Arts Opinion: Fantasy genre can distract audiences in troubling times

Fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series (pictured above) can help remove readers from the world around them. In times of high political tension, it seems fiction is an important escape (courtesy of creative commons).

Election night is stressful, particularly in the contemporary, hyper-divisive political climate that plagues our country. As results poured in on Nov. 6, American comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted about “watching numbers go up and down … terrified for the soul of the world.” 

Americans nationwide were glued to their screens, intently watching those same numbers rise and fall, anxiously flipping between channels and websites as midterm results filtered in. 

As is always the case with elections, particularly recent ones, many groups end up disheartened by the results. Elections cause people to become disillusioned and dejected, resulting in a palpable national yearning to get away and escape the current state of our country and, more broadly, the world.

The schismatic nature of our current sociopolitical climate is precisely why fantasy is more important than ever. As a genre, fantasy is often disparaged when compared with others, particularly in academia. 

Unlike literary fiction, fantasy is criticized as trivial tales involving fairies, magic and monsters that are primarily meant for children. Certainly these elements are childish in some respect but, in a way, that’s the exact reason that this genre is more salient and worthwhile than it has been in years.

Consider the feelings associated with childhood: the innocence and unabashed joy that filled daily before the burden of reality bears down during adulthood. When midterm results are dubious at best and the weight of the world seems overbearing, fantasy provides an opportunity to get away and allows audiences to escape into a reality where some aspect of childish whimsy can be reclaimed. 

Themes of optimism and idealism pervade the genre and it grants audiences the freedom to believe that anyone can be special. Fantasy stories contend that anyone can make a difference, even when the outside world insists on proving otherwise.

Orphans can discover incredible powers, farmers can grow into mighty warriors and even the most seemingly insignificant member of society is able to have some kind of influence on a wider fantastical world. One of the greatest tropes in fantasy is when a disparate group of people is able to pool their collective talents and abilities in an attempt to topple some kind of unjust, tyrannical regime that has been oppressing its people for years. Is this not the American ideal? 

These stories provide a refreshing way to experience that very human triumph with the added thrill of heroes, magic and monsters. Fantasy creates a platform where this ideal is realized. This realization can serve as inspiration for audiences to try and recognize that ideal and apply it to their lives too.  

The irony behind the benefits fantasy provides is that it is not a true escape. True escapism would involve the ability to spend time in a reality completely foreign to our own, but fantasy does not provide that. No, it takes familiar pieces of the real world and rearranges them in a way that gives audiences an excuse to dream of making a difference, while hidden safely behind the barrier of imagination. 

The common threads between our own world and the fantastical give people an opportunity to reflect upon their humanity in an exciting way. Regardless of how many elves, orcs or dwarves are involved, fantasy is important because, in a time that so rarely does, it exhibits the best of us.