Lethetic and Alethetic: two sides of Fantasy

Learned a new word today. Actually, two.

  • Lethetic: failing to mirror reality, therefore purely escapist or nonsensical.
  • Alethetic: non-lethetic, therefore mirroring reality, often indirectly (e.g., allegories).

These two terms are now very dear to me – this is because they map, in my opinion, two different types of Fantasy literature that I have encountered but didn’t have the right words to categorise (apart from crappy vs good – not very articulate, wouldn’t you agree).

Lethetic fantasy, for me, would be a shallow type of reading: maybe even well written and with a good story, but it’s unlikely it will stick in my mind, or warrant a re-read. The cycle of Landover from Terry Brooks would probably fit the bill, apart maybe from the first book, as well as quite a few bestsellers (that’s the sad part). Plus a huge amount of self- and traditionally- published books that don’t achieve any renown.

Alethetic fantasy would be a book that has something to say, that tries to uncover (through the mind of the author) an aspect of reality. We’d probably be better off reading an essay to get an academic sense of a political, sociological, anthropological aspect of humanity. But fiction reaches deeper within. Studying the Problem of Evil is all good, makes for a tedious (if intellectually challenging) effort. Reading a book that allegorically shows the different arguments within the Problem and their real-world consequences would hit much closer to the target – and it’s also, usually, much more memorable. It stimulates our emotional intelligence and only later our rationality – exactly the opposite of academic writing. A clear, well-known example of this type of fantasy is Tolkien’s LotR of course, but also LeGuin’s Earthsea and many, many others.

In this context, new fantasy readers would do well to focus their efforts on the second type – notwithstanding the need for a good story, or the read would only be boring (better an academic essay, at that point).

If you thing fantasy literature is shallow and childish, you probably have only read lethetic books. Please do some research and find something better in the alethetic category. It’s worth it.

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