“Don’t the great tales never end?”
”No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.”
There is no other genre of fiction that I adore as much as I do fantasy. Fantasy books take us to a realm of deep magic, of unlikely creatures, of new enchanting worlds, of mad and marvelous characters. For all of this and more, reading fantasy is one of the most captivating and exciting things we do in life. But fantasy simply wouldn’t be the adventure that it is without one key element: danger. Because part of what makes fantasy (and any novel, for that matter) exciting is the thrill of not knowing what happens next. Without even a hint of danger, the fantasy world loses a part of its singular strangeness- its otherness—that makes it truly magical. J.R.R. Tolkien knew how much the element of danger meant to fairy stories and fantasies, referring to Faerie as a “Perilous Realm” filled both with “beauty that is an enchantment and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords” (On Fairy Stories)
When we read fantasy, our minds delve into the world’s magic and splendor but our bodies remain sheltered by its many discomforts and dangers. I think its safe to say that for most of us, this is more than preferable. As C.S. Lewis once stated, “Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so” (On Three Ways of Writing for Children). In fact, many of us even associate reading a good book with great physical comfort: a large comfortable chair, an oversized blanket, a warm cup of tea. As fantasy readers we are not unlike Bilbo in the beginning of The Hobbit when he listens to the dwarves sing in Bag End: enchanted, swept up in songs of heroic deeds and danger. But if we were to imagine that danger entering our own comfortable world, it can be a deeply unsettling and frightening thing:
“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up— probably somebody lighting a wood-fire— and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again” (The Hobbit 16).
In fantasy novels the protagonists, however fearful, rise up to the challenge of a dangerous and often selfless journey. Bilbo certainly does (even if it’s not without sort of constantly missing all the comforts of his hobbit hole). But the question of what we would do in a fantasy world is one that I think that every fantasy reader ask themselves. Some people may know exactly how they might act in a dangerous fantasy setting—know unequivocally that they would either stand up and fight or remain in the shadows.
When we read, the fantasy hero becomes our inspiration to think that yes, we would face danger head on and we would gladly trade in our walking sticks for swords. But more often than not, once we really start thinking of “dragons in contemporary England” it becomes very easy to doubt ourselves. Our limitations, whether physical or mental suddenly become clearer than ever: If we had to flee from our enemy could we even run for longer than twenty minutes? If faced with tests and puzzles, would we be smart enough to figure them out? When the pressure is on and our hearts are beating faster than ever, do we give up? Or do we fight?
This is the challenge that was put to test in ABC’s reality/ fantasy series The Quest. The series created a scripted fantasy world called Everealm and took ordinary, fantasy loving people to compete against each other in order to be the world’s one True Hero: “While the ongoing storyline is scripted and the contestants are interacting with actors throughout the competition, the actual challenges and eliminations are genuine and determined by the contestants’ abilities and decisions” (source). The twelve contestants (or Paladins) chosen for the Quest were as different physically from one another as they were in personality. For some Paladins, physical challenges came easily and mental tasks proved more difficult. Others thrived under pressure but found physical challenges more difficult. But all Paladins, no matter how difficult things got, learned they were all a little more Tookish than they once thought. As a television show with only one winner, it can be easy to dismiss this series as another typical reality show. But what makes this show triumphant is that every week its contestants worked together to find the one true hero that would be best for Everealm. Those who worked to become the winner and not the hero were decidedly banished by fellow Paladins. It would be ridiculous to pretend that none of the contestants wanted to win—they did. But it was because they wanted to win that successful paladins found true heroes within themselves.
That is, after all, what the great stories do: they not only inspire us to act better, but they make us think deeply of what type of person we want to be and what a hero truly is. The Quest teaches us is that stepping into that fantasy world does not have to mean stepping into the role as protagonist. We do not need to be the “Chosen One” to be a hero. The storyline of The Quest is of course, just that: a story. And there is very little real danger. But the emotions that come with the danger of fantasy: the racing heartbeat, exhaustion, fight or flight response, anxiety inducing time-sensitive tasks, making quick, important decisions–those are all there. And they fuel the contestants, bringing the physical danger and discomfort to the Fantasy world. The Paladins teach us something we all need to remind sometimes: we are not bound to fail. Given the opportunity to engage with the realm of fantasy in a real setting, we can conquer. We define what it means to be a hero: and we are all paladins in time.
Join Legendarium Media in petitioning for a second series of the Quest here. Because after all, though the people in them come and go, the great tales never end, do they?