Kids go to fantasy not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation.
So says Adam Gopnik in his 2011 The New Yorker article, “The Dragon’s Egg.”
With the apparent resurgence of traditional, epic fantasy just around the corner, I suspect some may once again wonder what it is youth in particular see in these mythical tales. From “The Dragon’s Egg”:
Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
So why does fantasy resonate with young adults? I can identify several reasons, some gleaned from “The Dragon’s Egg,” others from my own study and observation.
First, I suggest today’s teens, expected to do little more than have a good time and do their homework, long for significance. They want to do something that matters, that has eternal purpose. The idea of moving from keg parties to paying taxes leaves out “making a difference.” They long for a life that matters, and they find in fantasy a world that needs someone who will step up and do just that.
Young adults also long for power. So often restricted by their circumstances and inabilities, they nevertheless long for the time when they can drive or vote or drink or . . . whatever the grown up thing is that indicates they now have a say about their own lives. Fantasy opens that door regardless of their actual present circumstances.
Then too, fantasy helps young people organize the world. There is moral right and wrong, and the characters in fantasy must align themselves with one or the other. There’s also history that makes a difference in the here and now, prophesy that tells about the future, and decisions that make or break a destiny.
In addition, fantasy offers “familiar experience in intensified form”:
We all see our lives from the inside to be those of lost kings, orphaned boys. We read such stories because we think we already are it. (excerpt from “The Dragon’s Egg”)
In short, fantasy shows young adults their inner lives. They read about Harry Potter’s unfair treatment at the hand of his foster family, and they identify with his alone-ness. They want him to find a place where he belongs because they want to find a place where they belong.
So too, with the the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer:
The tedious normalcy of the “Twilight” books is what gives them their shiver; this is not so much the life that a teen-age girl would wish to have but the one that she already has, rearranged with heightened symbols. Your life could be like this; seen properly, from inside, it is like this. (excerpt from “The Dragon’s Egg”)
Another reason fantasy appeals to young adult readers is because it includes magic–a non-rational element that explains the inexplicable, that gives reason to hope in the face of the hopeless, that also explains the fearful in terms that are understandable, that suggest the terrifying is conquerable.
In conjunction with magic, fantasy takes readers to another place–one that is both recognizable and other. The world itself, whether Narnia or Hogwarts or Middle Earth, is appealing. It has secrets–whether a secret entrance or hidden secrets or a world of secrets outside the view of the ordinary Hobbit. This resonates with young readers who hope for more from the mundane world in which they live.
Finally, fantasy most often suggests a Savior. There is someone stronger, better, wiser who will walk through the world with the hero, equipping him, counseling him, even sacrificing for him. To have such a Friend is the desire of every young person, assuring him that he does not have to traverse the journey and face the ordeals alone.
Now the question is, why does fantasy appeal so much to adults?
It’s your turn to weigh in. Are there factors that I’ve overlooked which make fantasy attractive to young adults? Are adults drawn to fantasy for the very same reasons as young adults are? Or for something different? What do you think?