Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…
Just kidding, it was only twenty years and three thousand miles away. Hang on…that’s a suspiciously long way from my current location in the space-time continuum. Let’s try this again.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a young girl named Amira Makansi was taught to read novels by reading The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Her mother read aloud to her and her sister every night, spinning tales of whispering forests, adventuring dwarves, mysterious wizards, and deadly dragons. From goblins to orcs to gollums to elves, the young girl fell in love with this magical realm and by the end of the battle of the Five Armies, she wanted more.
So her mother kept reading. They quickly moved on to The Fellowship Of The Ring. She read to the girl and her sister every night without fail, as the hobbits and their companions wandered through bogs and taverns, marshes and mines, over hill and under stone, battling Nazgul, cave trolls, and Uruk-Hai, making friends with ponies, free men, elves, and large talking trees.
Fantasy was how a young Amira Makansi, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, learned to read. Fantasy was how I learned to LOVE to read.
It’s been a long time since I’ve found a fantasy novel that has captured my imagination as vividly as J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic tale of good vs. evil. I think in some ways, I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing that high. The first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, is still on my top ten favorite books of all time.
I fell in love with Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and then graduated to R. A. Salvatore’s archetypal antihero Drizzt Do’Urden. I loved almost equally Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, although C.S. Lewis’ Narnia never enchanted me the same way it did others. It almost goes without saying that Harry Potter was my bread and butter throughout much of my own coming-of-age story – Harry was the same age as I was, and we went through our teenage years together. In more recent times, I think the closest I’ve come to that sense of epic, fantastical drama has been Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which redefined for me what one could do with the idea of magic. Both Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss have tried, though neither has quite succeeded, to do for me what The Lord Of The Rings did so long ago.
Science fiction is a close parallel, so much so that the two genres are often lumped together. Both involve immense amounts of speculation and world-building, creating worlds future and past, or at the crossroads where other worlds meet our own. Dystopian fiction fits into that category – one must extrapolate how our world could end up like the one described in the future. Same with urban fantasy, where we are required to imagine how magic or special abilities could be hidden from sight for most while others run in dark underground worlds filled with shadowy demons and strange new forms of magic.
But none of these have the same peculiar, magical appeal of high fantasy, which spirits us away to foreign lands with rich foods and strong mead and enchanted swords and dangerous evils lurking behind every rock for the valiant adventurer to defeat.
As George R. R. Martin writes, “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.” That peculiar call of the wild is true of historical fiction, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. We are drawn back into the magic of a simpler time, where we lived closer to nature and died more honestly.
What is it about fantasy that calls to us and haunts us, that drives us to escape in it and wish for it?
What are your favorite fantasy books? I’m eager for recommendations. What will sing to me the same way J. R. R. Tolkien did? What hole will I fall into and never want to return from?