What is the purpose of literature in society? There are plenty of answers, one for each human being, but some are more interesting than others are. In this post, I will delve into one of them. I chose it because I think it explains best how literature has played its part to shape our world, and because it has surprising ramifications for fantasy literature in particular.
As academic support, I use the literary critic Northrop Frye and in particular his work The Critical Path. An important term in this book is myth, which is where we must start. Usually, myth to us means a fanciful tale concerning gods or the like, usually part of a larger complex of stories that we call a mythology. This mythology is the product of a particular culture, once important to their beliefs and worldview, but now obsolete.
This is an understanding where the myth has no influence beyond its text with immediate limitations; in other words, no influence apart from those who actively study the myth. Once the myth is considered obsolete, its text is discarded as socially irrelevant, and its influence evaporates. We treat it as a scientific theory, which has been disproven and thus can be forgotten. This is too narrow an understanding, however.
Instead, we must think of the myth as the seed of a particular culture’s worldview. It may begin in a simple manner (e.g. the Norse collection of myths, where thunder is the sound of Thor’s hammer), easily disproven as science marches on, but it has far deeper roots and taller trees. It took centuries for Christianity to displace the warrior culture of Norse societies and replace it with a feudal hierarchy.
Thor has a special beef with Christmas lighting.
In Western society, our seed is obviously the Judeo-Christian myth, eventually codified in the Bible. At first, the myth provided simple guidelines for how to live your life, both individually and within the small, local Christian communities of the Roman Empire. Centuries later, Constantine the Great made Christianity legal and convened the council of Nicaea in year 325, which determined the canonical contents of the Bible, greatly strengthening the uniformity of the myth; its influence increased from community to society. When Theodosius the Great made Nicene Christianity the state religion in 380, guidelines changed into rules.
For the next thousand years, this myth continuously and increasingly permeated European society. The works of Aristotle, the Church Fathers, and many others were added to the myth, woven into the tapestry at every level, until the Judeo-Christian myth was omnipresent. One example of this is Richard Rolle, writing in the 14th century that the bee carries earth in its feet as ballast when it flies, thereby reminding us of the incarnation of Christ. To a reader in the 21st century, this is comical, but it shows how the myth grows and grows, until it covers and explains everything.
This stranglehold upon the worldview of a society can only be broken through great upheaval, which in Europe included the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. These challenges to the myth and its worldview meant that it had to reform and allow other understandings and deviations from the norm take root in society. A negative consequence was the diminished power of its own worldview, no longer able to provide unquestioned explanation and purpose for those living within it.
Let us return to our original question: what is the purpose of literature in society? In this context, it is by functioning as literature that the myth creates the worldview of a society. It is a story, regardless of being an oral tradition or written down, regardless of how it evolves. Stories is how the myth communicates its worldview and allows it to expand. This is the answer (out of many possibilities) to the original question of the influence of literature upon society. Furthermore, stories retain this ability, even when they begin to be rejected as a myth.
In an earlier blog post, I went on at length about how fantasy literature replicates the aspects or devices of mythology, which explains our attraction towards such books and their popularity. I would like to take it a step further and discuss two ramifications that my conclusion in the paragraph above has for fantasy.
Firstly, that fantasy has the capacity for creating an all-encompassing worldview. Each individual story or collection of stories act as a myth, which today, more than ever, can grow quickly thanks to the internet that allows readers to connect, discuss, expand etc. More than a capacity, I would say that fantasy literature has a strong tendency towards this. Once the seed has been planted, i.e. the myth has been created through the first books, which are considered canonical, there is an inherent desire among its adherents to immerse themselves into this worldview. People who read detective stories rarely act out such stories through live action role-play or show up to conventions in cosplay. On the other hand, it has become decidedly normal to see people dressed as wizards or witches whenever a Harry Potter movie premiered in the cinemas.
Secondly, there is also a tendency towards imagining this fantasy worldview in a utopian fashion. Not that these fantasy worlds are presented as utopias, or that the reader imagines life for the average peasant in Middle-earth was pleasant. But readers do not imagine themselves as peasants either. In one way, we are all Muggles in the world of Harry Potter, so you could conceivably argue that we are already living in that world, but obviously, what holds interest for the reader is to be a wizard or witch. This is despite the fact that a society with Death Eaters, potions that can perfectly mimic someone’s appearance, spells that remove your memories etc. would be a nightmare on many levels (the fact that defence against the dark arts is a mandatory school subject or even exists as a school subject speaks volumes). The books still manage to make this seem a world the reader wishes to inhabit.
This is because the books act like a myth. They create a worldview we wish to immerse ourselves in. They promise us purpose, power, community in stark contrast to our lives in a fragmented, chaotic society in an indifferent universe. Does this mean that fantasy is nothing more than escapist fiction? A longing back towards simpler times when a singular myth covered all of society, to a utopia that never existed?
I will quote the last paragraph from my earlier blog post that I mentioned above: “By reading fantasy, we once more return to the tales of gods and heroes. We walk once more in that lost age of wonder, magic, and heroics… Or said another way, to read about heroes is to become a hero.”
In a fragmented, chaotic society in an indifferent universe, imagination can be our most powerful weapon to overcome these challenges, and I believe that literature above all is what unlocks this weapon for us. While literature may no longer have the same effect upon society, it has not lost its power over the individual reader.