In a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and what’s more, it’s lies that everyone knows are false.
In that article I argued that fiction’s primary purpose was to change beliefs about how the world works. Even though it describes false events, the skillful author writes in such a way that the reader believes they could happen; and in doing so, can change the reader’s beliefs about what is possible, or the way the world works, or human nature. The readers of Tolkien may not end up believing in hobbits, but they may be more likely to believe in things like this:
- There is a guiding force to events, which works indirectly through seeming ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’ (e.g. Bilbo’s finding the Ring; the manner of the Ring’s destruction).
- Despite this, people have free will, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
- Loyalty to one’s king and country is a great virtue, as is military service when necessary.
- Greed for power (and knowledge!) corrupts.
- The world was once much more beautiful and pure than it is now.
- Not all wrongs can be righted, but even tragedy can be beautiful.
Since then I’ve been thinking more about this, and I think I’ve found a perhaps more direct function of fiction. It’s a shamanistic technique, similar to meditation or trance, which actually operates directly on the reader’s subconscious or spiritual connections.
The Simplest Shamanistic Technique
I am no expert on shamanism, but I know a little, and this is the simplest technique I’m familiar with. It’s useful for just about any small-to-medium emotional or spiritual issue you have, and can assist with physical issues as well. Here’s the technique, with an example from my own experience:
- Go into meditation / trance. If you work in an inner landscape, go there and do whatever you need to do to prepare for active visualization work. I usually go to the Forest of Branching Paths, or the Isle of Smoke.
- Bring your issue to mind. As you do so, watch to see what image(s) arise in your visualization. This image is the symbol your subconscious uses to represent your issue. (Thinking about why the subconscious chose this symbol, rather than another, can give essential insight by itself.) For example, once I was having trouble with money, so as I brought the issue to mind, I got an image of my wallet completely empty.
- Think about what it would take to ‘fix’ the image, and imagine that happening. For an empty wallet, the solution was obvious: I imagined a gold coin in it. In fact, I imagined a brand new wallet which created gold coins endlessly. Hold the new image in your mind, consider how it makes you feel, and experience the new image as much as you can. Tell your subconscious: this is how it should be!
- There is no step 4; you’re done. But if you want to really reinforce the message for your subconscious, find some way to instantiate your vision in the physical world, especially as part of a ritual. In my case, I actually went out and bought a brand new wallet (the old one was ratty and falling apart anyway) and put some of those golden Sacajawea dollars in it.
(…And yes, it worked.)
Writing as Trance-Work
Compare this to what happens when you write (and to a slightly lesser extent, read) fiction. Here’s how it works if you’re a writer:
- You have an issue, a problem you want to write about — maybe a personal problem, but more likely a problem that you find compelling or interesting. Or (as often as not) your ‘issue’ is completely subconscious, and you have nothing concrete in mind ahead of time, so you skip straight to step 2:
- You sit down to write, focus on your issue, and symbols arise. The symbols might be characters in your story, or settings, or plot twists; they may arise as images or feelings, or maybe characters just start talking in your head.
- Now you start manipulating the characters, settings, and plot points, into an arc of rising tension and release. As a writer, you are working with symbols that mean something to your subconscious, and as you work with them, you are actually communicating with your subconscious about how these issues interact and resolve themselves in meaningful ways. This is why writing — even writing fiction — can be so cathartic.
The process is similar, and the outcome is the same.
Writer as Shaman
It works for the reader, too.
- You are drawn to a book, perhaps because of issues in your life, or issues that you find compelling, or reasons completely subconscious and unknown to you.
- You sit down and start reading, and images arise. The writer has chosen images that speak to their personal subconscious, but if they’ve done their work well, they are presented compellingly and vividly, in such a way that they speak to the reader’s subconscious, too. This, I think, is why fantasy is such a powerful form of fiction: its language is most straightforwardly the symbols of the human subconscious. Tolkien’s dwarves and elves are only partly his own creation; they exist in the universal hindbrain of humanity, and when we read about them, we recognize them.
- If the reader is drawn into the story, and the symbols are speaking to their subconscious, then as the characters move and change, and the plot twists, the conversation with their subconscious continues. The interaction of the symbols in the book is echoed in the reader’s subconscious. When they read about Gimli and Legolas’s friendship, a catharsis is reached between the Dwarf and Elf symbols in the reader’s subconscious, which has a real effect on the reader’s life.
The greatest authors — especially masters of fantasy, like Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis, King, and Shakespeare — take their readers on journeys deep into the subconscious, for catharsis, emotional and spiritual healing. In this way the writer becomes, in a way, like a shaman, leading the reader through a personal vision quest. But their words have touched the subconscious minds of millions; perhaps they have affected the universal subconscious itself. The world may have been profoundly changed by these writers, in ways that we are barely cognizant of.
Not bad for a pack of lies.