Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Appeal of Fantasy Fiction

I've been thinking about the continued appeal of fantasy fiction, especially in relation to topics I have discussed before such as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Moral Realism, and Essentialism. Science fiction author David Brin has written several essays critical of fantasy fiction, including J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress. His basic theme is:
It's only been 200 years or so -- an eye blink -- that "scientific enlightenment" began waging its rebellion against the nearly universal pattern called feudalism, a hierarchic system that ruled our ancestors in every culture that developed both metallurgy and agriculture. Wherever human beings acquired both plows and swords, gangs of large men picked up the latter and took other men's women and wheat... They then proceeded to announce rules and "traditions" ensuring that their sons would inherit everything.
Brin explains how these actions are ennobled in the literature passed down to us, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bible, Arthurian legends, etc. I've been thinking about how these values were embedded at a more basic level, in the language we still use. Look at the term I used earlier: ennobled. The first online dictionary definition gives:
1. to make noble, honourable, or excellent; dignify; exalt
2. to raise to a noble rank; confer a title of nobility upon

[Middle English *ennoblen, from Old French ennoblir : en-, causative pref.; see en-1 + noble, noble; see noble.]
Here, prior to the emergence of modern English, the concept of honorable behavior was bound up with the concept of the superiority of certain blood-lines of inherited privilege. If you accept some form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language influences thought, then the use of the English language itself provides a subconscious favorable disposition to the idea of inherited privilege. Critiques of the past or present nobility will inherently generate a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Also note that the idea of noble blood is "essentialist", and fits with humans natural predisposition towards essentialist thinking.

My hypothesis is that feudal and essentialist thinking are embedded throughout all languages, including English. We aren't living in a feudal society, and science is constantly critiquing essentialist thinking. This creates a constant tension in the minds of readers and speakers of English. Fantasy fiction provides a release for this tension. It is a place where the language fits with the action. Often a magical land where essentialist expectations are reality.

Fantasy fiction is in turn divided into two broad categories: High Fantasy, and Swords and Sorcery. High fantasy, of which Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is the prime example, is centered on an epic struggle between Good and Evil. Swords and Sorcery (think earlier pulp fiction, such as Howard's Conan the Barbarian) is more morally ambiguous. However essentialist expectations, such as the reality of magic and the supernatural, are still met.

Most written Science Fiction today is closer to Swords and Sorcery in terms of moral ambiguity. "Hard" science fiction follows modern science in rejecting essentialism. While the "what ifs" of this type of fiction satisfy some readers, many others yearn for the moral black-and-whites provided by High Fantasy. This demand is satisfied in popular science fiction films, such as Star Wars. Here the heroes turn out to be nobles (like Strider/Aragorn the returning king in LoTR!), matching the essentialist expectations bound up in our language.

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