Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Why we love fantasy

Why we love fantasy

Early childhood is a time of wonder and learning. Everything is new, and it’s easy to slip between the world of imagination and the world of reality. During this impressionable time, many of us grew up hearing classic fairy tales, either in their original form, or revisited as a movie. While a lot of us outgrow that, I think for most of us we hold a spot in our hearts and minds where we love to imagine.

As we grow up, we discover that these stories were just made-up tales, but we still love them. Then, as we approach adulthood, we start to fill them out with other things that we’re experiencing in the “real” world. Some of these aren’t so pleasant as well: darkness, unkindness, selfishness, social disorder, and more. The villains become more villainous because we’ve seen more villainy around us.

That also makes us yearn for heroes more and more, I think. It’s like we still want someone to come in and make it right. We still want to believe in justice and kindness, and even love.

And so we need stories.

That’s why we love going to movies, why we watch so much TV, and why we read so many books. Recent years have shown rapid growth in the popularity of the fantasy genre of stories (with all of its subgentres and subsubsubgenres) in popular culture. I really think this ties into our childhood love of fairy tales. Yes, our stories may be more complex, with conflicted heroes and layered villains, and our settings may be grimdark dystopias, but it’s still essentially a fairy tale.

And we love it!

Sense of Adventure

A song by my one of my favorite bands starts:
“Well I get up at seven, yeah
And I go to work at nine
I got no time for living, yeah
I’m working all the time
Seems to me I could live my life
Much better than I think I am
I guess that’s why they call me
Call me the working man!”
-Rush, “Working Man”

I think it captures perfectly the day-to-day drudgery of most of life. Some might have wonderfully exciting and challenging jobs that they love, but even those have their days of dullness.

How do we cope? We try and find ways to escape it in weekend and after hours activities, hobbies, vacations and, of course, stories. Fantasy, as a genre, offers a complete escape. In these stories, we’re inserting ourselves into a whole other world, not just a distant city. We’re discovering new societies and cultures. Like a tourist from halfway around the world, we look around in wonder at the new sights, sounds, and smells. We can forget our own troubles for a bit and be immersed in somewhere else.

A "Safe Place"

And sometimes, we discover that these new places have some problems that are very similar to our own. However, instead of breaking our adventure, that makes us a little more comfortable. We can still relate to the new people we’re meeting because they do have some similarities. 

As we look around in this new space, we can open ourselves up to seeing some of the problems of our own world in a new way. By looking at them in this new world, we can see from a new perspective. Since this new world is, really, just a madeup idea, just “a silly fantasy”, it’s suddenly safe for us to consider what would be a difficult pill to swallow in our own reality.

The fairy tale becomes a way for us to learn about ourselves and grow as individuals and as a society.

So, from the seeds of frivolous imagination, sewn in our childhood, grows into a tree whose roots sink deep into our cultural souls and make us reach higher to the sky as a people. That’s why we love fantasy so much.