Once I became a historian, I began to regret my teenage obsession with fantasy novels.
When the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore and the avuncular “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush ascended to the presidency, I didn’t bat an eyelash. Bush and Gore were, I thought, small potatoes, and I, at age seventeen, was preoccupied with Winter’s Heart, the ninth book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series, in which an ever-growing roster of oddly-named characters sought to unite a fractious, war-torn world against the machinations of the “Dark One” and a bunch of other, self-interested factions. I’d read the first book, The Eye of the World, a few months earlier, then charged through the rest. Real life, which for me was mostly dreadful, held scant appeal. I needed an alternative universe comprising details, trivia, minutiae—and Jordan obliged.
Sixteen years later, I had thousands of pewter fantasy figurines, hundreds of dog-eared fantasy novels and, perhaps not coincidentally, a Ph.D. in history. Most of the fantasy I liked was pure genre schlock, R. A. Salvatore and Margaret Weis titles heaped one atop the other; others, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth titles, boasted a certain literary cachet, but I’d never cared about that. Whether it was a companion to J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts tales or those cocktail-napkin notes Chris Tolkien compiled and passed off as “Histories,” what mattered to me most was that they were chock-full of facts that I could memorize. I took creative-writing courses in high school and college, whiling away the hours as I filled notebook after notebook with imaginary family trees and historical sketches about a dysfunctional family of half ogres who were tasked with securing a remote outpost of some collapsing empire. Only years later did I realize that these efforts, sophomoric and clichéd though they might have been, represented an attempt to explore the toxic father-son dynamic that had defined my childhood.
My interest in history—in any and all history, invented or not—had evolved from an escapist hobby to an undergraduate avocation to, somehow, a viable career. Now that I was no longer a directionless teen trying to forget an abusive childhood but a harried adult tasked with caring for many other people, I began to curse all those years lost to fantasy novels, stacks of which remained in my mother’s garage. Mind you, I wasn’t cursing these authors or their work. They need to earn a living, and providing mass entertainment is one way to accomplish this. But I was angry—furious, even—that I’d wasted some of my most impressionable years neglecting my responsibilities as an academic and an activist; that I’d been so entirely frivolous. “There is no excuse for those who could be scholars and are not,” wrote Josemaría Escrivá. “Read history incessantly until you master it,” admonished Marcus Garvey. At one time or another, I would have pointed to these men as role models; at no point did I ever heed their advice.
Now, outlining syllabi for graduate seminars and colloquia, what arrows did I have in my quiver? A bunch of monographs I’d read in preparation for my comprehensive exams, along with whatever other worthy selections I could fit in there? I struggled with an intense desire to fill every gap in my knowledge, while also avoiding the torment that characterizes academic book chat: “Did you read so-and-so’s latest yet?” “Read it? I haven’t even reviewed it!”
As a teen, I had nothing but time. Now every minute of my intellectual life felt precious and insufficient. Even granting that some of my time should’ve been earmarked for leisure, why hadn’t I managed to read about queer domesticities in Edwardian England or Pan-Africanism instead of constantly dragon riding through Pern? What wonders could I have worked with those hours lost to chronicling the fates of Prydain and Narnia? This was, of course, counterfactual history of the sort ridiculed by E. H. Carr: How could an introverted, adenoidal youth, surrounded by no literature aside from a heaping helping of 1940s and 1950s sci-fi and fantasy, have possibly acquainted himself with more serious scholarship of which he knew nothing?
For a decade, I put these thoughts aside and soldiered on. In the background, a millennial media landscape coalesced, growing ever hungrier for content even as it became increasingly unable or unwilling to pay for it. This new media world demanded what the grown-up wits condescendingly labeled “hot takes” or, if the writers’ aspirations were bit loftier and their language more scholarly, “thinkpieces.” Some of this writing was strong, acute, and profound—particularly from heretofore underrepresented or marginalized voices—but much of it was eminently forgettable.
And fantasy writing, now ubiquitous thanks to Game of Thrones, has proved an inexhaustible, inescapable source of hot takes. Important questions related to gender, sexuality, consent, and even race are explored and reexplored through the lens of the Westeros universe—a ludicrous development that the three-man crew of the Chapo Trap House has mocked to good effect.
