I’m still on a bit of a vacation, so I’m holding off on the serious career-related articles for another week at least. One thing I have been really enjoying over the past couple of weeks (aside from generally trying to do as little as possible) has been catching up on my reading.
Of my many vices, one of the longest standing and most enjoyable has been my love of fantasy novels. I’ve been reading and re-reading them for almost as long as I’ve been a reader, and I can tell you without any doubt that I have no regrets. From canonical greats like Tolkien to lesser-known but still widely read genre authors like Brian Jacques (the Redwall series), Christopher Rowley (the Bazil Broketail series), Robert Jordan (the epic Wheel of Time series), Terry Brooks (my personal favourite, the Shannara series) and, most recently, George R. R. Martin (the Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. A Game of Thrones), these books have been a welcome constant in the ever-changing progression of my life.
What’s the appeal of these books? I’ve always been a big fan of stories and characters that can be described as medieval fantasy. Swords, sorcerers, dragons and other mythical creatures just speak to me in a way that nothing else has been able to. For some people it’s science fiction, for others it’s anime—you get the idea. If I am a nerd about anything, it’s medieval fantasy.
And I’m not the only one. There’s something enduring about the appeal of fantasy novels, and in particular, fantasy series. Of course, there’s the allure of being drawn away to a different world, where good and evil are often a matter of what your name sounds like or where you live, where words like slay, quest and vanquish are acceptable and appropriate parts of the lexicon.
But I think a big part of the appeal of fantasy is not just the escapism, but the fact that things seem so much simpler in these worlds. Even in the massive universes created by some of these authors, with casts of hundreds of characters (and, in some cases, even with their own language), there remains in most cases a basic good-against-evil plotline, at least on a macro level. So there is always a clear purpose to the characters’ actions, which I think a lot of people lack in their day-to-day lives. I know that sometimes it’s hard for me to see a larger purpose to a lot of the things I do—beyond paying the bills, that is. What if the fate of the kingdom depended on my ability to successfully commute to work or finish those last chapters of my thesis?
On a smaller scale, the characters in fantasy novels seem to lead simple lives, dictated by their occupation and social class. You have your peasant class of farmers, labourers and the like; your mercantile class of blacksmiths, butchers, various merchants, grocers and innkeepers; various military or mercenary types; and several levels of court and royalty. Throw in some traveling bards, a few thieves or pickpockets, and you’ve got most of the basics covered. Add an ominous prophecy about a chosen one and a lower-class orphan with rare and mysterious powers or talents (complete with a rival character who ends up sacrificing themselves or joining the hero on their quest to save the land), and you’re really cooking.
The lives of most of these characters are so completely unlike what we experience on a daily basis, and yet their exploits speak so eloquently to our own inner desire for adventure, for conquest, to make a meaningful difference in the world. I believe that juxtaposition (if I may be so pompous as to use the word—I so rarely get a chance to do so) is at the heart of why I so love these books, even the trashy ones. Through fantasy, I get to experience making a difference.
And that will have to do. Still, If I one day happen to inherit a magical sword that only I can wield on a quest to save the world against a pending demon invasion, I’d be okay with that.