Stories are doors. They open a path to worlds and experiences different from our own. At times, this can be a harsh and disconcerting experience. Especially when stories aim to educate us about real life issues.
I am not a fan of a blatant social justice agenda in fiction. If handled poorly, the reader feels overwhelmed and condescended to. Nothing’s worse than a work of fiction written on the presumption that the audience is unaware of the issues being addressed.
Or worse, the presumption that the readers are contributing to a toxic social environment with their every word and deed. That they are the enemy and must be forcibly re-educated to become better human beings. That they must learn to speak, act and think as the book dictates or else be part of the problem.
Such works put me in mind of the headmaster from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a petty dictator trying to beat free thinking and self-expression out of his students.
If a book or a comic has too obvious an agenda, whether or not that agenda is an admirable one, it runs the risk of isolating the very people it wants to educate.
That is why fantasy and parable are so important.
Poor fantasy, of course, often falls into the trap of being wish-fulfilment featuring protagonists who inherit kingdoms or great powers simply by being the Chosen One.
But good fantasy can teach us the role of self-sacrifice in our lives, the importance of facing our monsters and the desire to strive for a better world.
And it has the grace to do so through parables and broad strokes. Rather than focusing on the minutiae of real world problems (so many and so varied), it focuses on the most basic first step of resolving them. Treat others with empathy.
The late Terry Pratchett was one of the world’s best known and most beloved modern fantasy writers. He is best known for his Discworld books, an entire fantasy world spun out across 40 novels.
On the surface, the Discworld series is a parody of fantasy clichés, mocking established tropes as one would gently mock a beloved friend. But dig deeper and you discover the hidden nuances.
Many Discworld novels contain themes that relate to real world problems such as religious intolerance, pathological altruism and even gender politics. By transplanting these issues to a fantasy setting, Pratchett succeeded in making them less immediate and less threatening to the reader.
But this in no way diminished their relevance.
As children, we are brought up on fairy tales. I feel that the messages encoded in some of these stories (such as “don’t trust strangers” and “hard work brings reward”) are relevant to the lives of young children and fairy tales – with their narrative of choice and consequence – are the ideal medium through which to convey them.
Likewise, Pratchett’s tales are moral parables dressed up as fantasy. Like fairy tales, his novels show a clear chain of choice and consequence. His villains are not evil simply for the sake of it. Often they cloak their actions under a façade of moral superiority or worse, truly believe that they are, in fact, acting for the greater good, even while they do terrible things to others.
One such villain was Lilith from Witches Abroad, a powerful fairy godmother who tortured animals and murdered humans for failing to follow the conventions of a fairy-tale perfect world. In her quest for a happy ending, she turned people into things.
Now, doesn’t that sound like an analogy for many modern ideologies?
However, a book detailing real life examples of such things would be a harrowing read. I doubt it would sell to the extent of a fantasy novel. Especially a comedic fantasy series like the Discworld series, which has sold over 80 million books.
From Witches Abroad (which explored the danger of pathological altruism) to The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (in which the oppressed became oppressors in turn) to Monstrous Regiment (which chronicled the stupidities of pointless conflict), Pratchett educated his readers in such a way that they weren’t even aware of it.
The Discworld series stresses that inhumane acts, whether done in the name of patriotism, religion, revenge for past wrongs or even altruism, are the beginning of evil. And evil only becomes possible when the characters view people as less than people. When they view others as stereotypes or puppets or food.
Unlike some heavy-handed moralistic fiction, Pratchett’s work does not simply dwell on the problem. Nor does it glorify a mentality of victimization.
Since Discworld is fantasy, the villains are defeated, often by their own inability to change, to feel empathy, to connect with others as people and not things.
While this might not always be realistic, it gives the reader a sense of hope, an idea that it’s worth striving for a better world or at least, a better self.
If you only take one message away from Pratchett’s books, it’s that “’evil begins when you begin to treat people as things”