Have you ever had the following conversation?
You: “Well, my favorite story is [favorite epic where the ending is either happy or bitter sweet].”
Other person: “You can’t be serious.”
You: “What? It’s a great story. The characters are amazing, there are great plot twists, and it was inspiring.”
OP: “Oh, you do you if you like those stories. It’s just that I prefer a little more realism in my stories. Real life sucks and the good guys hardly ever win.”
You in your head: “Really?! You’re freaking reading Game of Thrones and you say you want realism?!”
(Quick aside: GoT is an amazing story).
Of course, even outside of fantasy, the whole idea that there are heroes and they succeed has been disparaged as “unrealistic”. Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, and plenty of other writers have attacked the value of stories that inspire people instead of depress them (please do not mistake me – Tragedies done well have great value, and many of the best stories are indeed tragic). Apparently, all triumphant stories are just emotional fluff. What I don’t get is…how did this perception ever come about?
Don’t get me wrong, I know that the idea that good always wins is garbage. In fact, the bigger the struggle, the more tragic ends individual lives will experience. But what’s really strange is if the world as a whole was really that bad, the miracle then is that there were enough naïve and sheltered readers to create an audience that would pay to be shocked back into reality. If life really sucked as much as these people would have us believe, we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it.
I mean, let’s look at our own history with another story-telling medium: film during the Great Depression. For most of American history, the majority of its populace continued to build off the success of the previous ones. The Great Depression was the most extreme and enduring period of economic misery, and it was a time when the most popular films pictured lives of the economic elite that didn’t have to deal with those struggles. Why? People knew that life sucked. They didn’t need their entertainment to preach it at them. Go throughout history and find disenfranchised groups and read their stories and you’ll discover the trend just keeps increasing. People whose lives are truly miserable seem to gravitate towards stories promising Hope and Deliverance.
Is this just escapist, wishful thinking? Well, it is escapist. It is something they wish for. But it’s not empty escapist wishful thinking. Most of us descended from those that did survive something that seemed hopeless.
If just one man has ever triumphed over a seemingly insurmountable challenge, if just one man has survived against all the odds, then it has indeed been done and it is not unrealistic. When people fault Fantasy, Science Fiction, or indeed any other book with a triumphant or uplifting message and they say that “it’s not realistic”, what they actually mean is that the odds are you and I won’t experience such success. I fully agree with them that the odds of you and I becoming the hero are quite small – incalculably small. But what they often forget in many of these epics is that many people suffer and die. First, many developed characters die, often tragically. But even beyond that, many unnamed characters die, without any direct role in the triumph at the end (true even if they survive). I will be the first to admit, that you and I are much more likely to be an unnamed character in the grand scheme of things. But even these unnamed characters play a vital role. They, intentionally or not, stood in the way of the Enemy or Problem. By not giving in, they must either be conquered by the enemy(s) or rescued by the hero(s). If rescued, they are the motivation for the hero, the prize that makes his sacrifices and efforts all worthwhile, instead of a vain waste. If conquered, then by simply buying time and denying the enemy additional strength to fight, they at least did not die in vain. They also, collectively weakened the Enemy, even if it seems only marginal. Their aid becomes more obvious when you think of how much MORE powerful the enemy might have been with their aid, and how much less time any resistance to buy our hero(s) more time remains. So, collectively (both survivors and casualties) contribute significantly to the defeat of the Enemy.
But why then write so many stories on the hero? Why is the fate of the masses glossed over? First, I have no problem with stories that focus on the struggles and outcomes that the rest of us are more likely to go through. I applaud those narratives! We need to be reminded of them constantly because otherwise we may grow to simply accept evils and problems we could rectify. But when the critics and academics of the world try to silence the story of the hero, you forget that the perspective of the common man is still just that: a perspective. Reality is not limited to just that viewpoint. Even the fact that it is the perspective most of us have, the perspective of the hero (or future descendants or a deity) is not any less valuable because it is rare. Much like precious stones, its value is greater because of its scarcity! It is when the common man realizes that greater things are going on beyond himself that he can rest in hope, contentment, and even joy in spite of his own losses. When he forgets the perspective of those who can see what he may not ever live to see, that is when he will give into despair. And when he gives into despair, it will make what effort he gives feel like a waste and what time he has left taste like ash. He may even give in, and cease to live for what he knows is good. When that happens, the power of the Enemy grows, and even more people will suffer. But by clinging to hope for others, even when he has ceased to have any left for himself, the casualty is now heroically playing a role as vital as the surviving hero(s), even if he never lives to see the fruit of his labor.
Finally, the assumption that there are no heroes, that it’s all just idle escapism, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When faith is gone that success is possible, failure becomes guaranteed. Those who might have been heroes just idly accept the role of casualty, never knowing they might have been the ones to stand against the Enemy when he fell. Is it really shocking that to mock people who seek escape from tragedy ensures a never-ending tragedy? As Tolkien and others have pointed out, in every other use of the word “escape” is seen in a positive light. If you escape from a natural disaster, that’s a good thing. If you escape from a violent person, that’s a good thing. We have, as Tolkien put it, mistaken “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” But when we condemn the escapees for escaping, we have ensured that our cynicism is proven right! We have berated and kicked those who dream of escape, allowing them to apathetically wallow in their misery with us.
A good Escapist comes back with Hope to those still imprisoned and tries to bring them back into freedom with him. And this is where the Prisoner may or may not prove to share some qualities with a Deserter. The best escaped prisoners return the World of Woe with news of Hope and work tirelessly to help others escape as well. But some choose to never return, spending the rest of their lives in Isolation. But since we are social beings, those who fear to return and aid their fellow man find themselves in a new prison of their own making. The Escapist should, once he has rested and recovered from his time of misery, return to remind others of Hope.
One final thought. Even if the cynics were right, even if all Hope was merely an illusion, that all must end in defeat, of what use is that? What is the use of being “real” if that is all that is real? What value is in reality if it’s all nihilistic? There isn’t any! We would be better off dead than for misery to be the ultimate reality. But, none of us really feel that way – none of us that are still alive anyway. If we believed all Hope was hogwash and Joy just an illusion for the naïve, we would all kill ourselves to escape once it came down to it. Better to cease and feel nothing than to only feel negative. But we don’t. Because deep down, we all know there is something to push on for. We may not be able to explain it. Some cynics may try to chalk this up to evolutionary traits to ensure survival of the species. But why should the species want to survive if it’s all so hopeless and painful? No, the Truth is this: even when we cannot see it, in Faith we are always continuing on, hoping that someday, someone will deliver us, help us to escape. The question is, will we do so in complete misery because we have been told such thoughts are immature escapism. Or will we stubbornly cling to Hope? To laugh at the vanity of those who would steal it from us? I for one will chose to Hope. To laugh at my struggles and anticipate the thrill of overcoming them or the joy and peace of knowing I fought to the end and that others will carry the torch when I fall. I will do this because my greatest fear as an Escapist is the best thing the Cynic can hope for: an empty, void existence.
“Some day, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” This is what CS Lewis was talking about: One day, if you search hard enough, you will realize that there is Joy and Hope that is greater than the seemingly insurmountable pain that crushed your infantile bliss. Cynicism is the maturity of the youth whose selfish pain and limited perspective have robbed him of the ignorant bliss of his childhood. A truly mature adult can find Joy, Peace, and Hope, even in the midst of pain. I say this as someone who flirted with the idea of suicide for years lost in my darkness. Then, Someone woke me up and I saw myself for the fool I was, and now I say this: when you too are ready to accept your pain and to grow up, I’ll point you to some great fairy tales that will add their strength to yours.