What I Love About Fantasy
There is a story I tell. I’m in the first grade and my teacher is polling the class on what book she’s going to read to us next. The options are The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and… something else.
She asked for people who wanted Narnia to raise their hands and a bunch of kids did so. I did not because I’d never heard of it and frankly, it sounded pretty stupid.*
Then she asked for people who wanted the other thing to raise their hands. I did, and I looked around, and I was the only one who had.
I have been reading fantasy and holding minority opinions ever since.
Sidebar: She told me that maybe I could have my parents read it to me and in my head I thought the first-grade version of “Fuck that, bitch*, I’m gonna read it myself.” Decades later, I would find that the school thought I had some sort of intellectual disability until end-of-year tests showed that was vehemently not the case.
*First grade me was a bit of an insensitive asshole and I repeat some words here that I wouldn’t normally use for the sake of verisimilitude.
So… What do I Love About Fantasy?
I don’t want to make myself out to be too precocious, but as a shy, introverted kid with some self-esteem issues, I noticed very early that reality sucks donkey dick on the regular.
When I went through the wardrobe, I wasn’t the small shy kid who got overlooked by everyone. I wasn’t left on the sidelines. I had the inside scoop on something incredibly cool. That all my classmates had voted for it and thus also had the inside scoop was lost on first-grade me.
I tore through the Narnia books and went looking for something else that could transport me the same way. I found Prydain, A Wrinkle in Time, NIMH, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and more Piers Anthony than should be allowed. I read David Eddings and tried to read Pern and Mary Stewart’s Arthur books, but they were a tad adult to me.
I was, as they say, hooked, and I’ve never stopped reading and watching fantasy. I got hooked on Star Wars when I was six.
Yeah, I Know, that’s not What I Love About Fantasy
As a child, I think I just loved the escapism, the magic, the wizards, and the dragons. When I read, I wasn’t the lonely introvert. I was with friends who—I could imagine—cared as much about me as I did about them. They weren’t just characters, they felt real.
As an adult, I love how shifting a story from a pseudo-reality to a fantasy or science fiction setting allows storytellers to exaggerate certain attributes to look at something closer.
[insert topical reference alert]
For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood envisioned a world where most women could not conceive to look at how we treat women as incubators.
In the stories I read as I was younger, the difference between good and evil was stark and the consequences of sitting idly by were manifest. That’s less true of stories today, but we—and the stories we read and write—are inevitably products of our time. The difference between good and evil was a lot clearer to those who grew up during the 40s, 50s, and 60s than it was to those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s.
Sidebar: I can’t wait to read the stories written by people who are growing up today and I can’t help but wonder if they’re going to be more like the stories I grew up on, or what’s being written today.
But Maybe Love Isn’t the Right Word
I have tried to write this post a half-dozen times or more and I think the trouble was that I didn’t envision this section. See, I’ve got a deep connection to the genre and I’m not entirely sure it’s about love of a genre. I think it’s because the books I read in this genre had an outsized influence on the values I now hold.
There’s one particular series I read, re-read, and re-re-read as a child, and when I heard the author died, I realized that much of who I am came from the values espoused in that series.
It wasn’t Narnia, thank God.
It was the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander, and it’s about a young man’s quest for identity. The fourth installment, Taran Wanderer, is one of those truly delightful books that means one thing to children and an entirely different thing to adults.
As the series begins, the protagonist is desperate to be someone of note. He’s an orphan, and he desperately wants to find out who his parents are because he hopes they will be of noble blood.
Over the course of five books, he learns that identity is not something inherited, but something built. He learns that nobility is not an accident of birth, but an aspect of character. He learns the process is more important than the reward and that being true to oneself is vastly more important than taking what others consider the best path. He learns compassion for his enemies, that privilege comes with responsibility, and that great gain can only come from great sacrifice.
When I think of the person I want to be, these are the values I strive for. Empathy and compassion even for those I disagree with. A respect for those in bad situations and a healthy disrespect for the rules and those who make them. I place a high value on education and introspection. I trust the process more than the result. I respect people who have put in the effort even if they have come to different conclusions than I have.
I’m supposed to have some sort of pithy conclusion here, but I really don’t. Fantasy literature helped make me who I am, and I feel most at home within its confines.