Monday, January 15, 2024

How Fantasy builds empathy

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." – Albert Einstein

"Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life." – Friedrich Schiller

"Everything you can imagine is real." – Pablo Picasso

"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?...If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" – J.R.R. Tolkien

With these quotes do I begin to answer the question of how does speculative fiction build empathy? The simplest answer being the question: how can it not? The article “Literature as more than a window: building readers' empathy and social capacity through exposure to diverse literature” by Sharon Colvin states, quite accurately, that "that nonfiction stories, such as the news, present an obligation to act and that this sense of responsibility lowered empathy. Fiction, on the other hand, is a safe, non-threatening place to approach new people and social situations. These indirect interactions cause less anxiety than personal contact; it is more a cognitive experience that can prepare people for personal contact." Now combine that with the findings outlined in the "Why Kids Can Learn More From Tales of Fantasy Than Realism” by Deena Skolnick Weisberg article: "At the start of the study, published in 2015 in Cognitive Development, children knew less about words from the fantastical books, perhaps because these words were somewhat more challenging. But we found that children’s lexical knowledge caught up over the course of the intervention and, at the post-test, they knew as much about these words as they did about the words from the realistic stories. That is, children gained more knowledge from the fantastical stories than from the realistic ones." Thus does the answer reveal itself, for in speculative fiction one is freed from all earthly obligations and taken on a journey with the protagonists, privy to all their deepest thoughts and feeling from the heights of joy and triumph to agonies the likes of which most of us will never suffer. 

Golden Sun
Yet by being in the mind of the characters we do suffer them, just as we cry with joy when they succeed. Is it not said that to truly understand someone you have to put on their shoes and walk around in them? Well, Fantasy does exactly speculative fiction does exactly that, and in a manner that fires the imagination by taking the reader to unknown lands. To again quote Tolkien, "The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords." My point precisely, for the reader feels that joy and sorrow.

Furthermore, speculative fiction lets readers explore different cultures in addition the to learning about Dragons and whatnot. As Sharon Colvin wrote, "Researchers found when white elementary school children read short stories about multiethnic characters, their attitudes toward African Americans were more effectively improved than when they interacted with a group of African American children. The stories seemed to provide a safe place for children to explore the idea of different cultures." Of course, entirely made-up worlds that are the setting of many Fantasies do not have African Americans per se seeing as these worlds host neither Africa nor America, but, and here is the key, Fantasy is grounded in reality, each world and character created from the mind of an author that has been shaped by real-world experiences and/or drawn from a solid knowledge of history. 

Yet the very fact that it is Fantasy provides a degree of separation between otherwise similar situations, a separation that becomes escapism and allows Fantasy authors to employ various metaphors and situations to explore real-world issues even while riding Dragons and marshaling Wizard-armies to battle the Dark Lord. In short, many made-up cultures and races in Fantasy and Sci-Fi are made to strongly resemble real-world cultures. To use an example from my own reading, in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books the dark-skinned Shin'a'in (translation: People of the Plains) resemble the Bedouins in lifestyle; they are nomadic, living in tents, and they are predominantly herders and horse-breeders, living in Clans and seeking spiritual leadership from their Shamans. To now quote Mercedes Lackey, "I try to keep my world as solid and real as possible; people deal with stubborn pumps, bugs in the porridge, and love-lives that refuse to become untangled, right along with invading armies and evil magicians. And I try to make all of my characters, even the ‘evil magicians,’ something more than flat stereotypes. Even evil magicians get up in the night and look for cookies, sometimes."

How does speculative fiction build empathy? Because, in short, it lets readers escape the world they live in for one filled with new people and places that range from magical to mundane, wondrous to wicked, where they can make new friends and foes in abundance. In sum, as said George R.R. Martin (loathe as I am to quote him), "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."

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