-earth, but is an alternate reality rather than an alternate history. Lewis, also famous for his other ventures (a science-fiction trilogy among them), literally creates Narnia in a parallel universe in the Chronicles. This parallel reality, some have argued, functions analogously for our own, especially within the Judeo-Christian worldview. Nonetheless, Narnia poses profound questions about our own reality, especially about the nature of time and space.
Rowling’s fantasy setting actually takes place alongside our modern reality. The wizarding world that Harry Potter enters when he is enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry exists hidden in our own technological age. While Rowling has not created an alternate existence or an alternate history per se, she has created a sub-culture within the known world that is complete with all of the idiosyncrasies, rules, accoutrement, and tools of an individual society. While the wizarding world is aware of the non-magical world (“muggles” in the book), they work tirelessly to keep themselves unnoticed by people of the non-wizarding sort.
All of these authors have, undoubtedly, set about writing a story and not a philosophical treatise. Nonetheless, their stories operate within the bounds of a specific metaphysical disposition. According to Kreeft, we all operate with assumptions about whether reality exists beyond the scope of our own thought, and whether that reality is perceived in its truest sense on a daily basis.[iv] To that end, these authors have led us, wittingly or not, down an important road of philosophical self-discovery.
Entering an Alternate Reality
To one degree or another, the world of fantasy literature owes its existence to the philosophy of Plato. He postulated that the world we experience through our physical senses is merely a shadow of the “real” reality that remains out of our perception. Fantasy literature utilizes this understanding of our existence as its basic premise. The world we experience is not all that there is in the “real world.” In the “real world,” we experience all of the things that we cannot experience in our daily lives, because of our clouded perception. Plato’s Myth of the Cave and his Theory of Forms could ultimately be the sources of this understanding as used in Fantasy literature.
In the Myth of the Cave, Plato imagines a cave where human beings have been held captive since birth. They are chained down in such a way that they can only see the wall of the cave. They cannot see the sky, heavens, or each other. Consequently, the only thing they know about their world comes from the shadows that are cast onto the wall as objects are passed in front of a fire by their captors in the cave. These shadows, then, are the only means by which the prisoners know reality.
Plato then asks the reader to imagine what it would be like for one of those prisoners, if the captors showed them any of the objects that had been casting shadows on the wall. Surely, the prisoner would reject the true form of the object as trickery, and, having only ever known the shadows and not expecting anything else to exist beyond them, would insist that the shadows are indeed reality. Plato then goes through a series of questions asking the reader to imagine what would happen if the prisoner was subsequently (for the first time in their existence) stood up, shown the fire, and taken outside. Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling have essentially done just that. They have created a world that allows us to exit our cave of perception and interact with ideas/objects in their true form (Platonic Forms from here on).
In order for these authors to have substantive interaction with what truly constitutes reality, they would ultimately have to take the reader to a place where Platonic Forms are present alongside (or in some cases in the place of) our mere perception of forms. Consequently, their worlds are certainly significant literary accomplishments, but also represent a story telling tool that enables the reader to interact with the philosophical quandaries introduced by Plato. The reader of fantasy literature is able to interrelate with platonic ideas at a much more intuitive level through their interaction with narrative than they would otherwise have the ability to do in some academic setting. This is ultimately the ageless value and strength of the narrative: ordinary people can become part of complex and important contemplation though they may lack the ability to articulate such concepts in other settings. Consequently, this will prove to be one of the crucial values of the literary works of authors like Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.
As such, each author has /1/ provided a gateway for each reader to enter their world and /2/ created a system of Forms (in the Platonic sense) in order to challenge our thinking and assumptions.[iv] For Tolkien, the gateway is history and he uses items of power to represent Platonic Forms; he provides not only a backdrop for our own reality but also a reality that has eons of its own ancient history. For Lewis, the gateway is the Wardrobe and he uses talking animals to represent Platonic Forms; he gives the reader an initial point of entry that provides a clear distinction between our world and the other (which is the closest parallel of the three to Plato’s Myth of the Cave). For Rowling, the gateways are both Platform 9 3/4 and Diagon Alley and she uses magic to represent Platonic Forms; she provides a means to see past the veil of secrecy surrounding a reality hidden from muggle eyes.
[iv] Each author actually incorporates several elements that do the work of Platonic Forms. However, for the sake of scope and time I have limited this discussion to one of the more prominent elements in each of the author’s writing.