As an English major, I’ve read my fair share of books, both for school and for pleasure. Although I love stories of all shapes and sizes, the ones I find most enchanting are those that introduce me to a world of fantasy. Whether it’s Hogwarts, Panem, or Narnia, I’m always willing to leave my world and jump—through a coat closet or a brick wall—into a different reality.
Reality can often be stifling. It’s full of rules and constraints. If you oversleep and wake up right before class, there’s no way to snap your fingers and appear into the classroom. If traffic is bad, you can’t leap into the air and fly home. If you make a mistake, you can’t use a time-turner to go back and correct that mistake. Instead, you simply have to endure the rushed mornings, long waits, and moments of regret.
In reality, though, rushed mornings pale in comparison to larger problems. Car accidents happen when we least expect them, and there’s no man or woman in a red cape there to stop them. People get sick, and no potions or glowing flowers will reverse that sickness. Worst of all, people die unexpectedly, and no resurrection stone, magic spell, or healing power will save them. Reality is often painful—full of difficult experiences we can’t control or undo.
Fantasy, though, offers us an escape from the chaos and uncertainty of the real world. In fantasy, the world bends to our desires. Students defy gravity by playing Quidditch. They transform themselves into different people using potions. Princesses use powers of clairvoyance to mold their futures, and queens build ice castles to escape their fears. These characters exert control over their situations through magic and fantastical powers, and this makes us feel as if we too have gained control, if only for a few hours, inside a world that is not our own.
In his essay “The Red Angel,” G.K. Chesterton writes, “Fairy tales … are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” As Chesterton implies, we know that good almost always triumphs over evil in fantasy. We watch as characters conquer their fears and solve their problems, and this allows us to believe that, perhaps, we can conquer our own fears and problems, too.
Everyone has a favorite fantasy narrative, but for me, Harry Potter is the best example of the perfect magical world. Every detail is carefully constructed, down to the walls that occasionally pretend to be doors and the ghosts who are only “nearly” headless. In my opinion, this leap from reality to fantasy is where the true magic lies. It’s magical because it’s new, adventurous, and different from our world, but it’s also magical because it so clearly mirrors the desires and values of our own lives.
Harry Potter, for instance, teaches us about racism and prejudice. The “mudblood” characters are considered inferior because of their non-magical parentage and are often disparaged for their blood status, even while proving themselves to be intelligent, capable human beings. An article by Anne Murphy Paul in the New York Times described a 2014 study by Loris Vezzali and several other scientists which concluded that these scenes from Harry Potter led young students to be less prejudiced against immigrants and students different from themselves. After reading portions of Harry Potter that dealt with fictional prejudice and discussing it with their teachers, the students showed more empathy than the students who had not read these chapters.
To me, the phenomenon of gaining empathy through reading can be summarized by a quote from psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford’s article “Why We Need Fantasy,” in which she writes that “fantasy means “taking a step outside the experiences and asking ourselves what we can learn or come to understand better through considering them.”
Viewing recognizable feelings and experiences inside of fantasy can help us respond to our own realities. We may never get to ride a broomstick or battle a troll in the girls’ bathroom, but we do understand the yearning to prove ourselves in a society that always seems ready to tear us down. We won’t get the chance to go head-to-head with a dementor or Voldemort himself, but we can empathize with the desire to protect our loved ones and rid the world of evil.
Fantasy allows us to both escape our reality and truly understand the values that construct it. This is why we need fantasy—no matter whether we find it in books, television, movies, or the stories we create ourselves.
Chesterton, G.K. Tremendous Trifles. Wentworth Press, 2016.
Dill-Shackleford, Karen. “Why We Need Fantasy.” Psychology Today, 13 Feb. 2015, n.p. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-fantasy-becomes-
reality/201502/why-we-need-fantasy. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
Paul, Anne Murphy. “Harry Potter Casts a Spell for Tolerance.” The New York
Times, 14 Aug. 2014, n.p. https://nyti.ms/2oKFIhT. Accessed 17 Mar.