A hypothetical think piece like “How Game of Thrones Predicted Donald Trump” offers an inviting target: insipid premise, clickbait keywords, and almost assuredly superficial execution. Losing one’s mind because J.K. Rowling was ignorant of the rudiments of African geopolitics gave folks something to do, but it also made me wonder what we should expect from Rowling, Martin, or anyone else earning their keep by fashioning fantastic worlds for commercial consumption.
“The quarrels of popes and kings … the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome, and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention,” Catherine Morland remarks in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Morland’s scorn was directed at her generation’s tedious, “important” histories—the work of Gibbon, Hume, Hallam—which, in their exclusion of anything and anyone that didn’t fit their grand narratives, closely resemble the just-so stories written by Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.
By contrast, history as a modern discipline showcases a diverse array of voices discovered in archives or dredged from the soil: sad voices, serene voices, angry voices—voices seemingly lost not just to this time but to all time. There is no career long enough, an accomplished colleague once told me, to do justice to even a single day in the life of one person. And this is doubly true if a historian hopes to plumb the depths of Marx’s Capital (full confession: I haven’t) or come to grips with Gayatri Spivak’s principal assertion in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (Not to mention the hundreds of other wonderful new books, listed in one university-press catalog or another, for which he or she cannot designate a spare moment to “review,” much less read.)
As a child, I devoured fantasy fiction because I believed that it could transport me to a new world. Given that my self-contained “real world” consisted mainly of my father bellowing at my mother, foaming at the mouth, or headbutting holes into plaster walls, this material was a welcome distraction. I wanted out, had nowhere to go but my room, and thus lost myself in a series of page-turning stories. And some of what I read, such as Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang or Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series, provided the “conceptual dislocation” and “shock of dysrecognition (sic)” that Philip K. Dick argued was essential for any work hoping to offer something more than a few hours of escapist entertainment. But in most cases, I wound up confronted only by the familiar: white men or women, middle class, college educated, Anglophone or at least European in origin, and either curiously uninterested in sexual matters regardless of their orientation (the Inklings) or way too interested (R. R. Martin). It almost goes without saying that the worlds they created, like Martin’s Westeros or Tolkien’s Middle-earth, were just pastiches; caricatures of the Old Days bedazzled with unsurprising eccentricities (fairies, elves, manticores, wyverns, bugbears, owlbears, goblins, kobolds, frost giants, et al) taken from the fantasy author’s curio cabinet.
This is not an argument against escapism, per se, but against the deceptions of that we most readily escape into. Our mass-market fantasy stories are a prime example, but one could replace them with by-the-numbers superhero blockbusters (which will surely seem as risible to future generations as swim champion Johnny Weissmuller’s dozen or so Tarzan films do to ours) or rote sequels to shoot-’em-up video games and leave the fundamental analysis unchanged. We escape to worlds that are safer and more understandable than this one, and nothing about, say, Ron Weasley’s casual racism can shed any meaningful light on our own, except to remind us that racism is pervasive. He’s an object in a wind-up world of one white heterosexual British woman’s devising; he cannot be the tool of anyone’s deliverance.
The actual history that we’re painstakingly piecing together, whether of the U.S. government’s genocidal policies toward Native Americans or the operation of historical societies lacking a seemingly “natural” gender binary, is more unnerving by far. It’s unnerving because it is so alien, so fantastic, so impossible, that every generation struggles to understand it and every subsequent generation must interpret it anew. Each tiny sliver awakens more questions in the student: How could we possibly know it all, or know even one modest portion of it?
There were times when I could recite, in precise chronological order, even the most minor historical events of Krynn, the Four Lands, or Toril. I cannot say the same for any particular regional or thematic section of this world’s past. As regards this present crisis—and the present, clouded by old fears and prejudices, is always in a state of crisis—I wish that some of my previous efforts spent memorizing the niceties of these imagined pasts could now be reapplied toward more constructive ends. For history, always being seized from the past in a moment of desperation by those of us stuck in the present, edifies even as it terrifies. Unlike these make-believe lands where nothing really happens and all the best rulers end up benevolent dictators, our world’s vast gap between the then and the now should remind us that, much as things weren’t always like they are now, they needn’t remain that way in the future, either.
As for those boxes of fantasy novels: my mother donated them to the library bookstore where she works. Two volumes were spared: John Crowley’s Little, Big, which I have been halfheartedly reading for five years and have no pressing desire to finish, and George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the closest approximation to a religious text that still appears on my bookshelves. Some of my pewter fantasy figures sit atop my printer. The rest of that stuff, as they say, is history.
Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.