Identity, Assumptions, and Hope – OH MY!
One of the papers for my fantasy literature class detailing the ways fantasy can offer new perspectives, help people cope with trauma and problems, and encourage critical thinking.
A common thread found in fantasy literature is the transposition of societal issues into fantastical forms to use perspective to better comprehend and process these issues. This transposition distances the reader from reality and abstracts the issues, allowing them to be more easily explained and understood through metaphorical connections. Contentious and significant issues such as racism, classism, terrorism, power, identity, discrimination and stereotypes can often be explored through fantasy literature parallels and reflections. Critical thinking concepts and overarching values of humanity can also be presented and investigated to great effect though fantasy. There is no end to the range of societal issues fantasy literature can introduce and examine to reach beneficial comprehension and valuable meaning.
Fantasy is so valuable because it “invokes the possibility of living under different terms and conditions” (Whitley, 2000, p. 175), and “can engage seriously with key issues within contemporary culture” (Whitley, 2000, p. 182). J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Nancy Farmer’s the House of the Scorpion are both excellent examples of demonstrating engagement with key contemporary cultural issues through living under different conditions. Each book presents a narrative that challenges basic assumptions about identity, ambiguity, and power dynamics as well as encourages that the reader think more critically about and observe more carefully the interactions and interpretations around them.
Mistaken assumptions or interpretations and engrained stereotypes are present in each of these fantasy books. In the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is told that Sirius Black is evil and wants him dead, and he believes it is the truth. He hears this well-established interpretation from people he trusts and people in power, and they are all wrong. Assumptions were made and cemented, which led to a flawed communal perception. This radical example of the promotion of misinformation encourages the reader to ask questions and think more critically. An information source may purposefully and knowingly promote a false perception, but a source may just be ignorant of the truth. Even if a source is trusted, the truth may be vastly different from society’s common perception.
Society’s common perception in Nancy Farmer’s book is one that clones are unintelligent beasts. Certain viewpoints are taught about clones and identity that are false. Matt proves many assumptions wrong when he meets people who hold the entrenched negative opinions regarding clones. His characteristics are inconsistent with their pre-conceived assumptions. Those in power actively choose to spread these assumptions about clones to take advantage of them. In Rowling’s book, there are also people in power who knowingly endorse fictitious or deceptive explanations to their own benefit.
Such conscious misinformation emphasizes the inherent ambiguity within the nature of humanity, which becomes tangled and complex in both books. The characters are often ambiguous and contradictory within both their true and their perceived identities. The identity can be a fragile thing. It can be shaped by, or discovered by observing negative assumptions and prejudices. Matt’s identity was shaped by the negative limited perspectives to which he had access. Because of the marginalization he experiences, his perspectives are impacted. Being a clone in his world is to be inferior and unclean. In Harry Potter’s world, some believe that being a muggle, or muggle-born is to be inferior and unclean. However, appearances can be deceiving, and appearance doesn’t always mean physical appearance, it can also mean identity or perceived identity. Hermione is harassed for her muggle-born status, Hagrid is discriminated against for being a half-giant with a (wrongful) criminal record, and Remus Lupin is treated with unfair prejudice and disgust for being a werewolf. Humanity is not always simple, nor is it always reflective of outward appearance or commonly-held beliefs about identities. Rowling’s books force children “to consider characterizations of goodness and badness” (Strimel, 2004, p. 45), and the consequences and implications of these characterizations. The ambiguity inherent in the characterizations presents another opportunity to think critically about people and events, both real, and imaginary.
In each of these books, the impact of the fantastical transposition is amplified due to solid foundations in real issues. Fantasy literature needs to have substantiality to be most effective in exploring society’s problems and possibilities. The wish-fulfilment that fantasy literature offers “needs to be grounded in something substantial if it is to become fully satisfying” (Whitley, 2000, p. 175). Farmer bases her story on circumstances and prejudices that already exist between differing peoples, and scientific advances that are already happening. Science fiction such as this presents a unique opportunity to explore the ramifications of future societal issues and problems. By looking to the hypothetical potential good and bad of the future, it is helpful to “open our minds to all possibilities” (Greenfield, 2003, p. 9). Rowling also presents a wide range of hypothetical situations and possibilities, as well as utilizes widespread prejudice in which to base her world. In addition, her fantasy is grounded in reality through common mythological, religious, and cultural viewpoints and archetypes that are relatable and familiar.
From terrorism to depression, from identity to religion, fantasy is constantly offering new perspectives and the hope to overcome the perpetration of harmful perspectives, opinions, and stereotypes. Both Rowling’s and Farmer’s fantasy books emphasize the misleading potential of a limited viewpoint. Hope exists, and with a little knowledge, creativity, and guidance, perhaps fantasy literature can help lead society into tolerance, acceptance, and open-mindedness.
Cohen, Signe. (2016). A postmodern wizard: The religious bricolage of the Harry Potter series In Journal of religion and popular culture. (pp. 54-66).
Crew, Hilary S. (2004). Not so brave a world: The representation of human cloning in science fiction for young adults, In The lion and the unicorn. (pp. 203-221.)
Farmer, Nancy. (2004). The house of the scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse.
Greenfield, Susan. (2003). The future: What is the problem? In Tomorrow’s people: How 21st century technology is changing the way we think and feel. (pp. 1-9). London: Allen Lane.
Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic.
Strimel, Courtney B. (2004). The politics of terror: Rereading Harry Potter,” In Children’s literature in education. (pp. 35-52).
Whitley, D. (2000). Fantasy narratives and growing up. In Eve Bearne and Victor Watson (Eds), Where texts and children meet. (pp. 172-182.) New York: Routledge Press.
Yolen, Jane. (1996). Turtles all the way down.” In Sheila Egoff et al. (Eds) Only connect: Readings on children’s literature. (pp. 164-174). New York: Oxford University Press.