Many people dismiss fantasy and science fiction as having little to no real value or use (not all people, so don’t go getting defensive, defensive person). What does a book about talking dragons or a down-on-his-luck wizard have to do with reality and its struggles? I happen to think we can all learn a lot from the trials and tribulations detailed in fantasy worlds because at the heart of any story, be it truth or fiction, resides the human soul and spirit.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
— Neil Gaiman (Coraline)
1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I was an awkward child. Okay, I’m still pretty awkward but it was way worse between the ages of 10 to 16ish. In grade school I was picked on a lot. My mom still dressed me (think those tights that wrap around the back of your foot, weird geometric shirts and busy hair that couldn’t decided if it wanted to be wavy or curly) and because of her illness I didn’t participate in a lot of after school activities or have friends over very often. Boys picked on me a lot (screw people who say they did because they liked me, that crap was awful) pushing me down throwing things at me and making fun of me. I didn’t really have many friends and I spent most of my recess time walking around the soccer field day dreaming (like a weirdo). And then I discovered reading and it was my salvation from a mentally ill mother and cruel elementary school kids.
Meg Murray was like a slightly older version of myself that I instantly connected with. She never said or did the right things, she had basically no close friends, and she had mom issues (granted, much different than mine but the intent was the same). She was an unwitting hero who had little to no faith or confidence in herself that, with the absence of her kidnapped father (who, spoilers!, was trapped on an alien planet by a giant brain washing brain called ‘It’), became largely responsible for her younger siblings, just like I was! The classic battle of good versus evil was epitomized by three little old ladies with space traveling powers who were at once kind and loving as well as stern and blunt. In Meg Murray I saw hope for the awkward and bespeckled and learned that a kind, strong heart is more important than appearances and that we all have hidden strengths and an enormous capacity to love.
“Like and equal are not the same thing at all.” – Meg Murray.
Word, sister, word.
(I realize L’Engle was a Christian writer and her writing had heavy Christian connotations but at 10 this didn’t resonate with me and, frankly, it still doesn’t.)
2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (well, and all the others) by J.K. Rowling
Sorry, I couldn’t avoid putting this up here. Over done? Maybe. Relevant? You bet!
I was eleven years old (yes the age in which I should have received my letter to attend Hogwarts) when, perusing the always exciting book order form from school, I saw the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This was before the book and its author were plastered all over everything. I can remember being torn as I looked over the order form with the intensity some girls my age gave teen magazines. The title and description sounded kind of cheesy, I was distrustful, and moreover it was about a boy. But it was on sale and my dad had promised me fifteen glorious dollars toward my reading obsession so I checked it off with my favorite green gel pen. It had sparkles.
Man, am I glad I did. I fell deeply, deeply in love. A love that would last me all my life. Not just because of Rowling’s innovative and engaging magical world, but because of her tangible, relatable characters. The triumph of love over power and greed resonated in my young soul in ways I wouldn’t fully come to appreciate until I was much older. In a society that so often immortalizes the selfish and power hungry and thereby largely ignoring the selfless and kind, Harry James Potter was a light in the dark. He wasn’t the smartest or the most talented and he didn’t want to be, he just dealt with situations as they arose with humble courage. He hated his fame and longed for normalcy, he didn’t want to be a hero but when his friends and loved ones needed one he modestly took up the mantle.
And if the story of Severus Snape’s love for Lily Potter didn’t break your soul into a thousand itty bitty pieces and have you in tears I’m not sure if you’re human.
Just a few quotes that resonate, for me at least:
“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Another ubber famous book, which when I read it around the age of 12, was a little beyond my scope but I still grew to love it. They were books I would reread many times as I grew up (just finished reading them again, actually) and they subtly shaped my personality and viewpoints with each read. Every time I read them, they seemed to have something new to offer me.
They taught me to value everyone, no matter their size or circumstance. Tolkien was a great lover of punishing hubris and greed while uplifting the humble and courageous. The death of Boromir stuck with me, a good man long torn between duty and pride, as well as Aragorn’s long struggle with his identity and responsibility, showing that those most eager to rule others are typically the least qualified or deserving to do so.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The above is a quote that I have lived with for most of my life when faced with difficult choices or unforeseen challenges. I can’t change the times I live in but I can decide what I do with myself while I am here, how deeply true is that?
4. The Stand by Stephen King
Can I count this as ScFi or fantasy? Well I’m gonna! I read this book my freshman year of college, and man, did it mess with my head. Stephen King is a bestselling author for a reason; his ability to scare the shit out of people through words is a downright gift. And The Stand was scary, and not even because of the Super Flu (Captain Trips) or Randall Flagg, which are admittedly, pretty fucking creepy, but because of his exploration of the human capability for cruelty and indifference.
The Stand makes you think about your life in the worst possible way. If the world were basically to come to an end, how would you behave? What would you find meaning in? King has expressed The Stand as being his sort of take on an epic like Lord of the Rings, but modern day (you know, in like the 80’s modern day) and I think he sort of managed that. With cross country traveling and unspeakable evil with lots of self sacrifice and growth sprinkled in and no little amount of ruinous pride and hunger for power.
It mind screwed me for several weeks as I tried to come to terms with how I would handle a post apocalyptic world. Oh, and how much it would suck to be a woman if society fell. Yuck.
5. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinely
A lesser known book, in my experience, that catalogues the journey of Aerin, the only child of the King and her deceased mother who was probably a witch. She’s awkward, different, not considered conventionally beautiful and doesn’t poses the magical ability the others of the royal family do. She is stubborn, headstrong and brave with little in the way of elegance or grace. Aerin is largely shut away by the nobility due, mostly, to her mother’s heritage and has no place among her peers. She learns to fight dragons, to use a sword, to ride a horse and when dragons –small ones- start popping up all over the place, she goes out and challenges them. And she turns out to be pretty kick ass about it while retaining her down to earth attitude and distaste for useless shows of formality or etiquette.
Aerin was a princess I could get behind, that I could relate to, that didn’t run off with Prince Charming until after she’d killed an evil wizard and a giant dragon.
McKinely is a detailed and fluid writer with eloquent prose and spot on characterization. She’s retold a number of Disney-ruined-fairytales in a manner that I think most women can get behind.
I could go on, and on, and on. I love to read, anything really, but fantasy has always been my call home, these were just the five books that came immediately to mind. So yeah, here I am, saying that fantasy books taught me courage, humbleness, self reliance and love. They showed me the power of storytelling and character creation and how words can shape the minds of children and the adults they grow into.
“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”
— George R.R. Martin