Myths, legends and fantasies: why do we read them, why do we watch them?

By Annabel Hynes. Annabel, 17, is a student at St Raphael's College in Loughrea. She lives in Galway, Ireland.

Fantasy is ancient. Everyone in the world has experienced it, and as long as humanity exists, they will continue to experience it. Our entire culture is defined by dreamers, by people who hope and deliberate until they produce something – anything. And how do these people, these artists, dream of the unreal? Well, fantasy begins with the thought of two inimitable words, the most important thought ever to be transformed into a verbal medium. “What if?”

Every storyteller since the dawn of our race has considered these words, pondered on them in some form or another, and then either kept these ruminations to themselves or deigned to tell others. Everyone is a storyteller. Everyone dreams, wonders, fantasises. We obviously only know broadly of the ones who were clever enough or imaginative enough to create worlds from dust and put them on paper, or on a screen. However, those apparitions in their most basic form are ubiquitous, and there is a reason for that. Why would the human brain continue to develop such ridiculous notions as magic wands, malignant aliens, dead people who remain as transparent vestiges upon the earth? It is because we need them, of course. We need to concentrate for a while on vampires and werewolves so we forget the devils on our own doorstep; debt, unemployment, even depression. We need to admire fake or forgotten heroes because no-one believes in them anymore. Fantasies exist, contrary to popular belief. They exist to the individual primarily, and as they evolve and grow into something recognisable as a plotted story, those with a particular knack for drawing words from thin air can give them life, and inspire more in other people.

Legends are further proof, old as the hills and still told to our children. They have been around so long that even some of their details have been morphed, like a very long, elaborate game of Chinese Whispers. Yet every person involved in the latter retains something, do they not? It may be differently interpreted to the person before them, but they still receive meaning from the message. Old tales endure for a reason; they speak to an entire populace, they are powerful. Consider Hercules’ Labours, King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood. They began as someone’s throwaway song or poem, a warped biopic even. Yet they endured, seeping into popular culture and influencing modern writers and artists. The reason for that is they have very universally comprehensive messages: be charitable to those less fortunate, work hard and you will succeed, even the lowest of us has the potential for greatness. Perhaps these messages don’t translate well for some, or don’t play out the way they were advertised by mythic heroes, but the belief and the hope is enough to draw out the best of a person and improve them overall. If we didn’t have the evidence, however fantastical, of others trying and overcoming obstacles with nothing but their own sheer force of will and goodness, we would cease emulating them, and eventually cease becoming the best versions of ourselves. Seeing these characters brought to life through art inflames the imagination, and the feeling of comfort that maybe, somewhere and somehow, an individual with the capacity for carrying out brave and wondrous deeds exists.

There is however a darker undertone to our obsession with the unrealistic and the impossible. This originates with religion, of course, most significantly the older, polytheistic religions. Norse gods, Ancient Egyptian gods and Ancient Greek gods are decent examples of the kind of worshiped figures that are so famously depicted in a plethora of fantasy films and books. The deities present in those languished faiths are generally undisputed people with human failings and desires. They were, I suppose, the logical answer to a harsh and unforgiving world. A flawed world must be ruled by flawed beings – one can understand this seeming quite plain to a philosophical society such as the Ancient Greeks in particular. It was easier to accept the world. Now we can see those chronicled ‘gods’ for what they truly and unconsciously were – excuses for war, tragedy, genius, even love. There was Freya, Norse goddess of love and battles; Anubis, Ancient Egyptian god of Death; Ares, Ancient Greek god of war. One could live a relatively uncomplicated, straightforward life praying to these individual sources of joy or despair, and a simple life meant simple happiness. It was far less grating on the soul than the more introspective religions that emerged later, especially since the old heroes’ trials and tribulations were made very black and white, man versus monster. Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the like teaches its followers about the monsters within them, and thus life turns into a storm of doubt. That is why those once revered effigies of divine power are still shown all over the world, albeit as fantastical characters. They represent what humanity used to think like, what they used to be like, and what lengths these brilliantly creative people will go to so as to make themselves unaccountable for the very best and very worst the earth has to offer.

More modern examples of the lugubrious and yet curiously addictive side of fiction can be presented in the form of the book series ‘Game of Thrones’. I refer to this because it spans a wide range of emotions and experiences, but even more notable because of their specific contents are books, films and TV shows that explore dystopias. ‘Game of Thrones’ is a very popular series. It is relished by millions because of the unflinching and direct approach taken towards violence, sexuality, politics and human nature. This, unsurprisingly, is not particularly common amongst fantasy literature or filmic adaptations of fantasy stories. Most writers of this genre are under the impression that their audiences have simplistic desires, such as sheer escapism, and for the most part they’re right. However, to see every human flaw shown in those books encompassed by an aura of mystique and magic is quite revolutionary. We can draw parallels to our own lives, almost to the letter with some characters, and this ordains a whole new level of realism for the impossible. Those books resonate with so many because of their huge scope, and we need more like them. Dystopias are in much the same family. Dystopias and unhappy endings are more engaging because we see the true nature of humanity, the raw, searing reality that’s more real than our own world – yet presented as fantasy. The readers of these books and the watchers of these films know how close we are to primal instincts, how easy it is to go over the edge. This realisation is eagerly lapped up by anyone with an ounce of curiosity about the human condition, especially teenagers and young adults. They are just beginning their attempts to understand the world, and seeing people at their basest form simplifies a lot. Wrapping all of that up in a science-fiction or medieval fantasy novel makes this comprehension a fun and interesting experience, not so serious as one would think, and rather than young people today becoming impervious to harsh realities, I think they are far more prepared for them.

I will conclude with the words of the immortal J.R.R Tolkien: “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’.” As someone who considers stories and wild tales as relevant as the day’s news, these words are my gospel, and I honestly believe there would be more satisfaction in the lives of others if they really mulled over the legends and fantasies that have subtly defined us as a species over the ages.

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