The first time I read Lord of the Rings, I was annoyed by the anal description of the Shire and abandoned it.
My mother insisted that this trilogy of books had saved her life, and I just needed to push forward. At the time, I had discovered the magic of reading, but I could not yet comprehend how a fictional world could become your home and give you strength in times of need. I obeyed, but it was mainly to prove her wrong. And then I met Gandalf, and Tom Bombadil, and Aragorn. From the second Aragorn the wanderer came into my life, I felt relieved – he, too, made the choice to be a nomad who explored the Earth, told the truth as it was, protected the defenseless ones, and honored the elders and the traditions. There was such an obvious resemblance between us. As I kept reading, I fell in love with Arwen; I faced the demons of Rohan; with white knuckles, and my heart beating too fast, I entered the cave of ghosts. I helped in all the battles. I broke Eowyn’s heart. And, finally, I built a home.
Since then, I have seen many movies making fun of the sensitive nerds who have a hard time at school and take refuge in imaginary worlds. I never identified with those people, and yet, now that I tell this story, I admit that I owe my sanity to fantasy worlds. I remember that my family was puzzled by how often I read Harry Potter; every time a new book of the series came out, I started all over again, from the first volume. So, I have read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone seven times, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets six times, and so on, and so forth. For some reason, I believe that would make J.K. Rowling happy, maybe because it has a sense of magic to it. I would read the adventures of my sister-in-arms Hermione, and her friends, Harry and Ron, while brushing my teeth, walking to school, and also secretly after curfew and early in the morning. With Harry Potter, no matter where I opened any of the books, I was home, and I was safe. I knew the geography of the castle. I studied the main courses of magic by adding up all the information I could find in the novels. I waited for my Hogwarts letter, but never resented not getting it. (Last year, the love of my life had a Hogwarts letter made for me, with my name and my address, and deposited it on my bed – as you may guess, I am marrying him.
Harry Potter changed my relationship to reality and fiction, because it was such a widespread phenomenon that I wasn’t considered a freak for going back in again and again. I could talk to friends about the world and the characters. Practicing spells was a kids’ game. I was allowed to consider the pros and cons of the different modes of transportation – broom, train, flying car, Floo Powder, Thestral. As much as my longing for the Shire and Lothlorien was a shameful secret (I come from a family of intellectuals, and fantasy literature is not favorably looked upon), Hogwarts was instead the first imaginary world I shared with other people. I subscribed to writing forums, where we would create our own character within Hogwarts, and then develop adventures. Real human beings and I were interacting inside my home, and I felt closer to them than to most of my schoolmates. On those forums, I had a voice, a style, a personality. Being a hard-worker, who wrote a lot and with regularity, was appreciated. Being specific about what the tavern looked like, or what the forest smelled like, was rewarded.
My fictional refuge had been somewhat validated, and from there, I braved other worlds and quests. Discovering Eragon was, at first, the secret of the dragon egg in my house, then the guilt and the training with a tough mentor, and finally the transformation from a small life to an international trip across borders. My favorite passage that I kept coming back to was the training of Eragon at the Elves’ domain. He knew much about socializing, fighting, being discreet, negotiating. What he didn’t know yet was connection. Alone, the book in my hands, I craved connection on another level, something profound and true that I didn’t find often amongst my peers. When Eragon was ordered to sit down in silence, to meditate, and to feel the ants walking and working, to listen to all sounds without exception, I felt shivers and shudders. I discovered much later that these messages are repeated by calm voices in guided meditations. For me, though, the spirituality behind Eragon’s new behavior overwhelmed me with hope: it suggested that true magic was attainable through sitting down, and, with discipline and patience, opening yourself up to the world.
So far, I had learnt from Aragorn’s integrity and sense of duty, Hermione’s straightforwardness and perseverance, and Eragon’s curiosity and bravery. In each of those universes, the rules had been simple – good versus evil. My beliefs were the right ones. I just had to grow enough to share them with others and make them win over darkness.
Then, with Tales of the Otori, everything changed. Suddenly, the hero had a million mentors from different families with extensive backgrounds. Diverse magical powers were born from specific paths. Every quick judgment about a character representing “good” or “evil” was contradicted. I was constantly surprised, shocked, and taught to search for nuances, to look beyond appearances. In a way, all the nuances I had been running away from, all the complications, the grey areas, were coming back in the fictional world. The advantage is that they were explained. I could track down the why and how of my mistakes and the power of my individual choices. When the hero chose wrong, I paled at the harshness of the consequences, and then was captivated by how he rebuilt himself and his environment. I discovered that love and identity were worth fighting for and were a construction that I had to come back to every single day.
Armed with this new wisdom, I finally stumbled into the most magical universe of all: I followed the footsteps of Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. It started innocently enough as a children’s book – we were playing in the mud, defying authority, refusing baths, and asking too many questions. Then, we had a goal: it was good versus evil, and we needed to defeat the sinister Mrs. Coulter, and side with Lord Asriel. At the end of the first book, though, the turn was so violent that I had to read the scenes again and again until agreeing that, yes, Lyra and I had been betrayed. The greater good was presented as more important than the worth of an individual life and that conflict has since then fascinated me.
As we moved into the next volumes of the trilogy, Lyra and I understood the necessity of some sacrifices, but also the slow work of time when it came to forgiveness, studying, and even magic. There was something utterly delicate in how she fell in love and how she learned that a gift can be used in many different ways, and that it is up to us to use our resources in the best way we see fit.
Philip Pullman taught me best what freedom truly means and how it invokes our sense of responsibility. He also showed me the delicate balance between what must be done and what we want to do. I felt bittersweet wonder as I read the last chapter and I have never quite recovered. It has been the most intimate read of my life and I suspect it will always remain the most special universe I have ever visited. It is home, but it is also foreign, because, like reality, everything constantly moves: the borders, the power dynamics, and the people. There is a cycle and a stability with rules that cannot be altered, and there is free will and ethical dilemmas. In this world more than in any other, I had the privilege of learning how reality works – its religions, politics, relationships, and even life and death. In many ways, Philip Pullman became the mentor I had always been longing for.
Now I am twenty-five years old and still looking for answers and ways of looking at our world. Every time I walk into a bookstore, I touch the books, read the titles, waiting for one of them to call me. They often do, and every so often, I find new universes where I recognize the streets as if I had explored them by myself in another life. The last one to date is the gem La Passe-Miroir, a fantasy series by Christelle Dabos, and, amazingly enough, her first published work, where we follow a tough young woman, who can walk through mirrors and read the past of objects by touching them.
All I wish you now is that you find your own worlds and magic, mentors and maps, places where you feel at home, and journeys that teach you new ways to approach reality, with hope, humor, and tenderness.