Is Fantasy Relevant?

Is Fantasy Relevant?

By Tom O’Donnell, author of Homerooms and Hall Passes 


In a time of real challenges and genuine darkness, is there room for heroic fantasy? As an author who loves to write (and read) about magic and dragons and medieval-ish lands with goofy-sounding names, I can honestly say I am somewhat conflicted on this question.

At its worst, fantasy can feel like a distraction. Does seeing the fictional world get saved over and over again distract us from the actual problems facing the real world? I think of the millions of people who might eagerly turn out to watch a boy-wizard or a superhero god of thunder fight for justice on the big screen, while perhaps turning a blind eye to the real injustice around them. I have certainly been guilty of this myself.

Perhaps more insidiously—especially for kids—fantasy can offer an overly simplistic moral framework by which to understand life. The idea that if you can somehow beat up the bad guy, everything will be fine is tempting, but ultimately false. As is, I think, the idea that the world can neatly be divided into good guys and bad guys to begin with.

There are countless exceptions, but in the archetypal fantasy book, darkness is spreading across the land—perhaps a medieval-ish place with a goofy-sounding name—and an unlikely (but secretly oh-so-special) hero rises to the challenge. They come into their true power and succeed against all odds of defeating the evil overlord and changing the world for the better.

As adults, we know the “good guys” lose all the time and even when they don’t, the price for trying to do the right thing is often terrible. Oh, and even if there were an evil overlord sitting in a dark castle somewhere who was responsible for all the bad things in the world, violence is the worst way to solve any problem.

Of course, a little break from reality can be a soothing balm when life feels frightening and grim. But beyond its escapist value, and the criticisms above, I still think fantasy is worthwhile for kids to read.


Just like a fantasy hero, your kid is secretly special.

No, they’re not the “Chosen One” who will singlehandedly turn the tide of evil, but they do have incredible power. Though they might not know it yet, they are capable of doing amazing things and making a mark on their school, their community, their world. I think the genre appeals to kids because it is a heightened, magical version of growing up. It helps them understand their own path from a safe and protected childhood toward the thrilling and, sometimes scary, independence of being an adult who can make their own choices.

Fantasy is about accepting responsibility.

Even though the genre can seem simplistic it has a very adult idea baked into it. The humble hero of most fantasy stories could choose to ignore the grave threats facing her world. But she doesn’t. She may resist at first, but for her doing nothing about the spreading darkness is not an option. This is a value we would all do well to instill in our children. It may not be casting the One Ring into the cracks of Mount Doom, but kids still have the power, every day, to stand up and do the right thing.


Fantasy offers hope.

When you cut to the core of what most popular fantasy books are about, it is hope. Hope that through skill, compassion, and bravery we can actually solve problems. Hope that the creeping darkness we see around us can be turned back. In the real world, approaching a difficult and uncertain future with a sense of optimism and possibility is, I think, our only option.


Hope is magical but it is also real. And when the chaos and sadness of reality makes hope seem naive, some kids (and grown-ups too) may need fantastical stories of heroes and dragons to find a bit of it.