If you ask the average fantasy reader why they believe fantasy is important, they’ll probably give you an answer revolving around the concept of escapism. Heck, ask someone who doesn’t ready fantasy and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: People read fantasy to escape.
But, is that all fantasy is? Temporarily putting aside your real-world troubles so you can pretend you’re drifting within a more pleasing atmosphere? I believe that’s part of the package, and surely there are psychological benefits to releasing our daily burdens, but I know there’s more to it than that. While escapism may be the most rehearsed answer people give, there are stronger answers that should be considered.
This list of reasons why fantasy is important to human growth and evolution (below) was a result of my journey toward finding a valid justification regarding what I write. You see, I’ve been writing fantasy stories for decades… been drawing fantasy characters and landscapes for longer. I’m basically in an eternal love relationship with the genre, so I know it isn’t going anywhere for me. But, I often find myself questioning if my time could be better spent on other things? Am I doing enough for the world and humankind’s greater good? I could easily argue that my 9-5 provides more when it comes to progress and furthering our goals as a species than fantasy can, but that’s because my daytime work is measurable, whereas fantasy writing can be a highly subjective field. How can you measure the level of escapism fantasy conveys and its positive impacts on your readers? How many readers do you even have? And, how many times have they read your stories to escape? I can ask myself these questions a thousand times in a thousand different ways, yet I still know my 9-5 has a direct and positive impact on others’ lives. Without disclosing what I do “for a living” during the week, I can tell you how it positively impacts the world, how many people it’s impacting, and how often. So, in the end… is fantasy writing a worthy endeavour? Is it just a place people can disappear into, pretend they’re something better than they are in the real world, and shirk their responsibilities? I say, no. Like everything else, too much of anything can be bad for you, but I believe fantasy has its merits. I would even say fantasy is vitally important to human growth and our understanding of ourselves. And here’s why:
Let’s tackle the obvious one first. Fantasy can alleviate the tension and hardships in the present. Life can be tough at times… maybe you’re going through a rough patch in an otherwise smooth relationship. Delving into fantasy, taking your mind off the issue, allows you to replenish your mental energy. It’s like shaking your arms after lifting something heavy, or sleeping well after a long, physical day at work.
Speaking of, your dreams are a source of fantasy (and yes, I’m loosely correlating fantasy with all fiction… for whenever we read fiction we are still fantasizing about something that isn’t true). Dreams are wild, and incoherent, and often difficult to understand. I believe they are our brain’s way of sorting everything… like a computer defragging its hard drive, it sorts things into neat little places, tossing out the useless stuff. The end result: you get a weird, fantastic, and often unrealistic story out of it. That being said, we fantasize all the time, whether we want to or not. We escape because we need to.
A Model for Real Life Behaviour
Fantasy story ideas are limitless; they have infinite potential—for us as well as for the characters within them. With the suspension of disbelief we can experiment the “what ifs” within our own world so we can imagine a better one for ourselves. What if you were “The Chosen One”… the only person left to save your people from the malevolent evil that exists? You’re given a sword and shield before they send you into the dragon’s lair. What a metaphor for those times in our lives where we need to step up for others! In the real world, you have an uncle who has always put the family down, and at every holiday he seems to make things worse. Everyone has a decent enough time, but they always leave feeling worse than they came because of your uncle. Yet, for some reason, he confides in you. He thinks you aren’t like the others in your family. He once told you, in confidence, that his brother (your father) was always the favourite one growing up, and that he was always told he wouldn’t amount to his brother’s accomplishments. Your father began his career and family first, and your uncle hasn’t really produced much in those departments. Now there’s an upcoming holiday, and the rest of the family isn’t looking forward to the ill will your uncle is sure to expunge all over them. Let’s unpack that:
Your uncle puts the family down every holiday (the evil dragon)
The family leaves worse than when they came during those holidays (the dragon’s claws, teeth, and fiery breath)
Your uncle confides in only you, thinking you aren’t like the others (the chosen one with a special power)
Your uncle loathes his brother for being the favourite, and having success with family and career (the dragon’s weak spot and motivation for attacking your people)
Another holiday is approaching (the looming and impending destruction to come)
You’re the knight, and unwillingly you must face the evil dragon (your uncle), because you are the only one who might get through to him. You are given a sword (the fact that he might listen to you, you can use your knowledge about his upbringing to help him understand what he is doing to the family). You are given a shield (the fact that your uncle confides in you and thinks you are different than the rest, thus is resistant to releasing his fire breath on you). You enter the lair, scared as you are, and you confront him.
Now, fantasy tales often end with success and a positive outcome, and the reason for that is to enlighten the reader as to what potential rewards may come. At the heart of the dragon’s lair lies a mountain of riches. Slay the dragon, and those riches are yours. In reality, not everyone slays the dragon. In reality they get burned or maimed… some don’t even make it into the lair out of fear of what may happen in there. The takeaway is this: fantasy, fairy tales, fables… they all inform us on how we ought to behave. In the beginning they lay out a difficult situation, they tell us we are the only ones who can overcome the trial, and they remind us that we usually don’t want to go on our quests—that we would rather ignore the evils around us and hope they just go away on their own. In the middle of the tale they remind us we have weapons to defeat our enemies, and we have shields to protect ourselves from their attacks. We get help from the “wise, old sage” who arms us with experience, so we don’t have to suffer they way they did. In the end we are shown the reward for slaying the dragon, yet we are reminded that fate is uncertain… that the dragon may prevail. But, if we don’t even try to face that evil, we are only contributing to it’s growth.
Try to find a fantasy tale that doesn’t contain a moral or a reminder of how we can achieve greater good, and I might just erase this post. From the Babylonian creation myth, Enūma Eliš, to today’s stories about wizarding schools, insurgents, elves and orcs, there’s always a takeaway… a positive behavioural model in which we can emulate.