I don’t usually care for fantasy, though I like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Rewatching the first Harry Potter movie, I was reminded of the puzzling correlation in fiction between magic and traditional social orders. Even though the wizards in Harry Potter live among modern folks, they still prefer Victorian era garb and interior decoration. More generally, stories with magic tend to be nostalgic – containing and accepting older social orders. Why?
I went looking for clues and found:
The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated… the social order stays the same. It may be the natural genre … but should we be proud of that? Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change. (more)
Rowling thus uses magic as a means to remove the reader from the modern technological world, through which she shows the [usual] dehumanized reality and entices the reader to reflection about the alternative possibilities to shape our world. … Magic in the world of Harry Potter is a connecting force among people, not something that makes them lonely; it presupposes the continuation and deepening of man’s connection with nature, the connection that appears to have been lost in our modern reality. (more)
Habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge. These habits have little to do with religious faith. … Magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day. … For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator. … Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless. [Researchers] … sent questionnaires to 174 Israelis after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 gulf war. Those who reported the highest level of stress were also the most likely to endorse magical beliefs. … “Persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational.” … “With most people, if you were to confront them about their magical beliefs, they would back down.” (more)
Nostalgia is a predominantly positive, self-relevant, and social emotion serving key psychological functions. Nostalgic narratives reflect more positive than negative affect, feature the self as the protagonist, and are embedded in a social context. Nostalgia is triggered by … negative mood and loneliness. Finally, nostalgia generates positive affect, increases self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat. … Nostalgia is found cross-culturally, and among well-functioning adults, children. … Although homesickness refers to one’s place of origin, nostalgia can refer to a variety of objects (e.g., persons, events, places). … Participants in the negative-mood condition were more nostalgic. … Participants in the high-loneliness condition were more nostalgic than those in the low-loneliness condition. … [Researchers] proposed that nostalgia imbues life with meaning, which facilitates coping with existential threat. … According to terror management theory, one can mitigate existential anxiety through shared beliefs about the nature of reality that imbue life with meaning. … after reminders of mortality … participants who were more prone to nostalgia. (more)
Both magic and nostalgia are common, arise more when we feel threatened, and comfort us in such situations. If questioned, we admit these styles of thought are biased, but away from such criticism we’ll easily slip back. Both magic and nostalgia rely especially heavily on wishful thinking – magic presumes we are especially able to influence events important to us, while nostalgia presumes that our previous social orders were especially functional, moral, good to people like us, etc. The fact that fantasy tends to combine both magic and nostalgia suggests that some readers have an especially strong tolerance for wishful thinking, and/or demand for comfort, and fantasy targets that audience.
As science fiction is often lumped with fantasy, does that suggest science fiction fans also have an unusual tolerance for wishful thinking and demand for comfort? To some extent yes – relative to reality, science fiction tends to presume tech changes fast, that it is very influential on society, and that small tech teams are very influential on such tech. And science fiction usually presumes that good guys tend to win and society basically works out ok.
Is the main difference between fantasy and science fiction that fantasy orients more to the past, while science fiction orients more to the future? While we think more far about both the distant past and future, we think more far about the future:
Since the distant past is also further away in time, we also expect past folk to live further away and travel longer distances, but the many concrete details we know about the past reduces this effect. (more)
Do the many specific details we know about the past give us a clearer anchor for our wishful thinking – so we can wish that those particular social orders are functional, moral, etc.?