“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
We are what we read. In big ways and small, the books, articles and even social commentary that we ingest fuels our thinking like vegetables of the mind. Some never eat a bite without studying each tiny morsel to determine if it will suit their constitution; others gorge on anything placed in front of them, possibly trusting that a highly developed internal organ, the stomach of their consciousness, will somehow sort the wheat from the chaff.
But I don’t mean to pontificate on the importance of evaluating what we read; rather to point out that what we read is relevant to more than our entertainment.
What we read educates us, stimulates us. In some ways it defines us. Reading exposes us to experiences vast and varied, dangerous and exotic—all from the safety of our favorite chair.
So why should fantasy be at the top of our most-nutritious list?
We need but glance at the tropes that define the genre to understand. If you’ve partaken of fantasy at all, you’ll have tasted such tropes as the “hapless farmboy against the Ultimate Evil Dark Lord.” There’s a lot of chatter and criticism about this one, and it certainly qualifies as an overused plot element—you’ll see countless interpretations of it in novels across the genre.
But it’s been done so often for a reason. Like all lasting ideas, an element of truth in this one equally resonates with each of us. I invite you to look beyond the trope for a moment and see the “hapless farmboy” for what it represents.
It’s a coming of age story, one that invites all of us to recall our own moments of inadequacy, struggle, heartbreak and triumph. It presents the idea that even the smallest person can make a difference in society—that in fact, all of us are important. It takes up epic battles between good and evil, and as our farmboy pits himself against forces far larger than himself, we are invited to look at ourselves and see how we might also grow, how we might learn to face those Ultimate Evils in our own lives.
Within the farmboy’s journey, we see him gain courage, honor, integrity—even often aspects of nobility. Whether we’re ingesting without thinking or thoughtfully digesting each chapter as we go, these ideas mold and change how we think. When you’re reading fantasy, such ideas of nobility, courage and honor begin to infuse your everyday life. Who couldn’t do with a little more chivalry in the world? A little more compassion? A little more understanding or granting of importance to others?
Fantasy invites us to explore the best qualities of mankind, and in so doing, we cannot help but begin to look at ourselves and each other in a more healthful light.
(This article was originally written for Sapphyria’s Book Reviews. Please see her blog for reviews on more great fantasy novels.)