Using fantasy to raise questions about society and social justice

This weekend, the department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies will host a graduate student conference, provocatively titled, “The Fantasy of Social Justice.” 

The conference will bring together scholars from various disciplines to discuss and define the broad category of “social justice.” Additionally, the event will explore how fantasy literature can contribute to popular discussions around race, gender and class.   

The conference’s primary organizer is Stephanie Dreier, a PhD candidate in Germanic Studies whose research examines the link between fairy tales and fantasy. According to Dreier, both genres share a common legacy in educating new generations about the values and traditions of a particular society. However, she said that fantasy also presents an opportunity for readers to question these same values.

“What fairy tales were used for – especially the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales – is to educate the generations,” she said. “Fantasy literature also has an educational function. When people read fantasy, they get a chance to look at their social orders from a different perspective. They look through this fantastical lens, they look at the existing social order and they re-evaluate what is important.”

Although fantasy is often associated with escapism, Dreier believes that it can in fact be a useful tool in grappling with weighty, seemingly intractable issues of injustice. By framing a world as a “fantasy,” the rules that constrain ordinary life no longer apply. As a result, authors and readers are free to reimagine social norms alongside laws of physical reality. 

“The difference between fantasy and reality is that fantasy gives us an opportunity to re-think common things in a different light. For instance, fantasy is known to touch on a lot of important matters, such as the place of the individual in war. Or for instance, fantasy brings up romance or friendships and it brings in the magical element in order to sort of re-evaluate the impact that one person can have on other people,” she said.

Furthermore, Dreier believes that fantasy has a unique power to transcend geographical and social boundaries. For her, this tendency is best demonstrated by the Potter-mania of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Harry Potter — you read it in China, you read it in Singapore, you read it in Russia, you read it in Germany, Europe, North America. It still attracts people — it still catches something. It speaks. People want to re-read it. They read it to their children. So it makes an impact,” she said.

In addition to organizing the conference, Stephanie Dreier will deliver a panel presentation on “Magical Objects: The Transformative Power of Fantasy.” Fellow UBC panelists include Brent Holmes — a film critic and Master of Arts student in journalism who will deliver a presentation on women in fantasy and speculative fiction — and Hilary Ball, a Master of Arts candidate in English who will discuss “Generosity and the Gift Economy in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.”

The conference’s keynote speaker is Dr. Farah Mendlesohn, a leading scholar in fantasy literature whose works include the authoritative Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction and the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Dr. Mendlesohn’s presentation will explore “The Rhetorics of Fantasy and the Rhetorics of Social Justice.”

“The Fantasy of Social Justice” conference will take place on March 11 and 12 at UBC’s Green College. No registration is necessary. Meals will also be provided free of cost, which Dreier hopes will tempt additional students into attending.

“The biggest goal is to create a discussion, to have people asking questions,” said Dreier. “That’s what [our speakers are] coming for — they’re coming to share their ideas. So the more students will come, the better.”