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Magical Thinking: The Power of Reading Fantasy Fiction

Post by Duncan Smith
Posted September 23, 2012 in Readers' Advisory News, Special Announcements

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Young children frequently believe that saying the right word or wishing for something hard enough will make it happen. Psychologists call this magical thinking, and the hope is that we eventually grow out of this "causal fallacy" and realize the limits that the real world places on our hopes and our words.

In the realm of fantasy fiction, however, when words are mixed with knowledge, talent, and intent, magical things do happen. In the works of George R.R. Martin, words become signs of integrity that matter for some and not for others. In urban fantasy, words have the power you might expect but in unexpected locations -- in cities that we would not be able to find using Google Maps. In the works of Bender, Butler, Morgenstern, and Saramago words range from being merely descriptive to lyrical to magically realistic. Of all the genres, fantasy is the one that allows us to revel in the magic that rests in words and what happens when we let that power loose in the world.

I was an avid comic book reader as a teen and Thor was one of my favorites. A particular scene remains with me. Loki, the villain, had managed to seize Odin's scepter believing that possession of the scepter would give him all of his father's power. After Loki declares himself ruler of all the worlds, Odin points out that his power doesn't come from his scepter, it comes from deep within himself. Loki is holding an object that has no power and good once again triumphs over evil.

Like Loki, three-year-olds learn that it is not always enough to wish for something. They need to know when words make a difference and when they don't. As adults, we need to remember that when desires and words are coupled with intent and action they can indeed change the world. The fantasy genre reminds us that the power to imagine and bring forth our better selves and a better world resides not in the book itself but in the readers.