Hope. We know this word. “Hope” appears in our speech probably on a daily basis, it conjures ideas in our minds. It’s a tiny word whose power transcends its monosyllabic constraints. Yet it is a word many of us, if put on the spot, would be hard-pressed to define in concrete terms. Whether or not we can define it, I would wager we are all aware of its importance. Numerous world religions, from Christianity to Hinduism, hold the idea of hope with great, if not sacred, regard. Psychologists have delved far and deep into the ramifications of hope upon our mental and emotional well-being.
We humans crave hope.
Without putting too fine a point on it, this blog post is in defense of hope in fantasy fiction. It is born from a conversation I had in real life with a person who commented that he likes grimdark because it’s “real.” As he told me: “Anybody who’s really lived knows that hope’s a load of crap.” (“Crap” was not his word; his was, uh, earthier.)
To which I replied, “So no Chronicles of Narnia then? No Lord of the Rings?”
“Not really. I liked them as a kid, but then I grew up.”
“They were written by grown men,” I said.
“I guess. But weren’t they professors or something? It’s not like they understood the real world.”
Me: ಠ_ಠ “Uh, Lewis and Tolkien fought in the First World War. They were in the Battle of the Somme. I’m pretty sure those guys understood a lot about the ‘real world.’ More than I pray I ever will.”
It’s possible I’m being unfair to my acquaintance; if he hadn’t read Lord of the Rings since childhood, he likely missed how Tolkien engaged with some psychologically poignant themes. I also apologize if I’m making my acquaintance sound like a strawman. He is hardly the only person who has expressed the sentiment that books with messages of hope are books best left to those who can’t handle reality. My acquaintance is an intelligent guy with whom I had an exchange that prompted me to think, and he prompted me to think about many important, if uncomfortable, ideas.
One of the ideas was whether we, as adult readers, delude ourselves by seeking hope in our fantasy. I don’t mean by seeking out only happiness—hope and happiness are not synonyms—but by wanting to see good triumph or to at least be left with the hope (there’s that word again) that good will prevail. I’ve experienced enough of life to know that good doesn’t always win. I’ve seen human cruelty. I’ve had to grapple with the abyss within myself. And perhaps I am deceiving myself, but I need hope. I need hope because it tells me that I can conquer the unsavory elements within myself, that I can persevere even when it seems I should not.
Fantasy shows us hope in its rawest forms. We see hope struggling, fighting, falling, and ultimately rising. We see that hope does not mean the road we walk will be free from stones and hazards. What we learn is that there is a reason to keep traveling, to keep striving, to keep pushing forward.
This isn’t, I should add, intended as a dig against grimdark. I’ve certainly encountered a number of people who immerse themselves in the grimdark world precisely because it gives them the power to face the darkness on their terms. At some point, I want to revisit grimdark and talk more about that subgenre specifically because I think it’s a worthwhile discussion, and I don’t think simply saying, “Grimdark is icky,” does the idea justice (nor does it accurately reflect my actual thoughts, I should add).
What I am saying, however, is that we should not downplay the concept of hope in fiction as “juvenile” or “out of touch with reality” while we relegate books that elevate hope purely to the domain of children’s literature. If we view the world only in terms of reality equaling hopelessness, we have hamstrung our own ambitions. If there is no hope that good shall prevail, why rise above apathy? Or worse, why not embrace the conquering power of despair? Hope drives us forward, as individuals and as humans, and I cannot imagine that we will be richer in spirit or in ability if we live in a world where maturity means scoffing at hope.
Melion lives with two dogs, one spouse and a fluctuating amount of chaos. When not writing, Melion practices historical fencing and other martial arts, studies medieval history, lifts weights, consumes energy drinks, and wages the Battle of Dog Fur. Melion has had works appear in, or be forthcoming in, Deep Magic, Cast of Wonders, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Havok, and other publications. Melion’s works have also been published under pseudonyms in Cicada and Electric Spec.
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Published works: JL Anthology Vol. 3, On the Wings of Doves (T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog), Transition (Tall Tale TV), JL Anthology Vol. 6, Valiance: A Collection of Short Stories of Courageous Women, Exile