Fantasy world problems

By Hannah Sparks


Modern life can be mundane, and while some of this tedium is derived from privilege, complaints about our reality are often dismissed as “first world problems.” However, having the luxury of running water and abundant food doesn’t save one from aching loss, the sting of rejection, or all-consuming frustration. Nor can it save one from complete boredom.

Luckily, while we all have trials, and some more than others, most of us do not have to struggle too hard to survive. As a society we don’t suffer from a lack of things, but from complete overabundance. We have so many choices as to what we want to do with our lives, whether in the short or the long term, that the possibilities seem at once both dizzyingly endless and hopelessly lacking. It’s left us wanting something more, and yet less.

I believe what we want is quality, not quantity.

I have to believe there is some grander scheme of things that makes the trivialities redeeming. I also have to believe that a far greater redemption lies somewhere out there for the people who suffer bodily the disparities of modern life. Redemption to me isn’t something religious, but something existential: that there is a reason for everything.

This desire for “redemption” – whatever that means to you – combined with the seemingly increasing ridiculousness of the world around me has driven me to turn away from books, movies, and television that closely mirror reality. As a result, I find myself delving deeper into the fantasy genre. It isn’t a wholly better place, but it’s a more interesting one.

This transporting experience was best summed up by American professor and aphorist Mason Cooley: “reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” In this particular instance, I’m going to say that this experience is not limited to books and can also apply to movies and television. When we’re stuck in our safe but often mind-numbing routines, exploring a world unlike your own can be a welcome escape.

Sure, there are problems – huge problems – at Hogwarts, in Middle Earth, in Westeros, in outer space, wherever your favorite fantasy world may be. But they’re not the same problems we have here. They’re grander, more complex, more exciting, more dangerous: basically they are, in every sense of the word, epic. These problems give rise to courage, honor, and legend, all of which do exist in our world but in far less dramatic ways. Or at least that’s the way set designers, directors, and all those attractive actors make it seem to us.

Clichés aside, the lessons of these stories are still significant when taken in occasional doses. Morality, goodness, security: those basic things seemed to be on the line, and if things didn’t turn out the right way, there was no hope for a better future. Wars were fought to lay a foundation for the future. Well, we could see today as that future, and without those grand struggles, less is at stake and complacency sets in.

I’m not saying that we should always be living on the brink of disaster just to make life more interesting, but I think there is something to be said for uncertainty and discomfort. This is why change is frightening, but also why change makes life exciting and worth living.

We can, of course, have magical experiences of our own, but there is something qualitatively different between realistically attainable magic and sheer fantasy. Traveling is one possible kind of magic, but even that comes with its own problems. We may be able to visit and appreciate castles or ruins, but somehow even these real locales we are able to physically inhabit seem out of context, like relics of an unknown past.

We feel like impostors standing in the midst of history while wearing sensible shoes and snapping pictures with digital cameras. There’s something almost disorienting and dare I say, embarrassing, about traveling to distant lands in order to satiate some desire for adventure. Is it really adventure or is it some kind of appropriation?

This inability to relate to true history is part of the reason why we have books and movies and other works of fiction. For a moment we can believe we are someone else, somewhere else, with different cares. We can choose to live vicariously through those characters or we can do the complete opposite and attempt to look at things from totally different points of view that are impractical to explore in our real lives. Escapes such as these are good for the individual, because we can draw inspiration from them and come to see our real lives in another light.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]