The Philosophy of Fantasy

Philosophy begins in wonder.—Alfred North Whitehead

My dad read the Lord of the Rings to me when I was nine. I was transfixed. Worlds were opened to me—worlds of good and evil, magic and dragons, elves and wizards. I read A Wrinkle in Time and Season of Ponies. Dragonflight followed Stranger in a Strange Land. Along with all of these stories, though I didn’t know it at the time, came philosophy. “What is real?” I thought, and “can we change fate?” “How do we know what is right?” and “What is time?”

It’s been said that science fiction is the fiction of the possible. It’s a practical use of the imagination, making informed guesses about the future from the incomplete data set of our present day. But even when the world changes, we take ourselves with us. I’ve read my share of science fiction, but fantasy asks the questions I find most compelling. When science runs out, what can we know?

Fantasy presents the author with a blank slate. The characters need not be human, nor any creature known. There may be men and women, or just women, or three genders, or gender that changes at will. Animals may talk; trees may walk. The resulting story is a kind of Rorschach test—writers bring form to formlessness, creating a narrative that arises from the deep inner places of the mind. As such, fantasy can reveal our collective hopes, dreams, and nightmares. It tells us who we are when the ordinary rules of the universe don’t apply.

I find the prospect of investigating the origin, impact, and meaning of such a rich genre as fantasy fascinating. In the coming months I plan to look at topics as diverse as violence against women, female dystopia, and feminine beauty in women’s fantasy fiction. Is there any difference in the way male and female writers treat violence against women? Rape is ubiquitous in Game of Thrones, for example, but not in The Dragon Prince. Why? How does the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Gate to Women’s Country compare to the male-envisioned dystopias of 1984 or Snowcrash? In Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, the princesses are beautiful and their evil step mothers and sisters are as ugly as they are cruel. In The Hero and the Crown, Dragonsbane, and Twilight, the heroines are plain or clumsy or barely described at all. What does this change tell us about ourselves now?

One final note about the nature of philosophy: it requires participation. In the field, we talk of ‘doing philosophy’ rather than simply reading it or studying it. The Greek root words of philo and sophia put together translate to ‘love of wisdom.’ We don’t love passively; we show love actively. I hope this column serves as an invitation—an invitation to read, to think, to ask tough questions and evaluate different answers. Do philosophy here among fellow lovers of fantasy, art, and wisdom.

If you have asked yourself similar questions before, come in! If you thought you were the only one who pondered the meanings of stories before drifting off to sleep at night, welcome! If you’re just beginning to see the world of hidden significance in your favorite books, join in! I’ll use well-known stories as springboards for discussing philosophical ideas, and I’ll use those ideas to plumb the depths of our favorite tales.