On Fantasy – 2

read part 1

In my first “On Fantasy” piece, I began exploring what fantasy meant to me in early childhood. How the entertainment I consumed shaped my capacity for imagination as well as the imagery I utilized.

However, the single most important thing for my fantasies and imagined worlds, the foundation upon which all of it rests, is reading. This should be no surprise to anyone who is now reading this. I don’t have to sell you on the concept, now do I?

Before I could read, I always had to rely on adults to provide me stories. They certainly did so, but never enough on my own terms. It was always, “well, your sister doesn’t like that one,” or, “we read that just yesterday.”

Once I could read, whole new worlds opened up to me. My imagination was harnessed to the written word. That, years later, I have been able to reverse this arrangement and harness the written word to my imagination is the coolest gift life has ever given me. What fun!

By early elementary school I had developed what can only be described as an obsession with mediaeval knights. The armor. The helmets! The swords and lances! It was pushing all my buttons. I don’t know who it was that did such a profoundly wonderful thing for me, but I believe it was one of my aunts. She noticed this obsession and bought me a beautifully illustrated abridged copy of, King Arthur and His Knights.

Oh my.

The book was a collection of the classic stories, retold in modern language for kids, of course. It had the most beautiful illustrations. Detailed, full color, ink and watercolor scenes. Knights battling with sword and lance. Giants and dragons. The occasional woman in distress. Blood.

This, I believe, was the first book that swallowed me up. I lost myself completely in it, and emerged deeply invested in that vision of storytelling.

To be clear: it was the weapons, armor, and gear of the warriors that attracted me so. It was the violence: the visceral thought of ending a life with a sharp piece of steel in your hand. I cannot describe how exciting this was to me.

From that time on, if a story had swords and armor in it, I was sold. It was this that drew me to the genre of fantasy like a moth to flame. The magic and the monsters and the fairies I could take or leave. I was there for the sword fighting.

Now, do keep in mind that this was all in the early 1980s. There really was not much going on for me right then in terms of mass-media entertainment. As unfathomable as this might be for youngsters these days, it was a time when you could not just consume exactly what you wanted precisely when you wanted. You were stuck with what they gave you. And they did not give us all that much.

There might have been a lot of sword and sandal epics in the 1960s. And some sword and sorcery movies in the 1970s. But we had no access to that. It would be another ten years before my family had a VCR, and at least four or five before any of my friends did. Conan the Barbarian might have been released right around then, but whose parents were going to let us watch it? Not going to happen.

So what recourse did I have to get my swordfighting fix? A library card, is what.

Something very cool did happen for us in the early 1980s, which would completely change how I related to fantasy and storytelling. The choose-your-own-adventure books started coming out right around then. And some of them were fantasy. Boy oh boy. Here we go!

Within a couple of years, my best friend and I were voraciously consuming the Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston’s, Fighting Fantasy series of choose-your-own-adventure books. These were the shit! You had a couple of dice and a character sheet and you actually got to fight and keep track of swag and abilities and whatnot.

City of Thieves became like a bible to me. The illustrations were marvelous, but it was the sandbox style of storytelling that was so compelling to me. That you could chose to walk into a shop and attack the shopkeeper with your sword was one of the best things that ever happened to me. How wonderful.

I do not remember how old I was, precisely, when I was introduced to the next level of all of this, but I must have been about ten. It was cataclysmic. My friend had discovered Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and had convinced his father to buy him the holy trinity of books: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. He showed me how to play and I was completely hooked from the first moment.

My parents were not the sort to buy me much of anything just because I wanted it, but I had an allowance and was able to make some extra money by mowing the lawns and cleaning up the dogshit in the back yard. For the next couple of weeks I put my shoulder into that and was able to buy my first set of dice and a Player’s Handbook. It was all downhill from there.

There can be no overstating how important D&D was for me and my development. It became my religion. It was all I thought about and all I wanted to do. That intoxicating freedom I had drunk of in, City of Thieves, was now a deep well. While we could not be and do anything we wanted (there are rules to the game, after all), the storytelling we were able to collectively develop together was unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

It is here that the flow of this telling would seem to have drifted away from where it started. Reading and its part in my development of imagination is where we began. When I hitched myself so profoundly to fantasy roleplaying games, did I not move away from this?

On the surface, perhaps. Because I certainly was reading a lot less once I began playing D&D. But I think that without a solid foundation in reading, I would never have been able to engage with roleplaying games to the extent that I did.

In my early twenties I took it upon myself to get one of my new friends into RPGs. He was a fellow I worked with at the gas station. I have written of him and his brother before.

This guy loved Star Wars and Star Trek to a degree that was dysfunctional. His dream was to become a Star Trek series developer. He lived and breathed this stuff. And as my good friend, I wanted to share with him the gift of roleplaying. It seemed the ideal fit. The only hitch was that he did not like fantasy.

By this time, my friends and I had long since developed our own gaming system for modern combat, based on the D&D ruleset. Mostly we used this to play one-off sessions very much akin to Grand Theft Auto (at its worst) as a kind of palate cleanser between serious D&D campaigns. I thought it would not be hard at all to adapt this set of rules to a Star Trek setting. I was right: it was easy.

With the rules in hand, I had my friend roll up a character and we began to play. I let him roll up a higher level dood and everything. A captain of his very own starship. Then I gave him his orders.

As we began playing, I waited for that moment of joyful exhilaration to overtake him. That moment I was able to witness in so many other people I had introduced to the game. That moment when the freedom of the medium overtakes a new player and they have the time of their fucking life.

Instead I got awkwardness. I got a dud.

“I can’t just talk about what my guy is doing! I can’t see the ship! I need to see it! This is lame!”

What a dud.

The thing about this guy was: he was almost functionally illiterate. When we watched movies together that involved some degree of reading, such as a backstory in the opening credits like Star Wars, he would have to pause the movie for ages to get through it. I doubt that he had ever in his entire life cracked and finished a book of his own accord.

I relate this not to be mean (I am, after all, an extremely slow reader myself), but to make a wider point about reading and its role in developing imagination. My friend lacked a capacity that my other friends and I took for granted: the ability to transform language into visualized imagery. To take some stats on a piece of paper and turn them into our heroic avatar. To hear a story told to us and imagine it as though we were in it.

Anyone who grew up reading has this capacity. But do not think this is inherent to us. It is not. It is something we learned how to do. Reading and being read to gave us this.

For those others who did not, or could not, read, there is no such inner world, I suspect. They need the movie or the video game to render the fantasy for them. The action figures to be their avatars. Their imagination is limited by that of others. They can only attack the shopkeeper with their sword when a game designer has allowed for it.

How truly sad for them.

So read to your kids. Talk to your kids. Tell them stories. This is vital for their development as creative, imaginative creatures.

And if no one did that for you, then I am sorry. You were done a profound disservice. I do earnestly hope that is something you can remedy for yourself. I think it can be done.

Read more. That’s it.

It is worth it.

read part 3

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