I’m going to let my inner nerd show and confess that I have always been a fan of fantasy literature. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Dennis L. McKiernan, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, bring it on. I would devour these books as a teenager, always hungry for that world where the good guys win out in the end.
For me, these books were an escape from the pain of an EPP attack, from the isolation and loneliness of feeling outcast, from the fear of a hopeless future.
You see, real life isn’t like fantasy. The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes the dragon or the monster wins, and it’s permanent. Then what do you do? On the surface, it can seem that real life teaches survival of the fittest, that the guys on top stay on top, that cutthroat, backstabbing tactics get you what you want.
Fantasy literature taught me to hope beyond the immediate present, that I could stay true to my conscience and principles and simultaneously believe that one day things could work out in the end. The protagonist always wins in fantasy literature, and, as I am the protagonist of my life, I can believe in my own future.
But I’ve always had one big beef with fantasy literature:
Why is it that it’s always the bad guys who can’t be in sunlight?!
From the Orcs of Morder to the Shadowen of Shannara; undead vampires, light-draining dementors, they all hate the light! What’s with that?? I used to day-dream about harnessing Sauron’s power to summon permanent clouds of darkness over my backyard so I could go outside like his dark hordes. There had to be some way to use that spell without having to conquer the world in the process.
Then one day I found a book called the Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore. It featured a protagonist named Drizzt Do’Urden, a wilderness expert that couldn’t be in sunlight. What’s more, the evil antagonist of the book harnessed the power of the sun to kill the innocent and control his minions.
I consumed that book. Here was a hero that I could relate to, a hero from the darkness of the underworld. The author included excerpts in his books written as though by Drizzt himself, describing the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts about his adventures. Many of these excerpts emotionally touched me, as though the person writing them had experienced my own life. Drizzt Do’Urden was a person of honor, integrity, and honesty who held to his principles despite a life of pain and loneliness. Even though he wasn’t a real person, the ideals and philosophies espoused by the author through his stories inspire me to try to do the same.
I kept reading these books, following the story of Drizzt and Wulfgar, the barbarian of the north, as they fought battles described in gory detail (something a young, action-loving boy could really appreciate), defeating dragons and monsters, rescuing friends, and overcoming personal challenges and weaknesses beyond the battlefield.
Although I have some minor criticisms for these books, chief amongst them being the direction the story took after the Sea of Swords was published in 2001, I can’t forget how they helped me feel hope at a time of sadness. This hero of darkness, Drizzt Do’Urden, a fictional character in a fictional world, helped me, a real person in a real world, imagine a future where life was good.
Critics and naysayers of fantasy literature often point out that you can’t live in a fake world, that you need to focus on reality or you will never make something of your life, that you have to get your head out of the clouds and ground yourself in the present. To them I say that these criticisms can apply to any form of escapism, and do not inherently merit the immediate dismissal of the fantastic power of one’s imagination. Many people seek an escape from the perceived misery of their lives, be it through benign, otherwise harmless activities taken to the extreme, such as watching television, shopping, eating, exercising, working, and internet browsing, or perhaps through more nefarious, addictive forms of escapism, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography addiction, hatred, and violence.
Fantasy literature helped me to ground myself in the present, to get myself out of the depression in my head and look to the future, to realize that my life can be happy and fulfilling if I was willing to put in the effort and make something of myself. I could overcome my own demons and dragons, I could find a way to deal with EPP and turn myself into the hero of my own story.
In the words of G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
“Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”