The Politics of Fantasy

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Akhi Pillalamarri
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The United States is in the midst of one of the most exciting cycles in recent history. People are thinking about politics more than ever. After all, it is a contentious topic which effects everyone in some way or the other.

I have always wondered, as a fan of the fantasy genre, if there is a correlation or nexus between reading fantasy and an individual’s political views. I am excluding from this Wizards_first_rule.jpgdiscussion explicitly ideological works such as, for example, The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, which the author declared to have been inspired by the works of Ayn Rand, an “Objectivist”  (radical libertarian). Rather, the question at hand is: does reading mainstream, plot and character-driven works like Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire make an individual more liberal, conservative, socialist, or capitalist? Or, to flip the question around, do people who already lean one way politically tend to read more fantasy?

By way of anecdote, I have observed that individuals who read fantasy tend to be more on the liberal side — liberal, here, being defined in the American sense of that term as a combination of liberal ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a mixed economy. The term liberal often has a different ideological connotation in Europe where it is more akin to what Americans call libertarianism: a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economics.

I believe this comes down to two reasons: 1) Readers of fantasy are often believed to be, anecdotally, young people, and young people overwhelmingly lean liberal or support the Democratic Party in the United States (at the present time); and 2) Fantasy, as a genre, has always been something of a sub-cultural movement that is only now becoming mainstream, so fans of the genre have usually leaned toward the sociopolitical grouping more open to new forms of culture and expression. It wasn’t too long ago that the word “nerd” was usually more of a slander than a complement.

13651.jpgOn the other hand, science-fiction has a lot more conservative, or at least libertarian fans. Libertarian themes have appeared in works by such science-fiction greats as Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Perhaps this is because of the fond hope of many individuals that idealized libertarian societies will be founded on distant and remote planets in the future, or that libertarianism is the path of the future even on Earth.

I would argue, though, that contrary to the prevalence of conservative readership in science fiction, it seems more reasonable to assume that the genre ought to influence readers in a more liberal direction by showing them what sort of society their ideas would lead to hundreds of years in the future. After all, that is the direction in which advanced Western societies today seem to be moving, and it stands to reason that future space-faring societies would be the products of such trends, rather than libertarianism, which is in any case, a movement of a small but passionate minority. A good example of a liberal society in a science fiction work is by Ann Leckie, in her Imperial RadchThere, gender no longer matters and all citizens are guaranteed basic housing and food. But its not some weird, post-human society; the characters are still very recognizably human and emotionally-driven. It seems a fair vision of what the future may look like.

On the other hand, despite the fact that most readers and authors (Martin, Rowling, Rothfuss, and so on) of fantasy seem to be of a liberal bent, I would argue that fantasy itself gives off a conservative vibe. By conservative, I don’t necessarily mean the ideology currently prevalent among U.S. Republicans that advocates free markets and traditional families. Rather, I mean conservative in the sense that it often promotes a nostalgia of the past, of traditional social arrangements, and of wanting certain aspects of change to slow down or not happen at all. Millions of people love Game of Thrones (written by a liberal) and most are cheering for some house or the other, but hardly any are advocating the establishment of a republic in Westeros. Writing at Tor.com, Liz Bourke argues:

If epic fantasy is second-world fantasy that shapes its arc in the form of a grand mythic quest (or several), that plays with tropes such as the return or re-establishment (or sometimes the purification) of a monarch, then it’s, by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity.

I can identify with the phenomenon described by Liz Bourke in my own experience with fantasy. Growing up, I felt that many series like Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter encouraged readers to think about power and relationships in fairly egalitarian terms. Kings and those in positions of power like Aragorn, Aslan, and Dumbledore treated everyone, high and low, with respect and understanding despite their positions. Nonetheless, these leaders owed their positions and distinct wisdom to traditions and 516GyHY9p6Lhierarchy, and not through the consent of the masses — in fact a character like Dumbledore often needed to go against the grain of the Ministry of Magic in order to do the morally right thing. As a result, despite the egalitarian elements of fantasy, especially in regards to how people should treat each other, it really does advocate a traditional view of politics: an unelected, wise leader is often the best guide for the masses. Due to the influence of fantasy (as well as history), I became a big fan of monarchy.

Of course, in another sense, one can argue that A Song of Ice and Fire is more more morally ambiguous than the black and white ethics found in The Lord of the Rings, which is an argument in favor of its more liberal take on human nature. Tolkien was, of course, an ultra-traditionalist wary of many of the key aspects of the modern world including industrialization (which is portrayed negatively when it starts to occur in Isengard and the Shire). Strange it is, then, that his works did not spawn a significant reactionary movement, a “Tolkienism” that looked toward the re-establishment of an agrarian, non-industrial, hierarchical society and economy that rejected electoral democracy and advocated the divine right of kings, like Aragorn.

Often, though, it is hard to say if fantasy itself comes across as liberal or conservative, because elements of both are so thoroughly mixed in, so as to make it a meaningless question. Harry Potter for example obviously features a plea for tolerance, for understanding and accepting differences, for being kind and magnanimous towards other humans. Yet it also accepts magic, tradition, and the role of elderly wisdom. What sort of vibe does it give off?

Readers, what do you think? Do you feel that the genre gives off a more liberal or conservative vibe? Have your views on life, society, and politics been influenced in one way or the other by science fiction and fantasy?

 

*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.

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