But how do these epic conflicts impact readers? How do the trials and triumphs of hobbits and wizards and swordmaidens inform our mundane lives? If a fantasy world has a clearly delineated Good and Evil (not that they all do!) does that make it more or less applicable to our real lives?
For my part, I believe that the fantastical can teach us just as much about life and the world as gritty realism. That it can help us learn to be better people, allow us to explore injustice and cruelty and beauty and hope. That fantasy can teach us about the real world.
So what is it about this fabulous mirror that allows us to see our mundane lives more brightly? And do writers of fantasy deliberately set out to put "meaning" and "message" and "morals" into their books? When the setting of a story includes a strongly defined “good” and “evil”, does that weaken or strengthen the moral weight of the story?
Author Shannon Hale has a pertinent post up on her blog over here that's about morals in fiction (specifically books for younger readers). She makes the statement "As an author, I cannot be the bearer of morals, cannot create morals in my books but can only be true to the story and allow the reader to create her/his own morals" and then invites responses from a number of movers-and-shakers in the kidslit world. I’m more of a nudger-and-jiggler myself, but I will post my own opinion here, and invite the rest of you, watchers and Inkies alike, to do the same in the comments!
I think, like so many things, it all comes down to being true to the characters you are writing about. When I wrote my most recent novel, I started with a simple concept: a witch-girl who couldn’t curse, who gets thrown out by her family until she can learn to be a proper witch. I didn’t set out to write a book about "dealing with the expectations of your family and being your own person." I just wanted to see how this specific character dealt with the expectations of her family and figuring out her own future. Now that reviews are coming in, I've been kind of bemused to see how many of them mention the "lessons" incorporated into the book. Because I didn't set out to give anyone lessons. I just had some characters with a story to tell.
Fantasy may play out against an epic backdrop of good versus evil, but it’s the individuals that make it matter, that connect these fictional experiences to our own day-to-day life. Sure, in my real life I may not be fighting against a Dark Lord, complete with glowing red eyes and black cloak, but I do encounter evil and injustice and self-doubt and despair. And when I do, it is the specifics of my favorite fantasies that I look to. It’s Harry and Ron and Hermione coming together in the bathroom to fight a troll. It’s Sam going with Frodo, leaving the Shire. It’s Aerin doggedly working to teach herself to fight dragons, even when no one else seems to believe in her. Fantasy may not change the world, but it changed my world.
For more discussion of whether it is an author's responsibility to include moral lessons in books for youth, check out this recent article by author Dan Gutman in School Library Journal.
Now I ask you, watchers and Inkies alike: What you think? How has fantasy impacted your real life? Do you prefer fantasy that has a moral lesson? Do you, as a writer, consciously put “meaning” into your stories? Do you prefer fantasy with a strongly defined “good” and “evil” side?