Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 4: Adventure and Escape

My students always tell me that one of the chief joys of reading is "escape." For me, escape means the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone different from you -- different in race, background, nationality or ethnicity, maybe even species.

I love becoming a dragon. When one is feeling small and insignificant and set upon by the world, what can be more satisfying than imagining oneself as a mighty creature with a thirty-foot wingspan, capable of incinerating enemies with a mere sigh? Often, if I want to become a dragon, I have to change my gender. In children's and even adult fantasy literature, female dragons can be hard to find, unless I want to read Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, which I don't. (Ugh! I still remember what a dreadful movie Eragon was.) But that's another wonderful thing about reading: for a time, I can even become male, and I can take to the sky as Cressida Crowell's lovable Toothless, or J.R.R. Tolkien's arrogant and deadly Smaug (darned shame about that vulnerable spot) or George R.R. Martin's fierce black Drogon.

I do wish I might fly as female, and I'm actively looking for fantasy tales with dragon heroines, largely because I'll soon begin work on such a story myself. A duology by one of my favorite fantasy authors, Robin Hobb -- Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven -- beckons me from my bookshelf. Yet I have to say, "Later. When I've finished exploring Elantris and surviving Westeros." After all, I can't read everything at once, though I do try; usually I alternate between four different books.

Most of them are fantasy novels, because they offer extreme escape while addressing a basic need we all know, to which we can all relate. The goal of most heroes and heroines in fantasy literature, whether dragon or dwarf, human or hobbit, is to find their power, to discover what is extraordinary in themselves, a strength that will help them thrive. Often this power comes as a surprise. Bilbo Baggins doesn't know he's built for adventure; he is more concerned with being on time for dinner. Yet when a visiting dwarf questions his fitness for the dangerous task at hand, he's all ready to try his hand at adventure, and throughout The Hobbit, his success continues to surprise him. Hermione Granger doesn't know what to do with the massive intellect and the magical gifts she has been given. But when she discovers a race of mythical beings trapped in slavery, she makes up her mind to help them, and persists even when everyone around her, even her friends, is ridiculing her and telling her to stop. As characters like these astonish themselves, we may wonder, however old we are, what surprises might lie waiting in our own hearts and minds. Even as we escape, we're working with longings at the heart of human nature -- longings to be exceptional and to find some path to victory, great or small, in a harsh and inhospitable world.

A little while ago, my interest in dragons working upon me, I picked up an intriguing novel by Jo Walton called Tooth and Claw, which is basically a nineteenth-century British novel, with all the conventions and problems typical of nineteenth-century British novels -- patterned specifically after the works of Anthony Trollope -- in which all the characters are dragons. If you're wondering how such a thing could possibly work, trust me, it does. Parsons and servants have their wings bound. Sickly children are devoured by their elders (it's called "consumption") and when an old family patriarch dies, his corpse, along with his gold, is divided among his heirs. Maidens have gold scales, and when they blush pink, it's either a sign of true love or a mark of indiscretion. So as I read this book, my new enthusiasm for fantasy literature intersected with a much older fascination of mine: the realistic past, the worlds inhabited by the likes of Jane Eyre and Ebenezer Scrooge. My standard rule is that the further removed a story's setting from my own place and time, the more keen I will be to read that story.

Time travel is still a science fiction thing. The closest we can come to experiencing the past is to pick up a book. My father loves history books; I prefer fiction, either set or (better) written in the past. Not only can I learn about environments different from my own, but here, as in fantasy literature, I can become exceptional in ways where I fall short in the real world. Despite my doughy frame, I can have the strength of Achilles. I can have the sparkling wit and grace of Elizabeth Bennet, the generosity and understanding of Anne Elliot, the dignity of Dorothea Brooke, the raw courage of Marian Halcombe. I seek out heroes and (especially) heroines with at least one outstanding quality I particularly admire, and then I step into their shoes and let them show me around their worlds. Maybe I can pick up a few tips from them.

Through the pages I escape my own routines and embark on adventures that might prove too much for me should I meet them in the real world; yet I do get an idea or two on how I might triumph over real adversity. (What would Bilbo Baggins do?) And when I come back to myself and the here and now, I'm always just a little bit different for having seen through their eyes.

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