Fantasy novels almost always come with some philosophy mixed in. Sometimes it’s just as light as two cloves of garlic in the dish, because that taste was never meant to be the star…sometimes it’s as pungent as thoum. Thoum is made of nothing but raw garlic, oil, lemon and salt. It will clear out your sinuses, and your mouth will be very, very happy.
But one way or the other, the garlic is going in there.
There are a few reasons for this:
The whole point of speculative fiction is speculation, right? Of course we usually think of “speculation” in regards to practical matters, historical divergences, and magical or technological “what-ifs,” but what this inevitably does is force us to reckon with timeless truths and meaningful questions that ground us when we’re on these flights of wild fancy, things that can apply to real life, or at least reflect real experience.
Fantasy tends towards fighting, lets be honest. It needn’t, but it often does. Battles of swords, battles of wits, battles of morals. If there is fighting we can’t help but ask what we’re fighting for, and how we’re affected by it. If wits, we examine the intellect, its use and misuse. If morals, we are required to define them, and interrogate them. I don’t think writers do this on purpose. I think we do it instinctively. If life is on the line, we being to think about the meaning of life. Otherwise it doesn’t matter.
Writers are usually pretty thinky, I’d guess. When you go off and create worlds on your morning commute, or while you’re in the shower, it generally means you’re thinking about other stuff too. Life. Purpose. Hope. Cynicism. Faith. Family. Trauma. Politics. Truth. Culture. I mean, most people do this, but writers often are in overdrive, and that’s why it spills over on the page. What’s going on in your life, your struggles, your doubts, your fears, your desires, your epiphanies…they’re all going in there, whether you meant them too or not.
Lastly sometimes a writer straight-up has an agenda. This is the trickiest. It can make for the best and worst works. Fantasy offers a wide-open, manipulable field in which to lay out one’s philosophy/worldview/agenda with a degree of streamlined clarification that the real world rarely offers. Allegorical fantasies can obviously be of this variety and they can be very good or plain horrid. Basically if the author had a particular “message” from the beginning, as opposed conveying one inadvertently, then philosophy will likely be the most intense flavor of the work.
So that’s why we do it, but I’m going to go ahead and admit the fact that it rarely works for me. I imagine some might take offense to what I’m about to say, but I hope that it can be taken in good faith. Most of the time, I find philosophy in fantasy very, very silly and shallow. This isn’t because I don’t like philosophy in fantasy–or underlying messages, or deep thoughts–on the contrary, I LOVE all that.
But here’s the deal: what might seem like a brilliant philosophical epiphany to me, might come across as painfully, even stupidly obvious to you or to someone else, or vice versa. This is because we are not all operating on the same philosophical, spiritual, or religious parameters (because, let’s be honest, philosophy is either ancillary to or a more nebulous substitute for religion).
Because of this, a very intelligent author may include a beautifully written treatise on death and suffering in his novel, but because I am a person of faith, and I hold very certain beliefs about death and suffering (moreover have very certain experiences relating to death) much of what the author says may seem shallow and trite to me, however strong his prose, or however fair and genuine his thoughts.
We are not all on the Same Page (Religion as Example)
I am not saying, however, that simply because I (or others) am religious and perhaps you (or others) are not, that I find what you have to say (philosophically) to be stupid. Perhaps what I have to say sounds to you like a platitude, or an oversimplification, or something you’ve heard before and long since rejected as invalid. Nevertheless, here we are. If we do not share the same ground–that core of our worldview–our most impassioned scene of life-explaining dialogue may come across as silly and flat, or shallow, or over-simple, or over-complex.
If one’s philosophical foundations are deeply rooted in Judaism or Christianity, in Heschel and the Rambam or Lewis, Augustine and Chesterton, one may not have much internal tolerance for a philosophy rooted in Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins, or Marx. That is dealing in extremes, of course, and there are many worldviews and many overlaps besides, but I think you get my point. I am using religion as an example because it applies to me, so I am comfortable talking about it, and also because it can create pretty sharp delineations between resulting convictions or lack thereof.
Without known or shared parameters–basically without resonance–a long philosophical musing in the mouth of a fantasy character can come across as silly, amateurish. Obviously most people think about the biggies–life, death, meaning, purpose, right and wrong, justice, mercy, hope, faith, love–at some point or another. But Religion inherently addresses and collates all these things into a narrative, implying a through-line, solidity, and purpose. We are all prone to think about the meaning of life, but none of us are required to do so. Religion necessitates it in a very specific way, and most religions are not satisfied with loose ends, grey areas, or deep uncertainties in the way agnostic or atheistic philosophies are.
Religion says there IS such-and-such and it DOES signify thus-and-so, and DEMANDS of us this-and that. Doubts and unknowns still exist, naturally, but they are on the periphery; the core is faith, aka “belief in what is not seen, certainty, conviction in the face of doubt.”
All that to say…If you or your character are going in the opposite direction–walking away from a certain belief into doubt or an absence of clarity regarding things they thought they knew–then it will resonate with some, but will miss others. You may find your character’s doubts to be purposeful and courageous–and maybe they are!–or maybe they are not. That is a hard call to make, but perhaps I find them to be cowardly or weak in any case. And, again, I may think that my character’s firm conviction and compassion in the face of horrible suffering to be beautiful and powerful–you may find it unrealistic and cheesy.
I love the show This is Us (LOVE) and not only does it make me cry, I’m pregnant right now, so it makes me double cry. (THE DOJO SCENE. I can never stop thinking about that scene) But Kevin’s speech to Tess and Annie about his abstract painting, the speech from which the show derives its name–oh, the vagueness of it…so generic to me…probably the LEAST emotionally resonant scene in the whole show for me. And I know for a fact that it deeply touched others, so…make of that what you will.
I can see that I’m repeating myself now, so I’ll wrap it up. A common foundation, common belief, makes for resonance. The farther we are from one another in beliefs, the more ridiculous that Broken Warrior’s grand speech is going to sound to us, the greater the eye-roll, the sharper the emotional disconnect.
On a Mission
Lastly, I mentioned works in which the author is overtly proselytizing. They have a VERY specific philosophy or agenda they are trying to get across, and there’s no mistaking it. Now we don’t need to agree on the philosophy to acknowledge that the work is well-written or beautiful. But it must be recognized that when our beliefs are front and center, the reader’s reaction will be as wildly diverging as it would be if you were handing out a gospel tract, or a communist manifesto. And even if we can see that the work is well made, we might still kinda hate it because it feels like propaganda to us–and well-made propaganda, no less! If you feel like someone is basically lying, but you know they passionately believe it, and they are communicating it well? That probably isn’t going to be very enjoyable.
None of this is to discourage the infusion of philosophy in SFF works, obviously. Stuff and nonsense. I still love it. I think we all do. We just have to realize that sometimes the wires are cut, and we cannot connect to or hear one another across the philosophical distance. The greatest works can reach across divides of belief, but even in that I must confess that I think they only do that when they reach a core we can agree on, even if is only one single bare point of connection, the one resonant strike on a real true foundation.
And perhaps that last sentence meant much or nothing to you, because it comes from my convictions, and we may not have those in common.