Fantasy Literature and Philosophy – Part I

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Part I Part II Part III

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

NarniaWardrobe

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.

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7 Comments

  1. I have noticed a strong difference between the “magic” of Lewis and Tolkien compared to Rowling. In the Inkling Brothers, magic is a craft; something learned and practiced and perfected. When it is used it doesn’t seem foreign to what is going on, but more like an intensification of a “deeper reality,” though not necessarily a deeper “spiritual” reality.

    But for Rowling, even though one learns it, it is magic in that sort of “outside” influence. Or at least, the deeper connection to the creation isn’t there at all, so it seems in some ways slightly foreign.

    Certainly Lewis’s “heaven” is deeply Platonic (or Augustinean at least)

    Another good post.

    Reply

  2. Reed,

    “My father (an avid reader of novels) always says people who can’t appreciate fiction reveal their own immaturity.”

    What a lucky child you were. It seems your father really had a positive influence on your spirituality. There wasn’t a lot of reading in my home when I was a kid, and there certainly wasn’t any hypothesizing about what literacy held for a person’s life/future. Needless to say (I hope), things are a bit different around my home with my children (I am currently scheming on how to get more bookshelves into my house).

    “I disagree, however, that these fictional epics necessarily have to be rooted in platonism. Otherworld-ness and dualism seem to be consistent themes but so are fulfilling a final purpose and the importance of our physical natures.”

    With the exception of Lewis, I absolutely agree. However, they have a lot to do with metaphysics, and I took an attack of opportunity, since this workshop was the seminal experience in philosophy for many of those attending. I wanted to cut their teeth on Plato, because “the Republic” will become hugely important in continuing education, there are metaphysicists out there who are completely cynical or jaded, and it is something that resonates with those who are wondering if “there is more to life than this.”

    “Ultimately, like most things in literary criticism, I think it comes down to arbitrary interpretation.”

    I completely agree.

    “Additionally, for Rowling the only magic that seems at all rooted as a “craft” (in the Lewis/Tolkien sense) is the astrology of the centaurs. This is, ironically, the most distrusted of all schools of magic, making even wizards skeptical.”

    Indeed, Rowling’s wizards and witches seem to use an advanced (or at least more practical) form of science or technology. However, there are other elements of her “magic world” that are refreshingly supernatural. It’s like her science of magic is a very optimistic union of faith and observation.

    Shawn

    Reply

  3. I had to resist being outright facetious and naming some bible story as my favorite example of a fantasy story; but the fact that this was my initial impulse is a little telling, I think. So … bear with me.

    I mean, this is a theology blog, and here we are talking about our favorite fantasy writers. It’s not a quantum leap to suggest that a lot of the biblical stories sound a lot like other old myths of that time period; God-men born of virgins, death and resurrection myths, flood myths, creation myths. I mean, does the basis of New Testament Christianity really stand up on its own if the foundational narrative elements are ideas that were so common to that time period?

    Here’s where I’m coming from on this:

    I took a class on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, including Tolkien, Williams, Barfield and others. It was interesting to actually dissect the stories from a philosophical perspective, but I think the most interesting aspect of The Inklings was their relationship with each other as writers; especially that of Lewis and Tolkien.

    I believe it was Lewis that prompted Tolkien to either pursue completing the Lord of the Rings books, or at least to pursue publication. The professor, Carolyn Tennant, also pointed out some of the interesting cross-pollination of ideas between Lewis and Tolkien.

    I can see a direct correlation between these guys meeting at The Eagle and Child and comparing notes and eventually having similar themes in their stories to the writing of the gospels and the way the narrative develops chronologically.

    Paul is the first to record his stuff, his direct revelation from Jesus. Then the gospels are recorded, each with a different emphasis but with the same key elements. But the gospels have the outlier, John, which has the lion-share of the theological sounding stuff while the other three are fairly mild in comparison.

    Picture the four gospel writers using Paul’s stuff, sitting around at The Eagle and Child, as it were, coming up with their versions of the way that all happened the same way I can see Lewis and Tolkien weaving their narratives of fantasy worlds with the very Christian ideas of martyrdom or substitutional atonement at their core as well. Only Lewis and Tolkien were creating their own worlds, the gospel writers were telling the same story to specific audiences.

    Now I know that’s not how it happened, but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless.

    Because really, if we aren’t going to eventually go there, eventually make this connection and hash it out… then why are we discussing fantasy writer’s in the first place? 🙂

    Okay, I’ve said a lot. I’ll shut up for the moment and let someone else respond.

    (P.S. Right now, since our apt flooded (for a third time) we’re in a hotel, so I may not be on a lot tonight as it might be a real battle to get the baby to sleep in the pack’n’play. We’re moving literally this weekend to a new place. It’ll be an experience, to say the least.)

    Reply

  4. Reed,

    I think I agree with the main thrust of what you’re saying. I wasn’t necessarily trying to drudge up “scandal” so much as I wanted to breach the topic of comparison.

    I don’t think it’s scandalous, I think it’s interesting.

    I’ll think on this and maybe post more as the series moves on… we still have a lot of packing to do.

    Reply

  5. What a brilliant post. Being a writer of fantasy myself I can identify with all that you say and I also agree with all you say.

    I believe the responsibility placed on authors writing quality fantasy is enormous. The inevitable relationship between the reader and ‘life’ forms the basis for any good fantasy story and, particularly where readers are younger adults, and still formulating their values and attitudes, the impact of extended thinking and borders of reality they have to deal with in our modern and difficult world is important. Quality fantasy can provide a philosophical guide for their thinking.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

    Reply

  6. Chris,

    Thanks for visiting theophiliacs! I appreciate your response and hope that you’ll find some other interesting stuff to interact with while you are on the site.

    Regarding your post:

    I love that you bring up the responsibility of writers to demonstrate philosophical ideals in their writing of fantasy literature. Literature is such a powerful force in our lives.

    Shawn

    Reply

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