by Nicolas White and Sara Whitestone
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton
Tucked away in a corner of my local coffee shop, there is a framed picture of Frodo, the hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. Each customer that sees the image smiles and laughs. But when the barista is asked why a fantasy hero is displayed on a coffee counter, his answer is always: “Because Frodo gives hope to us all.”
Frodo didn’t start out as a hero, but when faced with the monumental task of destroying The One Ring, he never backed down and never lost hope. This tale of Frodo’s perseverance and sacrifice has inspired multiple generations of readers to be strong, brave, and true.
This is the power of fantasy. As we read, we experience the struggles and triumphs of our other-world friends. Then when our minds return home from adventuring, we bring back the lessons we have learned. And our moral courage is strengthened in our own reality.
But why does that twinkle in Frodo’s eye catch my attention every time I’m in line for my coffee? Why does his story raise my spirits? Fantasy is both inspiring and evocative in large part because of its separation from our world (and all its normalcy). Wizards and trolls and epic quests give us adventures so different from our daily lives that we are able to forget our troubles and lose ourselves in acts and scenes of grandeur. These outlets of imagination free us to be heroes and heroines saving the day, and not for a paycheck or social status, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a child (and again six more times over the next three years), Frodo became one of my most important role models. Although he was just an average hobbit and didn’t even desire to be a hero, when the quest was set before him, Frodo took it on willingly. No matter how difficult his journey was or the sacrifices he had to accept along the way, Frodo was willing to make hard decisions when he knew they were right. His unwavering hope, despite what seemed certain failure, is something I cannot forget. And I have been trying to replicate it ever since.
But real life doesn’t always give us the The Lord of the Rings’ clear differentiation between good and evil. While Frodo had the support of many brave companions, we are often faced with people who, though they may be bosses, friends, or even family, might contradict what we know is right. But here, too, fantasy can provide relatable heroes who teach us and encourage us to stand up for justice, no matter what those around us say.
In The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, the main character Hari faces disrespect and prejudice at every turn. But she never quavers in her moral fiber. In one climactic moment of tension, Hari even directly defies the king, because she knows that she must do the right thing, even without his blessing. Fantasy reminds us that a principled decision is not often an easy one. But it is always the correct one.
Even though I try to be like Hari and fight for what is good, I am a real, flesh and blood human, and there are moments when I take the easy way out. Sometimes I don’t make the right decisions, and this causes hurt to myself and others around me. Even in recognition of this shortcoming, the other-world of fantasy is a powerful tool for my growth.
Sitting down in the coffee shop with my mug, I notice another customer reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, a recent novel that seems to be flying off the shelves of bookstores. When compared to the moral fortitude of Hari or Frodo, the protagonist of this story pales in his qualifications as a hero. Kvothe is a deeply flawed character. He often creates his own problems because of his arrogance and poor decisions. But for every misdeed, the author makes it a point to show his character dealing with the consequences of his actions—and then learning from those consequences while also growing into a better person.
Fantasy can guide us not only through clear-cut examples of those who are upright, but also through characters who stumble on their way towards truth.
The next time I walk through the door of my local coffee shop and see Frodo smiling in his corner on the counter, I’ll smile back and thank him for reminding me to be joyful during my wait in line for a caffeine fix. And his picture will remind me that I don’t read fantasy to escape my problems, instead, I use those other-worlds to arm myself to live better—to be better—in my own world.
Then I’ll settle into my chair at the coffee shop, reach into my satchel, and pull out the first book in a new fantasy series. And the reading will bring me hope.
Recommended fantasy reading:
L’Engle, M., A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind in the Door
Brave and true—and human.
LeGuin, U., The Earthsea Trilogy
Dark, deep, and full of hope.
Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia
Treat yourself to these again and again . . .
Lewis, C.S., Till We Have Faces
The myth of Psyche, retold—every adult should read this book at least once in their lives.
Lowry, L. The Giver
Don’t let the bad movie based on this book dissuade you. The Giver is one of the best works of fantasy/science fiction ever written.
MacDonald, G., The Princess and the Goblin
A timeless classic for both children and adults.
McKilip, P., Riddle-Master
For when you just want to change your shape for a while.
McKinley, R., The Blue Sword
How Hari reluctantly discovers who she is and then saves the world—because of, or in spite of —it all.
Rothfuss, P., The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear
Great beach reading—long and engrossing.
Stroud, J., Bartimaeus Trilogy
A politician, a demon, and an anarchist unexpectedly star in one of the most biting and poignant tales of corruption and redemption the genre has to offer.
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings
Nope, having watched the movies doesn’t count.
Tumer, M.W., The Queen’s Thief Series
Fulfilling your duties to your queen, country, and god doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and excitement along the way.
Nicolas White is Sara Whitestone’s son. He inherited his love of fantasy from his mother, who was reading fairytales to him before he could walk. As an adult Nicolas is creating his own adventure, working both in coffee and as an editor in Brooklyn. Reading fantasy is what helps him stay sane in the city.
Sara Whitestone is a novelist-in-progress, an essayist-in-practice, and an un-tortured-poet-in-process. Her words and artwork have appeared in many print and online magazines and journals, and her current project is a fictional autobiography titled Counting. But who knows? Maybe she’ll write an epic fantasy with her son someday. To learn more about Whitestone’s inner and outer adventures, visit sarawhitestone.com and follow her on Twitter @sarawhitestone.