At first glance fantasy seems like a ridiculous genre to read, let alone write, yet it has never been more popular than right now. Big books, modern day tomes, filled with swords, mythical beasts, magic, and outrageous adventures have became mainstream. People eat it up—old rehashed stories and modern innovations alike. Why?
I think this phenomenon stems from the ability of a fantasy novel to transport the reader into an exciting, foreign world controlled by the same, but accentuated, rules that govern the world we inhabit. At some point in our lives we all have epic fantasies and such fantasies appear as commonplace in a fantasy novel. The desire to become better than we are through diligent training, to rise to (and overcome) all challenges, to selflessly make the personal sacrifice when required, to shape the world with our own unique power. To be a hero.
I’m referring to an archetypal hero. The champion, the ultimate victor, an individual saturated with glory. In the stories these heroes come to believe, trust—no it’s even more than that—they know, deep down in their bones, where the spirit may or may not reside, that there is something other than themselves. That this something needs their aid. All well and good for an ancient musclebound Greek blessed by the gods, but what about the rest of us?
In many fantasy stories this schism of good and bad is clearly developed—light vs. dark, life vs. destruction, order vs. chaos, love vs. hate. This dichotomy works well within the confines of book covers but has difficulty spilling over into the day-to-day reality of our lives.
People are complicated, we’re bundles of contradictions. Rarely does a wise wizard appear to tell one that he/she is The Chosen One, and if you happen to find yourself in this situation DO NOT GIVE OUT YOUR CREDIT CARD INFO, because that elderly bearded gent is likely playing you for a sucker. And yet, wouldn’t it be easier with this magical system? To run off on a quest and triumph over the baddies—but in our world who are the baddies? We’re all just humans after all.
I’ve yet to encounter a rabid horde of trolls (late night scurrying to pizza shops after the bars close notwithstanding) and I’ve never faced the wrath of a Dark Lord hellbent on subjugation (personal debt is much subtler). So, if you were Señor or Señorita Chosen One, who would you do battle with, conquer, slay? What quest is worth the ultimate dedication?
Your answer is yours and yours alone, a completely subjective decision influenced by your own beliefs, age, societal affiliations, and motivations. Not right, not wrong, just yours. This is why I believe fantasy is a useful tool, because it allows for self-reflection by plunging the reader into a mirror-image of our world populated by characters battling with universal dilemmas. The large scope of fantasy is an attempted portrayal of an all-inclusive (not the kind with tropical drinks) struggle faced by individuals. One problem at a time. Page by page. The basic is expanded in order to be accessible, which is then interpreted through subjective experience. On some level the reader questions, “what would I do?” and this leads to the more important question of, “what do I believe?”
In a world without trolls and dragons (all we have are camera shy Sasquatch) where does one make a stand? What cause does one champion? There is no black and white answer, only a muddied grey full of choices. Choices that you must make for yourself.
Some people choose to make as few choices as possible and that’s fine I suppose, a kind of net-zero, not influencing positively or negatively, but I think that readers of fantasy are different. They’re dreamers. Hope filled idealists. Passionate explorers. Seekers of a quest. Not to burst any bubbles, but you’re already on a quest whether you realize it or not. A choose your own adventure where you can’t keep your finger on the page and read ahead to see if you like the outcome. No going back, no wizards or talking animals (besides a few species of canny birds). Only people.
We’re all we have. And as individuals, families, cultures, and societies we’re stranger, better, worse, more beautiful, uglier, weaker, and more powerful than anything imagined in fantasies.
Stories have the capacity to deeply affect us and from an early age I connected with the themes in fantasy stories. But that’s my subjective experience. Read a fantasy novel, put yourself into the story, allow the story to sink into you, and decide for yourself.