‘Hope Was Still Waiting for Me’: Finding a Sanctuary in Fantasy Fiction
This story was originally published on Mindsite News online publication May 15, 2023.
In July of 2007, I was at my grandparents’ house watching TV with my mother when a story caught my attention. A newscaster had been discussing the record-breaking sales for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final novel in the series. Eight years old and enraptured, I watched the seemingly infinite queues of people lining up for blocks just to buy a copy of the book the moment it was released, and I wanted in. I told my mother I wanted to read the book the people on TV were reading. She laughed and told me that I’d have to get through six other books before I could read that one. I told her “no problem.”
A couple of days later, she brought home a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from our local Books-A-Million. I read it from cover to cover before the day was over, and my fascination with fantasy novels was born.
It would be a while before I gained the ability to delve into the literary giants of the genre, but still, I began to read books at a voracious speed. The habit grew to the point where at night, after lights out when I’d been put to bed, my mother would have to check that I hadn’t snuck a book under my bed sheets to read with a flashlight. She soon worried that my reading habit had transformed from a boon into a burden, that I sought to escape the real world and instead find solace through books and solitude in the deep waters of imagination. She worried that I would isolate myself from friends, from expectations, from other sources of joy.
Obviously, I couldn’t understand why she was so concerned. Books made me happier – what was so wrong about that? They provided safe haven from a specter I didn’t know was stalking me. I would turn 14 before I realized something was wrong. In the fall of my freshman year of high school, I was diagnosed with clinical depression – a mental illness that had secretly haunted me for half of my life, and one I would struggle with for every year of my life that followed. What I did know was that reading fantasy made me feel better. Despite my protests, my parent’s concern over my fixation continued to grow, even as my gratitude for and adoration of the genre increased in tandem.
As an adult, I’ve often pondered what drew my child self to fantasy novels over all the other types of stories. As an adult who spent her college career studying literature, this is what I believe: Fantasy novels provided the ultimate safe space. If at any point I became too uncomfortable with the content, I could simply close the book; either I would finish the story another day or just pick up a different one altogether. But often, the very ability to put the book down is what allowed me to keep going – to engage with subjects that were challenging and painful.
Fantasy novels are also unique among other novel genres because of their scope. Mysteries, thrillers, romance, and contemporary fiction may deal with serious and substantial issues, but they are often restricted to a smaller narrative stage for the sake of telling a powerful story. Fantasy instead deals with problems on an escalated scale. Watching protagonists try to solve great, world-threatening problems made my own day-to-day problems feel smaller and easier to handle.
Then, too, there were the characters. Over and over again, fantasy fiction protagonists were the ones in whom I delighted, because in them I recognized echoes of myself. When I picked up Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in 7th grade, I didn’t have the context to understand what the narrator meant when he said he had ADHD and dyslexia. However, I still remember the euphoria I experienced at the point in the book when he realized all those problems that caused him trouble with his teachers and peers were actually an indicator of his demigod heritage. Though I didn’t know it at the time, as a child with undiagnosed ADHD, I, too, was longing to find that same sense of acceptance for myself.
In many instances, the protagonists in fantasy stories are outsiders. As a genre, fantasy often deals with issues ingrained in society; therefore, the characters who are best equipped to take a deeper look at those problems, or even fix them, are those who have been ostracized, placed outside, or injured by those systems. So, we see protagonists who are part of a minority population in some way – they are “othered.” A lot of people who struggle with mental illness or neurodivergence like me therefore find pieces of ourselves in these protagonists that we don’t see in regular fiction. Even though I didn’t know I was different from others around me, I still recognized myself in those misfits and outcasts. Fantasy provided the representation I so desperately craved.
But perhaps more importantly, I knew those outcasts were going to be okay. When I cracked open a fantasy novel, I could be comfortable in the understanding that there would be a satisfying conclusion – there’s a reason we know the phrase “happily ever after.” Unless you’re dealing with a sub-genre such as “grim dark” that exists to subvert the core precepts of the fantasy genre, when you engage with fantasy, you enter a social contract with the author. In return for your readership, there is an unspoken agreement that the author will give you a happy ending. Knowing that there is a satisfying, enjoyable conclusion waiting for me on the final page provides a mental and emotional safety net; intense sorrow and suffering will be endured for the promise of a happy ever after. That’s a promise I didn’t have in the real world.
Part of the reason I turned to the fantasy genre over other fiction did have to do with the rich interior worlds that fantasy novels provided. The magical environs along with the complex rules and relations of such new worlds provided the stimulation that my young ADHD brain desperately needed. However, a larger part of why I turned to fantasy was because I sensed a pattern within the genre which resonated with me: A young adult is plucked out of their normal, onerous life and given a chance to change a deteriorating world and achieve the happy ending they desire. Deep down, all I wanted was the power to influence my world and take control of my future when I didn’t believe I could.
My depression rendered me immobile. Anxiety, apathy and despair were my daily companions. Fantasy taught that even if the very world was falling down around me, even if I couldn’t see the end of the road and it seemed impossible to find a solution, hope was still there waiting for me. Even if I was alone and broken and hurting, if I just kept on going, then someday, I’d find my happy ending.
Harry Potter destroys Voldemort, Percy Jackson saves his mother, the Fellowship redeems Middle Earth, and Kendall Covington will find the strength to overcome.
Kendall graduated from Liberty University in 2022 with a B.S. in Writing. She was selected to join the editorial team for the LAMP literary magazine during her senior year of college and now works as a copyeditor for Youthcast Media Group.