Dangerous Readers and Safe Allegories: Social Justice in Fantasy - Dundurn
Jun 08, 2021

Dangerous Readers and Safe Allegories: Social Justice in Fantasy

In 1974, Ursula Le Guin published an essay entitled “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” In the article, Le Guin writes that fantasy “isn't factual, but it is true” and celebrates “the use of imaginative fiction [as a way] to deepen your understanding of your world.” In my readerly experience, one of the most common ways the “truth” of the world appears in speculative fiction and fantasy (SFF) is through allegory (and the assumed relatability of every white male hero journey), through grand struggles against evil forces and stories of underdogs overcoming obstacles to achieve their dreams. Now, I have a lot of respect for Le Guin; on our first date, my forever partner and I bonded over our shared love for The Dispossessed and its articulation of an anarchist society. But after a decades-long passionate relationship with fantasy literature, I’m breaking up with allegory.

I can think of countless examples of historical and contemporary SFF that use allegory, and I’m sure you can, too. The villains are stand-ins for real-life dictators or colonizers, while the (inevitably white and cisgendered; unless coded as Indigenous, in which case blue or green alien) protagonist assumes the role of revolutionary or activist (but god forbid we support antifa). So many authors and fans of these franchises where good triumphed over evil, fascist regimes were overthrown, and metaphorical Nazis were defeated, did not stand up during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. They have not supported the Land Back movement. And they aren’t speaking up now for Palestinians who are suffering under an apartheid system and are being killed as I type this sentence.

I have to conclude that North Americans just aren’t that afraid of dragons anymore. After all, dragons aren’t real. (But white supremacists who love Tolkien are).

I wanted to write a fantasy book with a secondary world and a strange, intriguing magic system – a book filled with wonder and fear. I also wanted to write a fantasy book that had social justice themes without falling back on allegory. The Coven in the Metamorphosis duology is not symbolic of capitalists or racists. Eli is not a white saviour—she’s a queer and disabled aspiring ally. The leader of our group of magical adventurers, Tav, is Black and nonbinary, just as so many real-world leaders of social change are Black women and trans activists. And Tav wants to change both the secondary magical world and the human world. Canada, in The Boi of Feather and Steel, is recognizable as a settler colonial nation built on land dispossession, genocide, and slavery—a place of violence that needs to be transformed.

I don’t believe in allegory anymore. But I do believe in readers. I think readers want more than hero journeys and escapism, more than safe allegories that make them feel comfortable. I think they want to be challenged. I think they want to be called to action. And I know they’re ready to stand up against real-world injustice. As I wrote in Boi about Kite, our witchy librarian and reluctant Heir to a blood throne, “Readers can be dangerous.”

Adan Jerreat-Poole is a white, nonbinary, disabled writer living, working, and resting on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe nations. The Boi of Feather and Steel is their second novel.  Read more here.