In your last blog post, you said this:
"Some would say that living in fantasy worlds as a child doesn't prepare one for the real world. Maybe that's true, but considering that I am now an adult nerd, I don't see how that's such a bad thing."
While I agree with pretty much everything else you said, I should like to take a moment to delve into this particular subject a little more deeply. Especially since I've been wanting to for quite some time.
Sra, Supreme Chancellor of the World and Jupiter
Is Fantasy Escapist?
I think I'll let Mr. Tolkien answer that one for us.
Tolkien points to the resolution of fairy stories in happy endings, in the return at the end to a normal world. These aspects of fantasy, says Tolkien, are not escapist. They embrace that which we most yearn for- an acute awareness of the beauty of the real world- by leaving it, imagining richly, and then returning.
- Phillip Martin (paraphrasing Tolkien)
The well-intentioned mothers who don't want their children polluted with fairy tales would not only deny them their childhood, with its high creativity, but they would have them conform to the secular world, with its dirty devices.
- Madeleine L'Engle
Does fantasy destroy our ability to see the real world for what it is?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...
- T. S. Eliot
Once we believe..... we begin to see the forms of good and evil. First as children, later as adults, we come to believe that even creatures as small as ourselves can play a role, that the world is affected by the actions we take.
And, of course, no discussion on fantasy is complete without the incomparable Mr. Lewis.
In answer to the question of whether fantasy will warp a child's mind to confuse fantasy with reality: "It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth."
- C. S. Lewis
Poets are all fine and good. But let's leave off with the words of famous geniuses for a moment, and talk about it in layman's terms. Down to earth, plain old english. What does all of that mean?
As a certified non-genius, I've taken the liberty of breaking it down into six distinct categories. Six benefits of fantasy literature that show, without a doubt, that it is beneficial to the human mind and character.
1) Reading Makes You Smarter
What gets you ahead, when you're vying against 12 other people for that vice president's job? What makes the difference between you and the equally matched other guy, when you're playing chess, or football, or halo?
Outwitting someone in a game, or coming up with better ideas in an office, requires a little imagination. And reading fantasy not only helps, but forces you to develop said imagination.
You can't read about a dragon attack, and not come up with some kind of idea in your mind of what that was like. And the more you do it, the better your ideas become. The imagination is a muscle too. It needs frequent exercise, and reading fantasy is just the way to do it.
2) Deepens Beauty
This one is very closely related to the last. As Tolkien, Lewis, and Eliot all said up there, fantasy allows us to see things in our own reality that we never would have noticed, otherwise.
When we stretch our imaginations in a fantasy land, we are able to stretch them in real life, too. Okay, I'm going to cheat a little and use another C. S. Lewis quote here:
"No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden."
Finding the magic in the world isn't about being able to travel to strange and distant places. It's about being able to see the beauty of the ordinary.
Reading does not dull the ordinary by introducing us to the fantastic. It teaches us, line upon line, how to see the fantastic. And once we can see it, we can find it in everything. Even our own back yard.
3) Gives Us Perspective
We can't appreciate what we have until we know what it's like to not have it. We forget how fantastic it is to be able to breathe through our noses until we have a cold that keeps us up all night from stuffy sinuses.
We don't taste the sour part of the orange juice until we take a bite of a donut first. We can leave our own world for a little while. Then when we finally come back, we see it in a new light.
See here for a post on how I learned to appreciate my place in life because of reading the Hunger Games.
One part of that new light is, just as Lewis said, "a new dimension of depth." We realize that there is so much more out there in the world than our tiny little sphere of experience. That we are capable of stretching and reaching and discovering. That if we only put out our hand, we can reach the stars.
We are no longer satisfied with mediocrity. We've glimpsed the wider world of possibility, and we now need to raise ourselves up to bigger and better things.
4) Is a Kind of Reality
"Of course it is happening inside your head, but why should that mean that it is not real?" -Albus Dumbledore
A football nut isn't actually playing football. All he's doing is sitting on a bleacher bench, wearing horrible fan-paint, and screaming at people. None of the action is happening to him. Often, it's not even happening near him. So, therefore, the intense emotions he feels must be fake, right? Unless he personally and physically experiences something, it's not real.
If you're shouting that I'm dead wrong here, you'd be right. But remember that truths don't only apply to actions of the popular majority. Truth is a universal thing.
Fantasy books are almost exactly like watching a football game. And personally, I'd rather second-hand-experience a dragon flight, than an overpaid beefcake in tights jumping on top of another overpaid beefcake in tights. Just saying.
In fantasy we love, we hate, we win, we lose, we live, we die. Those emotions are completely real, and become a part of our life experience, even if they came from words instead of actions. Just because we experience something in a non-physical way doesn't mean that the experience is somehow false.
As J. K. Rowling so brilliantly said here, (Watch the whole thing. It's worth it,) "Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared."
5) Teaches Us Compassion
And on that note...
Humanity, by nature, is imperfect. Every human being has flaws, and every human being has a backstory that explains those flaws (though it may or may not excuse them.)
When we become judgmental, which we all do at some point, it is nearly always because we forget that people have a past. We know we have flaws, but we also know why we have them, so we can excuse ourselves as not-quite-so-bad. But we don't see that deeply into others. We don't see their thoughts, intentions, and motivations, and so we forget.
But books remind us.
What is the difference between a book we read once, and a book we read five times in the same year? Good writing helps, but it's not essential. Many poorly written books have been national bestsellers. Plot? Certainly not. Even the best plots only work once. (The movie Signs, for example.) After we know what happens, the shock and surprise are gone.
Or are they? We return to the same books again and again, and we're scared and excited and devastated every time, even though we know what happens. Why? Because we're so in love with the characters. We can't bear to see them in pain, even when we know it will turn out right in the end.
And yet, all of the best characters are just as flawed and stupid as the people we meet in every day life, but we love them anyway. In our favorite books, we learn to love people despite their mistakes. We're reminded of those backstories, and the fact that we're only human.
The more we read and the more we remember our flawed humanity, the more we are able to forgive others in real life. The more we are able to find sympathy and compassion for those around us.
6) Moral Lessons
Most authors don't purposefully put lessons and symbolism into their novels. And the ones that do have to be truly masterful about it to avoid preachiness, which everyone hates. But even the most un-preachy of novels teach us a great deal.
In every great fantasy novel ever written, good defeats evil. The hero stands up for right, even when it would be easier not to. The characters are brave in the face of adversity and trial. (And that doesn't always mean battle.)
Oh, yes, there are evil characters too. But we know which is which. And we return again and again to those characters that uphold honor, virtue, and integrity.
Whether intentional or not, we learn to be better people from those heroes. They teach us, as Phillip Martin said, "that even creatures as small as ourselves can play a role, that the world is affected by the actions we take."
Fantasy reminds us that we can make choices, and stand strong when trials come. That we can be brave and kind and good, no matter who we are, or what we've done in the past.
Tell me that's not something worth keeping around.