Much that I have said in the past regarding the power of Fantasy literature and its potential to positively impact the real world. It led the literary charge against the cross-eyed monster that is sexism, shows worlds without human racial stereotypes, and is now among the vanguard against the blind monster that is homophobia along with all other anti-LGBTG+ sentiments.
But that is not the end and, as expected, the beginning of this this page is truly best done with a quote for the great J.R.R. Tolkien: "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?...If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"
But what if the prison is not made of steel? What if the enemy is not another person or persons? What if escape is not so simple as pilfering a key, bribing a guard, finding and then cunningly exploiting a weakness in the defenses, or even getting rescued and then fighting your way out to glorious freedom?
What if the jail is your own mind and the guards your own thoughts?
Naturally I speak of mental illness and other issues, namely addiction, that negatively impact one's mind. As described by this (linked) article on Mugglenet, "Mental health problems and addiction often go hand-in-hand to cause a variety of difficulties. But a growing movement towards comprehensive mental health care has helped to shape this world in many ways. Some people struggling with mental health concerns and addiction can turn to fantasy literature like Harry Potter to help them overcome their issues." Sound odd? If so, it should not as Fantasy throws open the doors of a mind, revealing a realm that "is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords." It is the latter two that are the key, or keys, rather, as they show the reader the full spectrum of human emotion in situations that, Fantastical though they are, set our hearts racing and eyes streaming with tears both happy and sad when triumphant good or tragic ill befalls the main protagonists. Permit me now to offer another Tolkien quote: "I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter."
Again, is there not an argument that for the mentally ill the prison is their own minds? I am far from an expert, but if such is the case as it seems to be then it makes perfect sense that, for some, the way to escape that prison is via the most escapist of literature that is the Fantastic. The same goes with addicts, who may be inspired by the courage of the characters as they face terrors undreamt of, purest agony both mental and physical yet against all odds come out on top to find love, hope, and healing. Why does Fantasy have this effect as opposed to other genres? Because Fantasy is grounded in reality, each world and character created from the mind of an author that has been shaped by real-world experiences and/or drawn from a solid knowledge of history. Yet the very fact that it is Fantasy provides a degree of separation between otherwise similar situations, a separation that becomes escapism and allows Fantasy authors to employ various metaphors and situations to explore mental health and addiction behaviors. The seductive power of the One Ring is a perfect example of each, for not only does the Ring prey upon and corrupt its bearer's inmost desires and wants until the mind itself is warped, but it becomes progressively harder for a Ring-bearer to give it up. As Gandalf said about Gollum, "He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter. A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo." How many addicts want with all their heart to break free, loving what they are addicted to for how it makes them feel while hating what it has done to them? How easily is that love and hate entwined. Now Gollum is, of course, an extreme example; a metaphor of an addict who failed to break free and whose mind collapsed. But look at what happened to Frodo; he was freed, yet was forever scarred by the burden of bearing the Ring.
An extreme example? Perhaps, yet Fantasy is often extreme in such matters. Let's face it, evil magics do not exist. However, people like dark wizards do. Sadists, rapists, ambitious egotists ready to kill with impunity in bloody bids for power and/or wealth. Evil magic may not be real, but evil most certainly is. Saruman fell to evil out of jealousy and hatred towards Gandalf. Voldemort – who admittedly was already a horrible person – felt the very human fear of death and lost his soul, both figuratively and literally, trying to thwart it. Dumbledore goes into great detail how Voldemort fell to evil, allowing the reader to understand the human qualities of Tom Riddle that over the years twisted themselves into a Dark Lord. Bottom line? By nature does Fantasy echo reality, mirroring our world, our troubles, in ways that teach people new things about themselves.
This is why the genre provides people with role models and sworn enemies, establishing a moral code of conduct that can help develop young, developing minds. How many young girls were taught that it is okay – that it is awesome! – to be smart by Hermione Granger? How many kids saw Ron Weasley and his large, loving yet financially poor family and realized they were rich in something other than coin? Countless.How many saw a group of Hobbits venture forth into a wide and dangerous Middle-earth, face down evils that would slay taller, stronger, men, and prevail against all odds? How many were inspired by that courage? How many wanted to be as wise as Gandalf, as noble as Aragorn? Countless. Neil Gaiman says that at book signings for his dark children's Fantasy book Coraline there are generally two kinds of people; the first loudly say how the book scared them or their kids witless, and the second quietly tell him that it saved them – how as kids they went through a very rough period, but knew that if Coraline could be that brave then so could they. How is this possible? Because Fantasy helps people escape the prison of their own minds by showing them mirrors of themselves who triumph against all manner of impossible odds. And I really mean mirrors. Take Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan) from Sir Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. As I say on my Heroine Archetypes page, Lyra is truly a normal girl thrust into an extraordinary/cosmic conflict and people can look up to her yet remain at eye-level. "Wow, I am a lot like her and look what she did!" That is what makes her special and so, so dear to her readers.
"Lyra just came to me entire and complete, I didn’t consciously make her up with a list of attributes. But I had been a teacher for about 12 years working with children of her age and there were lots of Lyras - in every classroom in the country there is a Lyra or two. Or three. She’s a very ordinary child and that’s the point about her. If she’s unusual it’s in her capacity to feel affection, which she does very readily and very warmly." – Sir Philip Pullman
That is the power of Fantasy: showing that humans can endure the seemingly unendurable. Showing that believing in yourself is the key to success no matter forces are arrayed against you. Magic vs. Mental Illness, and Magic wins because a key tenant of near every form of magery is that for the spell to succeed the caster must believe it can. As the wizard Od, from Patricia A. McKillip's Od Magic, says to describe the ideal of magic, "Power shaped by wonder and curiosity; even love. Not by fear and laws that shut out instead of inviting it." Because Fantasy is about freedom. About unchaining the mind and letting it roam over strange mountains, uncharted seas, and enchanted forests. But do not take my word for it. Let the masters speak for themselves:
"Fantasy for me as a kid was real, and I had a fantasy about what life was, whether it was sort of wicked and dire, or wholly normal, or whatever. Anything really close to home is not, it seems to me, what a good book should be about." – Diana Wynne Jones
"It seems to me that humour is everybody's way of keeping sane and standing off from the situations so that they can see it intellectually, as well as emotionally, and I don't know whether you've noticed, but if somebody tells a joke, it's nearly always a mini fantasy." – Diana Wynne Jones
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if "escapist" fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.” – Neil Gaiman