What Fantasy Can Teach Us About Trauma
Why hide in the worlds of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, if they’re false?
Posted Jan 05, 2015
I was seventeen the year I discovered the two fantasy series that shaped my generation. It was 2002, and I was living in Israel at the intersection of the second intifada and the War on Terror, which by December had begun to spread like an aggressive form of cancer to Iraq. That Christmas, as we waited to find out if the US was going to invade Iraq and whether SCUD missles would rain down on our neighborhood as a result, I varied between hiding out in my room reading all four volumes of Harry Potter, or watching The Lord of the Rings over and over again.
It’s a well-documented human condition, this tendency to hide in fantasy when reality gets to be too much to handle. We want to watch battles fought and know that they will be won. We want a happy ending. Hell, sometimes when the war has gone on too long, we just want any kind of an ending at all.
But what happens after the ending, when the war is won?
J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien had very different answers to this question. Harry Potter takes the traditional route, ending nineteen years after Voldemort is defeated (and the war, it goes without saying, has ended — unlike our reality, in fantasy, when one enemy is defeated another does not pop up in its place). The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years, the last line reads. All was well.
J.K. Rowling skipped over the important part, or at least the important part to me — the part that happens after the trauma but before you’ve gotten over it. After following Harry through seven years of intense physical, emotional and spiritual trauma she had foregone the awful, dirty human struggle of recovery in favor of skipping straight to the happy ending.
And Frodo? Well, his fate was certainly more realistic, taking into account the effects that multiple traumas have on the human psyche. LOTR ends with an unmistakable allegory of the kind of shellshock Tolkien must have witnessed while he was a soldier in World War I. While Merry, Pippin and Sam reintegrate back into the Shire, Frodo withdraws, plagued by nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks. In the end, he escapes to the Undying Lands, hoping that there he would finally find peace.
Perhaps this is not an entirely fair question to ask of fantasy, a genre of fiction whose entire existence is based on escapism. We go into these epics knowing that magic does not exist, that there are no such things as Chosen Ones, that enemies can’t always be vanquished and that wars don’t always end. I knew all of this at seventeen. That knowledge was exactly why I read Harry Potter and watched Lord of the Rings, because even though I knew those things to be true, sometimes I needed to pretend that they weren’t.
It didn’t always work. On one memorable occasion, I had to leave the movie theatre in the middle of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when the sound effects became too much for me to handle. Every explosion of noise made me flinch in my seat, thinking a missile came early or a suicide bomber had decided on this movie theatre as his target. I went to the bathroom and sat in a stall, trying to control my breathing as I waited for help to come. After ten or fifteen minutes, it became clear that no help was coming. There was no Gandalf. There was no Dumbledore. There were no Ron and Hermione, nor Sam or Merry or even Pippin. There was just me, in a bathroom, having a panic attack. And even though I felt cheated by this stark difference between fantasy and reality, still, when I got home, I went straight for Harry Potter and read it until I calmed down enough to fall asleep.
Maybe this is the biggest difference between fantasy and reality: fantasies end. Reality doesn’t. We keep fighting the same wars over and over, and some days we lose, and some days we win, and some days we can’t tell the difference between winning or losing. And yet through them all we keep returning to fantasy, even though it offers no guidance, even though it’s nothing more than an easy way out of our current reality. But maybe some days an easy way out is all we need. Maybe escaping reality is sometimes the only way of coping with it. And maybe that’s okay.