In the Jan 17, 2009, edition of New Scientist (yes, I am a Nerd), there’s an article titled, ‘Novels help uphold social order’. The author, Priya Shetty, asks ‘Why does storytelling endure across time and cultures?’
A study of the way people relate to Victorian literature drew the conclusion that ‘Literature could continually condition society so that we fight against our base impulses and work in a co-operative way’, meaning stories are templates for socially acceptable behaviour. Greedy, ambitious book character who act in antisocial ways are villains who get their comeuppance in the end. Supportive, conscientious characters are the heroes whose good behaviour is rewarded, while characters like Heathcliff display aspects of both good and evil.
If you look the epic fantasies you see the same theme played out on a grand scale. The villains are powerful and totally evil, tending towards one-dimensional eg. Sauron (LOTR). Conversely the heroes are often the little people who seem to have no chance, but find greatness in themselves like good old Frodo. Just as romances have their ‘happily ever after’ endings, quest fantasies enter into a contract with the reader who knows good will ultimately triumph over evil.
If people didn’t have a need to repeat this scenario with the pay-off the underlying message — you can make a difference, no matter how small and unimportant you are — then they would not seek out the traditional fantasy.
The underlying theme of classic science fiction is similar. Instead of using magic to battle evil, the SF protagonist uses intellect and logic to make sense of the world/universe/aliens, ie. to battle ignorance. The underlying message is — Yes, you can make sense of the world. Intellect will triumph over ignorance, the rational over religious fundamentalism — Something I would like to believe.
The genres we choose to read reflect our world view and the way we interpret the world.
Story tellers serve a purpose!