There are seminal moments in our lives, when we can feel the world come to a complete stop. When everything comes so clearly into focus that we know this is important. We know things are going to change and we will remember forever.
Like that night when I was 10 years old sitting at the dinner table. My father had just gotten back from a conference. While there, some students had taken him to see Star Wars. He said, with all the enthusiasm a dad has when plotting something fun for his kids, “You guys have gotta see this movie! They’ve got these dudes who fight with laser swords.”
My young mind boggled at the very concept. So did my brother’s.
My mother had previously forbidden us from seeing George Lucas’s masterpiece, because it had monsters in it, and she worried we would get nightmares. But my dad assured her we would be fine, and he took us.
As amazing as my father’s descriptions were, they could not do Star Wars justice. At the time, no one had made a movie anything like it. Nothing looked like it. Nothing sounded like it. I was completely blown away by the epic scope, the visual feast, and the sheer awesomeness of it.
Seeing Star Wars put me on the path to writing fantasy literature. I’d always been into adventure stories, but Star Wars made me love fantasy.
Make no mistake. It’s a fantasy film. A young man leaves home in search of adventure. He goes to the dark tower and rescues the beautiful princess from the evil wizard. Along the way, he self-actualizes.
I rarely admit it, and I certainly didn’t understand it at the time, but I identified with Luke Skywalker. I dreamed of being more than I was. I wanted to go out into the world and have lots of adventures. I wanted to get the girl in the end. (I had no way of knowing Lucas would later change Leia to Luke’s sister, making the kiss before swinging across the chasm on the Death Star gross.)
A year later, I would find this magic again in print. When I was 11, an animated version of C.S. Lewis’s immortal classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, aired on television. When I learned it was based on a book, I wanted to read it. My mother bought me The Chronicles of Narnia and I devoured them.
Lewis’s Christian allegory went by me at the time. I was simply caught up once again by the stories of average young people being swept away to another world and changing the course of history. Of defeating an evil witch.
My reading teacher noticed how caught up in the fantasy angle I was, so she gave me a gift at the end of the school year: Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron. I was as entranced by Alexander’s retelling of Welsh mythology as I had been by Lewis and Lucas, but The Black Cauldron had an element I hadn’t encountered before: horror. The cauldron-born zombie warriors were terrifying. And I loved that. Imperial Stormtroopers were bad soldiers. The White Witch had an army of mythological beasts. But the cauldron-born were horrific. They were dead, and they couldn’t be killed.
As exciting and terrified as that was, though, Alexander used the same common element that had hooked me before. It wasn’t magic or giant battles or larger-than-life characters. All of that appealed to me. But where I connected was with the main character. Taran the assistant pigkeeper was about as lowly a person as there was. He was in love with Princess Eilonwy, and she often laughed at him. As a kid getting bullied and trying to figure out who I was, Taran and Edmund and Luke all spoke to me on a deep, personal level I didn’t comprehend at the time.
I would later come to enjoy other fantasy series and characters, but it was these three protagonists that really hooked me into the genre. Their desire to be more than they were, their humble beginnings, and their eventual triumphs over both themselves and their foes inspired me. Luke becomes a badass Jedi who redeems his father. Taran and Edmund become kings. All this from being humiliated by Uncle Owen, by the White Witch, and by Princess Eilonwy.
Each time I first met one of those epics, the world stopped. Everything came into focus. I knew this was important.
I write fantasy literature because I’m one of the characters. I’m that small boy dreaming of adventure, hoping one day I’ll be the hero. I haven’t mastered The Force or a magic sword, but I’m working on it.
In the meantime, I continue the adventure.
Next week, I’ll look at an important bridge between reading fantasy literature and writing it: Dungeons & Dragons.