My favourite genre has always been fantasy. Before our schoolwork started to actually matter, reading fantasy books took up the vast majority of my time. I recall an English teacher telling my parents that I “eat books for breakfast, lunch and dinner”. But with the impending examinations, I had largely failed to make time to read. It was only when I fell ill last term and could not revise that I picked up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Before I knew it, I had torn through the entire book, and quickly admonished myself for neglecting to bring Deathly Hallows as well. Stoked by this brief tryst with my first enrapturing novel in a long time, I gradually rediscovered the immense pleasures of losing all sense of space and time – of falling deeply into daring adventures from perspectives sometimes wholly different from my own.
I think the fantasy genre commands so much appeal because of its unique ability to transport us to such extraordinary, enchanting realms. Certainly, you can still travel through time with other books, but nothing offers the same astounding variety of experiences as the fantasy genre. You can take your pick from worlds as bizarre as Pratchett’s Discworld and as plausible as Riordan’s and Rowling’s secret supernatural societies. Besides two books, a memoir and an epistolary novel chosen by Emma Watson for her feminist book club, every book that I have recently read belongs to the fantasy genre.
Having devoured so many of these books has had its fair share of lasting impacts, yet I have only just begun to consider how much they have shaped my personality and priorities. Another question that was posed by an American college was: what matters to you, and why? And my instinctive answer had been my family and friends. Of course, a multitude of other things, both corporeal and abstract, matter to me. But if I were to assume that the prompt was asking for the metaphorical capstone of my pyramid of importances, my loved ones easily take the top spot. In my admissions essay, I had briefly mentioned my love for fantasy books. But on further reflection, I see just how much I had taken their influence for granted.
In Percy Jackson, the titular character’s fatal ‘flaw’ is that he cares too much about his loved ones (hence, threatening to harm them can give antagonists critical leverage). Yet despite its negative label, Riordan’s portrayal of the trait establishes it as an admirable strength rather than a weakness. And in Harry Potter, the ability to love is hailed as the most powerful magic, greater than any potion or incantation. But why are fantasy books especially apt vessels for these messages? The fact that in Harry’s world, even in the midst of unimaginably frightening events, love is the linchpin of Voldemort’s downfall, is especially telling. The idea that something common to everyone – wizards and muggles alike – is, in fact, more powerful than all of the impossible feats we encounter in the entire series, truly demonstrates just how important our families and friends are. It is the exaltation of these ‘mundane’ emotions in fantastical scenarios that underlines their incredible importance.
Many other aspects of how I compose myself can also be attributed to fantasy books. In addition to an unfailing love for our family and friends, when following Frodo’s perilous journey across Middle-earth, or the multiple wars that the Pevensies must fight, or even Harry’s countless emotional and physical battles against an incompetent government, relentless bullying, numerous counts of ostracisation, and Voldemort himself, we learn the arts of perseverance, loyalty, unwavering courage to stand up to not only our enemies but also our friends, and holding fast to what is true and right. In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, even the youngest readers understand how the dishonesty of one and the ignorance of many can lead to the undoing of an entire kingdom. In Deathly Hallows, it is gravely clear how a thirst for power can lead even someone as wise and respected as Dumbledore astray.
The heroes and heroines of these books were my role models, much more so than most people I knew in real life. They instilled in me the belief that such a capacity for love and kindness, alongside strength of character, is the most important quality than one can ever hope to possess – more important than learnedness or sociability, which were undoubtedly primary concerns of the typical teenager.
A particular favourite:
“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
Quite relevant in societies like Hong Kong, where life-size posters of academic tutors are plastered to the sides of double-decker buses.
Maybe I was biased, having never been a master of the social graces. In fact, I used to be so introverted I would hide in my room and pretend to be absent whenever visitors came to my family’s apartment. And so, I instead took pride in my determination to be quietly brave and kind and generous.
Indeed, you can argue that you can learn these life lessons through simple observations of the world around you. Or you may well have been taught by wise and loving parents. But, at least from my perspective, no methods can ever be as simultaneously entertaining and educational as spending hours in the warm embrace of exquisitely spun pages and letting one’s imagination run completely free.
Photograph by Christy Lau.