Fantasy literature challenges the reader’s world view

The popularity of fantasy literature is often seen as stemming from escapism. But according to fantasy researcher Merja Polvinen, the genre has greater potential.

"Both the general public and genre aficionados often think of fantasy books as easy and non-challenging. The prejudice against them is that they’re pulp literature. I have to keep reminding people that some very good writers work in fantasy, too," says Merja Polvinen of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Polvinen is seeking to deconstruct these stale biases by examining fantasy literature from a cognitive perspective. She sees literature studies as being in a dialogue with the cognitive sciences, which focus on human thought and information processing.

"Through research, we are ultimately trying to determine why imagination exists."

Fantasy is a gym for the mind

According to Polvinen, fantasy has huge potential to challenge its readers.

"Fantasy literature works best in the kinds of texts that really make us question our everyday assumptions about what is real and how the world works. At its most potent, fantasy can challenge generally accepted truths and entire world views."

Fantasy forces the reader to consider completely impossible ideas. Polvinen emphasises that through such challenging books, readers can develop qualities in themselves that otherwise might never emerge. These works do not correspond with readers' expectations, but rather compel them to find new ways to connect with the text.

Polvinen compares literature with an exercise machine: once you learn to position your body correctly and adjust the weights, it begins to work.

"And once you get it working, you can really pump up your mental and intellectual brawn."

Convention has no surprises

"We are in a very long realist period of literary history where everyone reads the same novels about Pekka who becomes unemployed and goes to the corner shop for groceries. These books are familiar and give us what we expect them to."

Polvinen points out that realism can shake up its readers as much as fantasy, but with different methods. Yet realism meets our expectations about how literature should work. The potential of fantasy lies in books that can do something completely strange, thus challenging the reader.

Fantasy, like all genres of literature, has its own conventions, and knowing them makes the story easier to understand. Some fantasy worlds have become as familiar as the real world itself.

"When you say ‘orc’, everyone knows exactly what you mean. But when a writer creates a truly original world that transcends our conventional thinking, fantasy means real innovation."

In March and April 2015, researchers and other experts will take us on journeys into different world views. Read more about the New World View science programme and join the conversation (#maailmankuva).

New World View 16 March – 12 April 2015

Think Corner