Notes on Literature: Internal Logic and Consistency in Fantasy (or why Dumbledore shouldn’t have conjured a chair out of thin air)

It might seem that only the worst kind of party-pooper would criticise works of fantasy for defying the rules of logic and science. Let me make it clear that it is not my intention to do so. After all, it would go against its very definition to expect fantasy to confirm to the norms of our physical universe. However, all narratives possess internal logic and hence a consistent set of rules that define their universe. To quote Michael Dirda’s eloquent opening passage from his essay Souls Hungering After Meaning*,

Novelists and poets, those interpreters of our troubled experience of the world, are often drawn to philosophical systems, theories of history, mythologies. Long works, in particular, require considerable formal organization, and so Dante relies on Aquinas and Catholic theology to structure his vision of the afterlife, just as Victor Hugo and Tolstoy embed powerful discourses about history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and War and Peace. Similarly, Yeats’s late poetry turns on the detailed cosmology he elaborates in A Vision while Robert Graves’s best love poems celebrate the somber mythos of The White Goddess: “There is one story and one story only.” Sometimes the writers truly believe in these various systems, sometimes the systems merely serve as useful architectural blueprints to produce original and coherent works of art. Of course, what matters most is that the resulting novel or poem, through its use of such theoretical struts and joists, can somehow do an even better job than usual of, say, breaking our hearts.

Fantasies like all works of fiction are narratives too. And while it need not always rely on elaborate theoretical frameworks, one would not be going against its definition to expect fantasy to operate on its own internal logic and consistent set of rules. That is why it drives me up the wall when a well planned and plotted fantasy like the Harry Potter series contains a deus ex machina moment like the one where Albus Dumbledore conjures up a chair out of thin air at Harry’s courtroom hearing. It is a deus ex machina moment and a needlessly dramatic, unnecessary, and downright silly one at that. Quite apparently its main purport is to portray Dumbledore as a near-omnipotent demigod who can never be cornered into discomfiture. However, does it work? Is it consistent with a world where witches and wizards are inherently powerful people? A world in which all someone needs to torture and kill another is sheer will and sadistic viciousness. A world in which all one needs to save another is the power of love. In a world where magic derives its power from its people and one in which magic is in some sense its people, the Dumbledore-in-the-courtroom scene seems like a cheap party trick. And I, for one, find it hard to believe that it could not have been done in any other way: a way consistent with Dumbledore’s world and his stature in it as a powerful wizard.

It is absolutely fine for fantasy fiction to twist and reformulate the rules of the world to suit its needs. But twisted or reformulated, a rule is a rule: one that is consistent with the internal logic of the world it governs and defines. Even in a fantastic world, Occam’s Razor applies. An explanation that is both simple and consistent with the world it intends to explain is the only explanation. And when writers of fantasy throw something at me that casually wrecks the logical consistency of their own imagined worlds, it hurts my sensibilities.

*Spoiler Alert: If you are yet to read John Crowley’s Little, Big or the multi-volume Aegypt cycle and have even a sliver of an intention of reading them, avoid the essay. The extract can, however, be safely read.
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