What is (my) fantasy fiction really about?

As most of you know, the majority of my books are nonfiction, and my background is in philosophy and drama, and not literature. Why, then, did I write fantasy fiction? And can fantasy fiction be philosophical? Many critics believe that fantasy writing is frivolous and escapist. Here’s a short argument for why that criticism is wrong.

In fantasy fiction, the arc of the plot depends in some way on a bending of the rules of reality as we presently know them. But that, it seems to me, allows writers to draw special attention to something in our real world, and in our real lives. Good fantasy can be full of magic spells, fantastic monsters, and amazing landscapes – but it has to be about characters, in the end. Bad fantasy is about a character learning to cast a magic spell, or striving to kill a supernatural monster. Good fantasy is about life and death, fate and free will, reality and illusion, and similar natural immensities. In fantasy fiction, characters confront those things with heightened urgency. As we follow the story, perhaps we may learn something about the nature of those immensities, explore new ways to respond to them, and learn something about ourselves as human beings. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur taught, literary fiction is the laboratory of good and evil:

…it is in literary fiction that the connection between action and its agent is easiest to perceive and that literature proves to be an immense laboratory for thought experiments in which this connection is submitted to an endless number of imaginative variations.

(Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, p.159)

Think of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. It isn’t really about a ring of invisibility. It’s about war, death, and courage. Similarly, the Harry Potter series isn’t really about students learning to be wizards at an English boarding school. It’s about friendship, and growing up, and it’s about fascism and the nature of evil.

Similarly, my “Fellwater” series may look like it’s about people descended from various ancient gods, who have been fighting each other for more than two thousand years. But it is actually about whether there’s still a place for heroes in the modern world, and whether conflicted or flawed characters can be heroes too. It’s about power relations, and cult recruitment, and misanthropy. It’s about what it is to have a home, a history, and a purpose.

It’s also about secret castles in the north, and Irish skinboats that can fly, and giant gorillas with four arms, and people who pull swords out of thin air and start fighting with them. So, the series is rigorously intellectual, clearly.

Lots of philosophers have written poetry and fiction to explore philosophical themes: Jean-Paul Sartre, Umberto Eco, and Iris Murdoch come to my mind as examples. And while I wouldn’t compare my works to theirs, still I like to imagine that I’m following their footsteps.

But I’m pretty sure I’m the first philosopher to write about giant gorillas with four arms.

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