When I was young, I had good reasons to not like even my narrow slice of reality. Then I was given the Narnia books and jumped through a portal into an entirely other world filled with magic and wonder. I was hooked.
I continued escaping from my life into fantasy worlds, from Xanth to Prydain to Earthsea. There was a time I could have confidently navigated you through The Land or Middle-earth, yet would have struggled to navigate the limited number of real world routes I experienced on a weekly basis: to the store, to church, to my father’s. I was the kid who would read while walking, while sitting, while riding, while eating. If this were a fantasy story, then I would have begun to fade from our world, slowly erased as the fantasy realms became more real to me than reality. It wasn’t Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters bad, but I definitely loved my books.
Some might argue that by escaping into fantasy worlds I missed opportunities to learn and grow in our world. I certainly was a few years late reaching the magical world of dating (but then I was super smooth. Yeah), but I also feel I learned some things in those fictional worlds. This is not to argue that escaping from reality is always good or always bad, but rather that if a fantasy world is well developed, it too can shape us in some small ways similar to the real world.
It’s hard to pick just five books that did this for me, but these worlds were among the first I read, and most often re-read, and so were important to my early development. Here’s just a sample of what I learned (keeping in mind that I started reading many of these as a young and extremely sheltered teen):
Middle-earth (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien)
- Wizards are quick to anger.
- Even those who are twisted by pain and hatred and would do us harm deserve our pity and help, because there but for the grace of the elves goes us. And whenever possible, kindness is a better response to hate than violence, not just for the hater, but for our own soul.
- A hero is the person who has the courage to do what is needed and right, especially when they do not want to, or there are easier alternatives, or it will make you miss second breakfast.
- People can make a lot of terrible video games based on sacred trilogies.
Pern (Dragonriders of Pern and the Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey)
- Dragons are cool.
- Women can be kick-ass heroes too!
- Geez, and men can be insecure dicks, and dismissive of a person’s skills or opinions just because that person is a woman.
- Happiness lies in pursuing your true passions and potential even in the face of doubt and resistance.
- I want a fire lizard.
The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson)
- Good people do bad things; bad people do good things.
- Sometimes the things holding you back from true magic are your own fears, preconceptions, and self-imposed limitations.
- The Land is a precious and living thing that should be protected and appreciated.
- Our actions and choices can have consequences that play out far into the future.
- Whiners annoy me.
Valdemar (The Last Herald Mage and Heralds of Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey)
- Have faith in who you are—who you are by nature is not “wrong.”
- If the people around you are toxic, there’s a group somewhere that will love and support you for who you are.
- But also beware of living in a bubble of like-minded supportive voices and forgetting that there’s a whole world out there with differing views who might hate or resent you, particularly if you shut yourself off from them so they don’t learn to do differently.
- I want to control things with my mind.
Midkemia/Kelewan (The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist)
- Different cultures may be driven by fundamentally different histories, different views of the world, and views of what is important.
- Caring for all of humanity is as important as loyalty to any specific nation or group.
- A misspent youth does not doom one to a wasted life, especially when offered options.
- Friends may go on widely different paths as they grow, but true friendship accepts change.
- If I can’t have a fire lizard, I’ll settle for a drake.
What fictional worlds have had an impact on your view or understanding of the real world?
Top image from the US cover to Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free.
Randy Henderson is an author, milkshake connoisseur, Writers of the Future grand prize winner, relapsed sarcasm addict, and graduate. His “dark and quirky” contemporary fantasy novel, Fin Fancy Necromancy, is now out from Tor (US) and Titan (UK). The sequel, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, will be released February 16, and you can read the first three chapters at the Tor/Forge blog.