It was 5:15 a.m. 11-year-old me noted with satisfaction that the book I had been reading all night, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” was only 50 pages from the end. I could go to bed, or I could finish what I had started approximately six hours and 500 pages ago. I looked back at my clock, looked down at the book and began the slog towards the end.
That’s a moment from my childhood that could have taken place any time between 4th and 12th grade — it perfectly encapsulates my infatuation with the fantasy genre. Over the years, I read the “Harry Potter” series eight times, “The Hobbit” even more than that and I spent countless hours devouring any fantasy book I could. I read the “Lord of the Rings,” I read “Game of Thrones.” Earlier on in my life, I read the “Warriors” series, all 40+ books, several times over. At points, class became optional, and I spent days eschewing the instruction of my math teachers in favor of reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” one more time.
Fantasy has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and after a brief hiatus, I have found myself turning back to it in recent months. This return, however, came after a bit of a personal struggle. A struggle where I confronted whether or not it was OK to read fantasy.
Among certain circles, fantasy can be viewed as a “lesser” medium of storytelling. I remember a dinner with family friends, maybe three or four years ago, where books became the primary topic of discussion. I was asked what my favorite books were and, after some internal deliberation, I settled on naming two series. “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” My dad’s friend, a professor, seemed shocked. Her son wasn’t allowed to read those types of books. However, her son was well versed in Hemingway, Joyce and Dickens! She confessed that she had always viewed those books as useless, and that there was much greater value in reading “real” literature.
An interview with Peter Dinklage, the actor who played Tyrion in “Game of Thrones,” has always stuck in my mind. Back in 2012, Dinklage told MTV that he “didn’t see “Game of Thrones” as a fantasy” because “water creatures [weren’t] coming out of the ground” and “lions” weren’t talking. Instead, he classified the show as a “human drama.” There seemed to be the underlying assumption that to call it fantasy was perhaps an insult, and that the show deserved to be classified as a human drama. As though that was a more respectable label to give a well-received show.
I’m not attempting to paint Dinklage or my family friend in a negative light. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that people believe that fantasy cannot be instructive, and that there’s no merit to reading or watching fantasy. More broadly, there is an idea that entertainment must be more than entertainment.
Yet, when looking at stories over much of human history, it’s clear that many of the foundations of human storytelling, and how we go about weaving a tale and narrative, were laid down by the fantasy genre. “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the earliest surviving great work of literature, tells of fantastic battles between gods. Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse mythology all incorporate fantastical elements into their myths as well. Depending on what you believe, the Bible does the same. Beowulf, among the most well known Old English epic poems, was fantastical in nature and has had an effect on modern fantasy today. J.R.R. Tolkien referred to it as “among [his] most valued sources.” William Shakespeare also often incorporated fantastical creatures and elements into his stories.
Dinklage may be right. It might be that Game of Thrones is better described as a human drama, but perhaps that same description could be used for many other works of fantasy too. Tolkien’s argument for analyzing Beowulf was that the fantastical elements, the monsters, were essential to the text’s exploration of human destiny. They contributed to the “human drama” and moral teachings of the story. Perhaps we should view more fantasy through this lens. Frodo is not the same without Sauron, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream does not exist without Oberon and Titania.
Furthermore, it is OK if a fantasy book isn’t a human drama. It’s OK if fantasy books aren’t high brow, or if they have weird characters or creatures. Books and movies are classified as entertainment for a reason. During the past couple months, I’ve once again found myself drawn to the Harry Potter series. I found myself wanting to visit a place that wasn’t struck by a pandemic. A place that didn’t have a terrifying election looming overhead. A place that wasn’t our world. Sometimes it’s OK to read something ‘useless’ or childish. Sometimes it’s OK to simply be entertained.
Daily Arts Writer Peter Hummer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.