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. Read More