Does Fantasy Fiction Lie?
While working at a bookstore (long since out of business and closed), the manager, a woman who unfailingly purchased and read each Star Trek serial novel the day it was released, made a comment to the rest of the staff that really confused us. She told us that fiction was all just a bunch of lies, and she didn’t understand why people would bother reading it. After first trying to figure out why she would manage a bookstore if she thought this way, then trying to understand how she could think that way while reading so many Star Trek novels, we all moved on to the true meat of the idea. Was fiction all lies? Yes. (Some might even argue that a lot of non-fiction is also lies, but that’s an argument for another time.) There’s no question in my mind that fiction is a group of interesting, well-knit lies. So if that’s true, why read it? Quite simple: these lies tell a truth.
From the time that we’re small children, we hear fantasy stories that have truths hidden in them. I grew up being told Aesop’s fables, each one ending with, “and the moral of the story is…” Each of the fables taught a truth. The story of the tortoise and the hare taught us that slow and steady will win the race. The story of the ant and the grasshopper told us that we should prepare for the bad times during the good times.
Do you feel that it's necessary for books or short stories that you read to contain a "moral" or some deeper sense of meaning?
"On Moral Fiction"
In the 1970s, John Gardner wrote a book called On Moral Fiction. In this book, he presented the idea that art is, and should be, moral. Art, he said, should improve life, not debase it. Fantasy fulfills Gardner’s call for art. Fantasy provides us with truths that improve our lives.
Of course, fantasy is not the only genre to have truths hidden within it. John Gardner saw it – every true work of art does the same thing.
The Fellowship of the Rings
The Fellowship of the Rings has several lessons within it. The first, and to my mind the most important, is that we are capable of great acts of unselfish bravery. Frodo thinks that he is just a Hobbit, living his life in the Shire with no influence on anything other than his small circle of friends and family. He admires his uncle Bilbo, a Hobbit who had the courage to go out into the world and have adventures. But when trouble threatens the Shire, Frodo answers the call immediately. He does what he has to do to protect the Shire, and once he has gotten clear of it, and he is given a chance to return, he further proves what great deeds he can do by accepting a further responsibility, that of continuing his quest and destroying the ring before it destroys the world. He does it because of the responsibility he feels towards his fellow creatures. He does it because Gandalf wants him to. Most of all, he does it because it is the right thing to do. Frodo is not the only one in the book we learn from, however. Throughout the course of the story, we hear of plenty of others who learn of their bravery through trials, including Sam, Merrie, and Pippin. And, at the end of the trilogy, we learn that good does conquer evil. By being true to himself, and by being moral, Frodo is able to achieve success on his quest.
The Wager Lost by Winning
“The Wager Lost By Winning” by John Brunner also has a truth to impart. Being a long-time Brunner fan, I am used to finding morals hiding, or sometimes sitting out in the open and sunning themselves, within his works. One rather obvious one is to not tell strangers in black that you have a wish. If we dig a little deeper, another moral pops out. It tells us to be careful what we wish for. While it’s easy to sit around and say that we wish for all sorts of things, the things that we wish for might not be all we think they are. When Viola wishes to be with her husband, she gets her wish. She is with her husband. But they are held captive, and she is parted from him by force. She never fully considered the consequence of her wish, even when warned to do so. This might also be telling us to look before we leap. Brunner tends to hide any number of messages within his novels, and this short piece also have several possible truths hidden within it.
Liane the Wayfarer
“Liane the Wayfarer” by Jack Vance shows us what can happen to those that think that trouble is not for them. Liane does not believe he will ever be bested. He is arrogant, vain, and, as a whole, not a nice person. He has no compunction about stealing, and killing, as long as it benefits him and does not cause him too much trouble. Karma seems to be at work within the story, as Liane believes that Lith has given him a simple task in stealing back his tapestry. He doesn’t realize that she has sent him to his death, using him as he had used others, for her own gain. In the end, we see the full circle and know that Lith is just as evil as Liane, but we have hope that she will also be punished for those she has wronged.
Desrick on the Yandro
“Desrick on the Yandro” by Manly Wade Wellman is a more modern version of “Liane the Wayfarer.” Again, we meet a man, Mr. Yandro, who feels himself to be the biggest and most important of all men. Unlike Liane, he doesn’t kill or outright steal, but Wellman let us know that his relatives had nothing against stealing, and Mr. Yandro himself is not the most honest sort. Mr. Yandro’s lack of belief, his lack of empathy for other people, and his complete lack of respect for anyone else all bring about his downfall. “Desrick on the Yandro” can be seen as a true tragedy – Mr. Yandro pushes himself so far because he believes he cannot fail and he must be right. His hubris is his undoing. You might say the moral of this story is that pride goes before the fall, or perhaps before the witch has her familiars pull you into her house so she can extract her revenge.