Notes on Literature: Fantasy, Mathematics, Law

“… fairy was delusion, so was the law. At any rate, it was a sort of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose …

“… the law plays fast and loose with reality – and no one really believes it.”

—From Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

One could imagine both mathematics and law as branches of fantasy literature, albeit far more rigorous, thorough, and abstract than the typical piece of fantasy fiction. And when you think about it, the parallels between fantasy, mathematics, and law are not surprising—all three are essentially axiomatic systems: they are each the set of consequences of assumptions that are taken to be self-evident. Be it the claim that wands choose wizards; be it the assertion that the shortest path between two points is a straight line; or be it the counter-intuitive but logical conclusion that incriminating evidence obtained without probable cause or a search warrant is, in the eyes of the law, tantamount to non-existence of such evidence; the fundamental building blocks of fantasy, mathematics and law are axiomatic in nature.

However, their axiomatic nature is not enough to substantiate the claim that mathematics and law are branches of fantasy literature. It is not enough that they play “fast and loose with reality,” they should also be capable of “moulding reality into any shape.” That is, it is not enough that their basic elements are self-evident truths that do not need to be proven, they should also be able to work with a variety of different basic elements. And this is indeed the case: rigorous and consistent non-Euclidean geometries have been worked out, that do away with the assumption that a straight line is the shortest path between two points; and the basic tenets of legal systems across the world are as unique and as idiosyncratic as the cultures that gave birth to them.

Having, with some idle musings, established that there are tangible fundamental parallels between fantasy, mathematics, and law, it should be interesting to see how this point of view sheds new light back on fantasy literature. Kurt Gödel proved that given any axiomatic system, statements exist that cannot be proven within the system and that there is no way proving the system’s consistency; however, statements that cannot be proven in one axiomatic system might have proofs in another. Fiction in general, but fantasy fiction in particular, is prone to inconsistencies and plot holes. Could it perhaps be that however carefully the basic elements are chosen and however meticulously the fictitious world is constructed, inconsistencies and paradoxes are inevitable? Also, could the various worlds of fantasy literature be interpreted as alternate axiomatic systems to our reality? Interesting questions! But irrespective of what their answers might be or what we think their answers might be, I believe the best works of fantasy fiction achieve what they do by effectively trading off between the inevitable inconsistencies and plot holes due to the constructed nature of fantasy and the demands of story-telling driven by age-old traditions and mythological templates.

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