Fantasy and Theodicy

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I’ve always preferred science fiction. The reasons for this are complicated, but I suspect it has to do with my philosophical disposition. I’ve always agreed with Douglas Adams that the wonder of understanding is better than the wonder of not knowing. In my opinion, science fiction exemplifies the wonder of understanding. For most science fiction, modernity is a given. We don’t need to go before modernity, to retreat into mythology, in order to capture wonder.

Having said that, I get the appeal of fantasy. It often presents us with a world in which virtue is rewarded and evil punished. At least that’s been the case traditionally. Helen Cruz, at The Prosblogion, has brought my attention to an article by Adam Brereton on George R.R. Martin’s phenomenally successful Game of Thrones. He argues that GOT fails as fantasy because it doesn’t follow ‘elfin ethics.’ In conventional fantasy, oath-breakers are punished, oath-keepers are rewarded. Those who run afoul of metaphysical laws face the consequences. Virtue triumphs over vice. However, in contrast to Tolkein, Martin’s characters break these conventions. Presumably, this is why GOT doesn’t work for Brereton. Well, granted it may not work as a morality tale. Brerenton seems to have  primarily Christian fantasy in mind, although he talks about Lovecraft as an example of a ‘profane’ or atheistic fantasy writer.

Although I disagree with Brereton’s requirements for fantasy  — for reasons I’ll get to in a moment — he does have a point. Fantasy, especially in the Tolkein/C.S. Lewis vein, has deep ties to theodicy. For those unfamiliar with this term, theodicy is basically an attempt to get God off the hook for evil and suffering. It is difficult for us to imagine how the seemingly pointless evil and suffering in the world could be part of an overarching cosmic plan. Fantasy of the Tolkein/Lewis variety is very often an attempt to expand our imaginations; to envision what philosophers would call a ‘possible world’ in which suffering is redeemed in some way. It’s this aspect of fantasy that Cruz takes up in her piece. Another way of framing Brereton’s complaint is: should the characters in GOT, given the violence and seemingly gratuitous evil of their world, believe in God? Brereton’s implicit answer is ‘no’ and that is his fundamental objection.

I’m not going to get into the theodicy debate specifically here. (Full disclosure: I don’t think any theodicy succeeds.) I’ll simply point out, as many of Brereton’s readers did in the comments, that there are no moral requirements on the fantasy genre. If ‘atheistic’ fantasy isn’t to Brereton’s taste, that’s fine. But there are many examples of amoral or morally ambiguous fantasy. My favorite example is Robert E. Howard’s work, especially Conan. Conan lives by a code of sorts, but his moral conduct is often questionable at best. He triumphs, often against magical forces, by sheer strength and force of will, rather than any attention to virtue. He lives in a cruel, violent world and takes what he wants most often by force and occasionally by cunning. Yet only a very ad hoc definition of ‘fantasy’ would exclude the sword and sorcery world of Conan the Barbarian from the genre due to its amoral portrayal of the universe.  Likewise Martin’s GOT.

As far as I’m concerned, there are no moral constraints on the fantasy genre (again, speaking as very nominal fan). Some works of fantasy support theodical interpretations of the kind Brereton favors; others do not. Which works of fantasy one prefers (or whether one prefers science fiction) will likely have to do with one’s philosophical and religious disposition.

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy and Theodicy

  1. I know (geeky) people who watched all Lord of the Rings movies in a single night – but I could never relate to that. I don’t like fantasy, too. You have finally provided an explanation!

    Lord of the Rings is the best (or worst) example of what I don’t like: Probably I did not get the story (I read the books, too – same effect) – but I waited for a clever twist or something like an explanation… and there never was any. Science Fiction, on the other hand, is about solving puzzles.

    • I also prefer the storytelling style of sci-fi. Never got into LOTR, either the books or the movies. I have yet to see the latest Hobbit movie. I read some of the C.S. Lewis Narnia stuff when I was a kid, but I never saw the appeal that many of my peers did.

      That said, I enjoy Howard’s Sword and Sorcery tales because I appreciate their primal nature. I also think that the philosophy of Howard’s work is more amenable to my sci-fi sensibilities. Yes, there’s magic in his world, but magic always loses to sheer strength and guile. Howard exposes the denizens of the supernatural as pretenders, so in this sense it’s different from most fantasy I’ve read and closer to some science fiction.

  2. Interesting observations. I’m secular and identify as an atheist. I also don’t find any theodicy convincing.

    Personally, I’m a fan of both sf and fantasy. I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other. I have some complaints about both of these genres. One of my complaints is when one side is Absolutely Evil and the heroes are justified in whatever they do. (Even as a fan of The Lord of the Rings, that’s one of my many criticisms. I also tend to dislike sf movies that are really just action movies with aliens as the Absolutely Evil Bad Guys.) I think this could also be considered a sort of criticism of the religious themes, because one of my disagreements with some religious stories (specifically of the Judaism/Christianity/Islam variety) is the casting of everyone else as totally evil and deserving suffering. In the rare instance when Trek created an orc-like species that were all the enemy (e.g. the Jem’Hadar) there were still episodes in which they were portrayed sympathetically, which I appreciated. (I have some other complaints as well, such as the ubiquity of fantasy stories in a medieval setting and portraying the past as some idealistic wonderful time period. I prefer to look forward to the future, with better understanding—or to at least have a story which portrays as bad situation as being bad, with sympathetic portrayals of the characters in that situation.)

    Ultimately, though, my view on a story really depends on the story, characters, writing, themes, etc. If it’s something that makes me think, is well-written, etc. I tend to like it.

    On fantasy that doesn’t have a theodicy theme, the one that immediately comes to mind is the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman (who has been really critical of Narnia). I absolutely love it. And my favorite series is Harry Potter, which (despite having religious symbolism) portrays discrimination as the evil, rather than any one group or species.

    Thanks so much for the post. And sorry for the long comment; I tend to go on about sff. 🙂

    • No apology necessary! I share many of your concerns with fantasy fiction. I haven’t read Pullman, but I’ve heard him described as the anti-C.S. Lewis which fits with what you’ve said.

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