I believe in the power of fantasy.
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a conscious combination of political polemic and fairy tale. Whether we like it or not, to some extent all fantasy literature does the same. Fantasy speaks on behalf of the oppressed.
Concern for social justice fills the fantasy tradition. The process of sub-creating reorders the world into a framework we’re comfortable to explore. We challenge, criticize, and lament as we build a world, hoping that, as we speak words there, they will echo to resound in the world where we live.
J. K. Rowling demonstrates this on a startling scale. I doubt whether any informed reader can see the monument in Voldemort’s Ministry of Magic–a witch and wizard enthroned on the twisted corpses of non-magical races–without an ashamed twinge of recognition. It conjures memories of the past decade–the killing fields of Cambodia, the furnaces of Auschwitz, the graves of Bosnia.
Rowling herself is frank about the parallel. “It was intentional,” she said. Voldemort follows Hitler’s pattern, his warped pride driving him to beyond brutality. In that sense, the series is trying to enforce the cry of the Holocaust–‘Never Forget, Never Again’.
Of course, the books exceed an anti-genocide polemic. Rowling created an open space where she and her readers could explore her own doubts and questions about the world. The magical world Harry Potter enters turns out to be no escape, but a harsher confrontation with life than he would have had on Privet Drive.
“I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world,” Rowling said. Her sub-creation is no utopia, but rather a place of honest struggle and difficulty.
Genocide may be the largest and darkest historical legacy that we confront in our writing. But it isn’t the only one. Fantasy considers social justice at its primary levels–and has potential to become a voice advocating on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.
This appears starkly in George MacDonald’s fantasy. MacDonald, like Dickens, cherished social justice, active both in his life and his writing to aid the victims of the Victorian slums, and denounce the self-love and rapaciousness of the middle-class. He went so far as to follow the Romantics–and older spiritual traditions–in suggesting that poverty is more conducive to spiritual growth than affluence.
In At the Back of the North Wind, Diamond–his dream-child hero–crosses the uncertain border between dreaming and waking, certainty and uncertainty, in the companion of the motherly, enigmatic North Wind. North Wind, in fact, is a female icon of death–Diamond is dying a slow death through terminal illness.
His physical suffering and weakness makes him useless, until North Wind reveals the dream world, the fantasy world. These encounters teach Diamond seeing, specifically to see the sufferings of others.
By his immersion into fantasy, Diamond enters into solidarity with the poor, becoming a small but powerful voice against oppression. Throughout the story, MacDonald argues that fantasy literature–the power and beauty of a fairytale–has potential to open a greater venue for social justice than simple pragmatic activism.
In general, MacDonald’s writings bear little to the post-JRRT fantasy landscape of swords and elves and high enchantment. But the principle stands. Fantasy speaks words that can deliver the reader from the fear of freedom, from narrow, self-absorbed structures of thinking. A sub-created world strikes a blow in defense of the oppressed.
True fantasy–in fact, true speculative fiction of any kind–possesses an inherent stand on social justice. The simple fact of social mobility within a sub-created world speaks to the material world, exposing its virtues or (more likely) its flaws. When we write fantasy, we take it on ourselves to speak creative words with the potential to reshape the world.
It is a responsibility that we, writing as we do with the reality of the Holocaust, cannot escape and dare not forget.