I’m not a big fan of made-up worlds. I’m more of a realist in my literary tastes. I prefer stories that could conceivably happen to me, with familiar and accessible settings, as opposed to the wildest flights of an author’s imagination. Not since childhood have I been easily captivated by fantasy, science fiction, and tales of ancient times. Nor do I readily identify with wizards, zombies, space aliens, and kings and queens of antiquity.
So what accounts for a recent, growing urge to immerse myself in the unreal? Is the real world becoming too much for me? Alternate realities seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a country with a crazy president, who brags about his willingness to launch real missiles at an equally unstable leader who thinks he is capable of launching them right back.
I’ve dipped into the anti-realism craze before. I read the first Harry Potter volume, The Sorcerer’s Stone, and downloaded the movie a few years ago. I recently finished reading the first volume of Game of Thrones. Do I get what the excitement is about? Absolutely. JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at drawing audiences into their made-up worlds and mapping them out in rich detail, giving them believability and their own inner logic. When everything is so alien, it takes extra effort on the part of the reader or viewer to grasp it. Dangerous and unexpected things lurk around every corner. The main characters go looking for danger, since they are by nature heroic, driven, or at least extremely curious. Both tales feature the occasional woman or girl who behaves as heroically, or more so, than her male counterparts.
We first glimpse Harry Potter when he is about to leave drab reality behind and become a wizard-in-training. His new school is chock-full of magic, while the outside world remains ordinary and predictable. To be sure, weird things were happening to young Harry before he ever heard of Hogwarts, but he did not associate those incidents with magic. He was a maltreated orphan whose treacherous relatives covered up the truth about his parentage, and thus tried to deny him his destiny. Although he begins to realize his true nature when he arrives at Hogwarts, that place isn’t entirely different from the public schools we all recognize. I had a flashback to junior high when I glimpsed the crowded, turbulent dining hall at the school of magic, where much the same bonding, intrigue, and sometimes nastiness goes on. I felt for young Hermione when a fellow student calls her out for her abrasive personality and superior attitude. She runs off and cries, but manages to gain some perspective and humility when she falls into the hands of a dumb but dangerous troll. The only two fellow students who have made her acquaintance, Harry and Ron, at least care enough to help her out of that jam. A mighty threesome is launched.
Harry could live a relatively safe life in school, just learning his magic lessons, but that proves impossible. As the blood of his deceased parents courses through him, he and his two friends keep testing the boundaries. The first time they venture somewhere off limits, they encounter a three-headed dog. As if that weren’t scary enough, they discern that the dog is guarding some kind of secret. Of course the kids can’t rest until they uncover it. Along the way, they discover that some of their fellow students, and even one or two adults, are not necessarily supportive. They’re either jealous, or covering up the schemes and plots of the shadowy Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. Despite being one of the original founders of Hogwarts, Voldemort is also responsible for Harry being an orphan. We learn that possessing magic powers isn’t enough; one must also learn to use them for good.
Despite its medieval trappings, Game of Thrones strikes me as a more recognizable world than Hogwarts. We have the daily news to remind us that not much has changed since the so-called dark ages. The constant, bloody feuding between at least seven distinct houses described in the book is all too familiar to the modern observer. Vestiges of that world rage on in the tribal warfare of the Middle East, and many other places. Even if lords, ladies, and knights are no longer defending strongholds and castles, we still have endless religious and national quarrels and grievances. Who can sort out the allies and enemies in the interminable fight to overthrow the Syrian government? Countless nations have put an oar into that mess without any clear idea of an end game. They may agree that ISIS is the embodiment of evil, but they seem unable to join forces to remove the menace. Besides the intractable quarrel between different branches of Islam, there are also Kurd nationalists on the scene whom the US sometimes support, except when we’re obliged to designate them as a terrorist organization to placate our on-again, off-again ally, Turkey. Sometimes we appear to be on the same side as the Russians and sometimes on the opposite side. Who will the winners be if Assad actually falls? Not that it looks like he ever will.
It’s easier to keep track of the houses contending for the Iron Throne, even with their extended families and retainers and bannermen and outriders. Most readers’ sympathies will be with the family that seems to have valid historical reasons to believe it was usurped in the old days. At least in this world, there are no major religious quarrels going on, although some folks worship the old gods and some prefer the newer ones. Everyone seems to speak a Common Tongue, while more obscure languages are spoken on the outskirts of society.
The implements of warfare are what make this world so different from the one we know. It takes real heroism to be a warrior, as there is no avoiding the enemy. It’s all hand-to-hand combat with swords and lances. There are no fighter jets dropping bombs, no drones, no suicide car attacks, no assault rifles. Amputations are the most common injury in battle. Unless they result in decapitation, they’re considered mere flesh wounds, not serious enough to stop a true fighter. Combatants are always threatening to slice off the manhood of someone they intend to humiliate, and feed it to whatever wild animal is lurking about. And this proves to be no idle threat.
Some of the characters have a ring of familiarity. Robert, the sitting king when Game of Thrones opens, reminds me in some ways of Trump, although he’s much smarter and more self-aware. Robert admits that he felt truly alive and engaged when he was fighting for the throne; the actual job of ruling bores him. He fills his days with entertainment, putting on banquets and tournaments he can’t afford. The young ruler, Joffrey, who replaces Robert on his death, is Trump-like in his childishness. He is given to empty bragging and impulsive decisions, which need to be modified and countermanded by his more mature advisors. At least Joffrey has an excuse; he really is still a child, not a 71-year-old man.
These stories have some romantic potential. Unfortunately, the budding Romeo-and Juliet-style romance I anticipated between Joffrey and Sansa, the daughter of Robert’s loyal retainer, fizzles out for the time being. I thought it had a chance even when Joffrey and Sansa’s father clash, since it appears Sansa clings to her romantic notions for a brief time. Then Joffrey goes so far as to put her father to death as a traitor, and still has the insufferable arrogance to insist that the marriage will go on. As for romance in Harry Potter, I assume it’s waiting in the wings for the kids to mature in later volumes.
Fantasies like these have the power to divert us when real and potential disasters, both natural and manmade, loom everywhere. Sometimes I feel that existential threats like nuclear war and climate change are getting alarmingly close, yet I can still go to the Mall or to restaurants without meeting a gang of marauders who might decapitate me for having the wrong family name. Stories also remind us that life is never easy, even in fantasyland. The reptilian core of the human brain has always lurked barely underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any time. Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, may not be a real person, but he isn’t so different from people we know, too many of which are in positions of power. At least our real enemies aren’t magical, so presumably we have a fighting chance. Too bad we’re not magical ourselves.