In trying to find inspiration and meaningful, existential advice, many turn to philosophy. I am no exception. I’ve read a lot of philosophy, and enjoyed studying it both intellectually and from the more personal standpoint as way to help live my life. And yet I never was able to glean much from it that was meaningful in a way to impact my own life. Instead, it’s the fantasy genre that has had the greatest impact upon my own perceptions of how to live my life — how to maintain relationships, seize upon moments inspiration, and do great things.
Why is this?
Perhaps it is because it can be easier to identify with fictional characters who are dealing with situations that parallel reality. Fiction possesses the same power as learning through example, allowing for a greater degree of imitation. Here, philosophy fails. However profound it may be, the “great works” of philosophy are abstract, oftentimes too cerebral to be readily applicable to daily situations of the individual. It is, therefore, fantasy literature and not philosophy that has had an enormous impact upon and catalyzed many changes to my own worldview.
Please note: This post will contain plot and character arc spoilers for The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Stormlight Archive series. If you are not familiar with the events of these books, you have been duly warned and please proceed with caution.
Fantasy is full of great advice.
The words of characters such as Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Aslan are seen by readers as wise because of these characters’ strong ethos — their authority or credibility. Because of the aforementioned characters’ perceived noble stature and behavior, their words are more likely to ring within our ears, and to be repeated like long-established maxims. I remember skimming through Chronicles of Narnia recently in preparation for a podcast, and could not help but pause in Chapter 13, where Aslan says to the Pevensie siblings, “there is no need to talk to [Edmund] about what is past.” So simple, and yet so profound a statement on forgiveness, especially within the context of the story.
The first fantasy series I recall impacting my world view was The Lord of the Rings, as well as its related works such as The Silmarillion. In my adolescence and early teenage years, Tolkien gave me the idea of the tragic hero, of marching forth to confront peril at hand regardless of the chances of success because it was noble. Think of the charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King or even Frodo and Sam’s struggle to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. There are both positives and negatives to this idea. It may help a kid in high school get through tests and papers, but relationships may suffer because of the ideals extremism; after all, the noble hero does charge for constantly and relentlessly until the very end of his (an only his) ability to do so.
That idea of being endlessly noble just for the sake of the idea of nobility is what, ultimately, diminished Tolkien’s sphere of influence upon my own thinking; the very idea of the tragic hero made less and less sense to me as I grew older. Starting from the end of high school, and continuing through university, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series came in to fill the void as a prominent influence upon my worldview. Martin’s series is far more aware of life’s complexities, and it impressed this same awareness and sense of realism upon me. Of course, ASOIAF was not alone in inspiring this trend, but after a heavy dose of Tolkien in my adolescence, to find a series where characters are complex with motivations born of varying factors — that no-one can be labelled as purely “good” or “evil,” was quite enlightening. Suddenly, every person, every human I met potentially had a very interesting story, and this made interacting with others much easier than before.
Of course, ASOIAF also provides a deep insight into the psychological aspects of power: if you can glean what a person wants and either access or exploit it, then you have power over that person. Place it on a macroscopic scale, and you have countries wielding power over each other. The downside to this is its inherently bleak cynicism; Machiavellian lifestyles have limits if you’re seeking happiness and inner peace. Therefore, Martin taught me that in life I need a healthy combination of both pragmatism and flexibility. If not, I could end up like Ned Stark: dead with my head on a spike. I can only imagine that, had Aragorn lived in Westerns, he would have met a similar fate. But, just as Martin steered me away from the doom of the tragic hero, so did the works of Brandon Sanderson cure me from going down the route of the player of the “Game of Thrones.”
I read The Way of Kings, the first book in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, in 2013 while in the midst of pursuing a post-graduate degree. Because this experience was so recent, I can better recall my own first-read reactions in a way that I can’t for either Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. I remember a sense of almost reverent awe, of having my breath completely taken away by The Way of Kings — the kind of reaction that occurs only when a book has truly impacted you. As a review on amazon.com aptly wrote: “[The Way of Kings] is an art form that teaches about love, hope, honor, betrayal, fear, anger, revenge, mercy, and justice.”
The Way of Kings brought back some of Tolkien’s humanism into my GRRM-colored life, albeit without the tragedy and general foolhardiness of Tolkien’s characters. While GRRM taught me how to be realistic and pragmatic (as opposed to naive) in a complex world filled with complex people, Sanderson’s characters manage to maintain more moral concerns within a similarly complex and unstable world. The moral choices of Sanderson’s characters have a deep impact upon the progression of the story, and their choices often have more subtle consequences; when a character in ASOIAF makes a mistake, he or she quite often dies as opposed to living to see the effects of their choice.
What Sanderson captures, instead, is that there are other ways to suffer, both psychologically and emotionally, besides death. It serves as a way to inspire readers onto a quest for becoming a better person and improving relationship with their loved ones. After all, the three most important players of The Way of Kings — Dalinar Kaolin, Kaladin, and Shaman — all exhibit marked changes and self-reflection within the span of just one (100+ page) book. Compare that to the approximated redemption of Jaime Lannister in after the third book of ASOIAF — in general, I see a notable lack of self-reflection and growth by the major characters of Martin’s series, with the exception of Danaerys Targaryen.
There is no series that has driven me to work towards becoming a better individual than the Starlight Archive. While Martin helped me to better understand the complexity of our world, Sanderson helped me work towards making the most of life on a personal level. Sanderson’s greatest lesson to me was that there are more important things than power, politics, and social movements — things like friendship, justice, and joy. They need to be reconciled and tempered by reality, as Martin would suggest, but they should be acknowledged and chased with the same ferocity as Martin’s characters chase power.
Throughout the past two decades, many genres, books, and series have influenced me — some have even blown me away. But The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Stormlight Archive stand out as having had the greatest impact upon me. Fantasy, in general, has the ability to make you think about life on both macrocosmic and microcosmic scales: the charge of the Rohirrim can inspire that last-minute cram session, just as the politics of Westerns can illuminate the complexities of interpersonal relationships. And it is these three series that, in my own life, have done just that and more.
Readers: what moments in fantasy have inspired you in real life? Has reading fantasy made you a better person?
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Featured image credit to Shuttershock.