We’ve all heard of symbolism before. It’s the “why are the curtains blue” debate, the argument of whether or not to take the author’s word at face value or to probe deeper. This often falls in with “death of the author”, which means to divorce an author from their work completely, and draw your conclusions solely based on the text. While I don’t like to critique how people read on their own time, as it is ultimately a personal hobby that should bring you joy, I do think it is important to delve deeper into works and think critically about the author’s message.
Every piece of writing has a motivation, and an author’s biases will creep in through everything they write, even in “neutral” accounts. Bias is not always a bad thing, what I mean to say is that every person has their own lived experiences that will shape their outlook on life. Even if someone is telling a neutral account of an event, their biases may show through what they choose to omit, what order they tell the story in, or even the way people phrase their sentences.
This extends to fantasy. Most fantastical novels don’t take place in our world, and those that do are in a modified state of reality. The way that authors choose to design their world sends an implicit message to the reader, through how the setting is created, and how the systems of power are set up. This also extends to how the author presents the information about their world, what order they tell the story, and what they chose to reveal later.
In Ursula Le Guin’s short story Those Who Walk Away from Omelas, she sets up this wonderful utopian landscape, where people have no pain or suffering, and they live in abundance. She goes on for a couple of pages about the joy and festivities, only to suddenly shift the scene to that of a dark basement dungeon, where a child is kept alone and neglected. She introduces this moral dilemma to her readers by revealing that the prosperity of Omelas requires the suffering of this one small child.
While the scenario is utterly fantastical, it mirrors a real-world issue. Wealthy people in affluent countries depend on the suffering and exploitation of others to achieve the life that they have coveted. She uses worldbuilding and pacing to make commentary on real-world issues, in ways that are outside the box. While political non-fiction is an incredibly important genre to read, speculative fiction is just as important, since it has given authors a way to process complex thoughts, feelings, and ideas, without being limited by the bounds of reality.
Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films deal with serious subject matter through a whimsical and fantastical lens. Though his films are visually stunning, they often deal with the devastating effects of war, and how human’s avarice can devastate the environment. The symbolism is far more overt in most of his films, which makes it easy for viewers of all ages to understand. I believe that this makes his message even more impactful. Not all pieces of symbolism need to be buried deep and painstaking excavated. It’s ok if the symbolism is easy to spot.
One other issue with consuming media in a vacuum is that it’s easy to miss the way that an author’s bigotry has crept into their work. One of the most popular vampire novels, Dracula, was born from the xenophobic and internalized homophobic views that Bram Stoker held (for a longer analysis on this issue, historian and YouTuber Kaz Rowe has an excellent video essay on this: Bram Stoker and the Fears that Built Dracula). And I feel like at this point we all should know about the troubled history of the originator of the cosmic horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft. For those unaware, Lovecraft was a horrific racist and xenophobe, whose views permeated into every story he ever wrote, so much so that it’s impossible to miss.
The idea of looking at fantasy media through a critical lens is not to say that you can’t enjoy things with problematic elements. This has been a big debate when it comes to whether you can still enjoy Harry Potter after J.K Rowling declared herself queen of the TERFs. Of course, it is a very personal choice whether or not you still feel comfortable consuming content with harmful messaging, especially when you are in a community that is affected by those messages. Still, the idea of learning what ideological roots these books/shows/movies are based on not only helps you read more carefully and attentively, it also enriches your reading experience.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.