Fantasy Literature and Philosophy: Part III

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Part I Part II Part III

The Bestiary: Animals Who Think and Talk

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The professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (aka Digory, Lord Digory, et al) personifies Socrates in Plato’s Republic better than any other figure among the collective writings of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.  He questions Peter and Susan after they have had a fight with Edmund over Lucy’s claim to have entered Narnia through the wardrobe, asking whether they ought to believe the report of a known liar (Edmund) over that of a trustworthy person (Lucy) just because the liar’s data seemed to back up what they already believed about the world.[i]

This session with the professor is the turning point in the novel regarding Peter and Susan’s attitudes toward Lucy and the possibility that there is more to reality than the world they can perceive with their senses (a lesson they have to repeatedly learn in the series).  While the effect that traveling between parallel universes has on time is a fascinating philosophical problem within the Chronicles, the real elements of Platonic Form are found in Lewis’ Bestiary (yes, that is spelled correctly).  The talking animals of Narnia represent what it means to be the true form of the creature.  For instance, while there are non-talking (h)orses of the “normal” variety in Narnia, it is the noble, talking horses that are the “true (H)orses.”  Furthermore, though there may be true Lions of the talking sort, Aslan is The True Lion.  Once again, the desired affect is the creation of an order or system of Platonic Forms that will allow the reader to interact with important truths surrounding justice, forgiveness, and redemption.  If the forms interacting with these truths are “real forms,” then the conclusions drawn must ultimately be “real principles.”

Magic: When the Supernatural Is Ordinary

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 Harry Potter’s journey into the wizarding world is just as much a journey into “real reality” as it is a journey to boarding school.  Rowling uses magic in much the same way that Tolkien uses items of lore and Lewis uses the bestiary.  Magic in the Harry Potter series stands in direct contrast to the technological boon that we experience on a daily basis.  Characters like Mr. Weasley, who work for Ministry of Magic, are fascinated by the gadgetry of our lives.  However, they never assume more than an anecdotal or trivial attitude toward modernization.  The life they have experienced through magic is in tune with nature, but it is not archaic.  It is, in fact, much more convenient than technology and gadgetry makes our lives in a number of ways.  All of this serves to set the stage for metaphysics and Plato’s Theory of Forms.

“Them!’ said Stan contemptuously, ‘Don’ listen properly do they?  Don’ look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don’.”

Perhaps more than the other worlds, Rowling challenges other readers to doubt their certainty with reality by constructing her world alongside our own.  In one scene in the Prisoner of Azkaban, one character explains to Harry that muggles never notice the wizarding world (even the most outlandish behaviors and mishaps) because they are not open to anything but their own expectations.  “Them!’ said Stan contemptuously, ‘Don’ listen properly do they?  Don’ look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don’.”  Rowling’s Platonic Forms take the form of the wizarding community itself.  They are true people in the sense that they have seen what “real” reality is and have not shied away.  It can be chaotic, untidy, and unsettling, but there is wonder in all of it.  In a sense, even education becomes part of the mystical.  Practices of the most existential or supernatural kind in our world take on the tone of the knowable, testable, and controllable in the classroom for Harry Potter.  Something that would never be a suitable conclusion to be drawn for someone like the quintessential muggle family, the Dursleys.  This is not to say that there is no danger or evil in the wizarding world.  If love and friendship can be had in their truest sense, then evil and conflict take on a danger that is much more “dangerous” than those that concern the muggle world.

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One Comment

  1. Reed,

    You know, it does seem rather English, doesn’t it? I have always been fascinated that one of the primary examples that ultra-conservative Christians cite as a reason to ban Rowling’s books (well, Lewis and Tolkien too, for that matter) has to do with this element. I have heard on numerous occasions that the children in these novels purport to “know better than the adults,” which is obviously completely destructive to the Christian ethos (sarcasm here, if some readers aren’t sure).

    I think said element has more to do with this philosophical presupposition in constructing a worldview for characters in a fantasy novel, though. Why use children? Because everyone seems to agree that children have not closed their minds to exploring the bounds of reality, perhaps? The wide-eyed curiosity of children seems to legitimize a world where supernatural/magical things really do happen.

    Shawn

    Reply

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