WHY READING FANTASY LITERATURE WILL MAKE YOUR MANHOOD BIGGER

Posted: 08/22/2012 in Authors, Fiction, Masculinity, Peter S. Beagle, Robin McKinley, Women

When I was young, it was a big deal to have my own money. I’d like to think that it still is and that somehow, these very young children carrying around lots of cash is just the by-product of the affluent circles in which I travel, but that’s off-point. Anyway – pocket full of cash. My family and I took a weekend trip somewhere in the highlands of North Carolina and we stopped in this small town. There was a bookshop there and I went in and bought my very first book. I’d read other books, sure, but this was the first that I went in and bought with my own money of my own choosing.

There’s a great line from Starship Troopers in which a teacher says, “Figuring things out for yourself is about the only freedom we really have.” (paraphrased from memory) And that’s true, and that’s why that moment was so memorable to me. I made the choice. It was money that I earned (as much as a nine-year-old can earn money) and I made the transaction with the vendor. It was part of the self that was developing within me. The book was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

Peter is one of my heroes. He’s written more than the Last Unicorn, and in fact, despite the massive popularity of the Last Unicorn, was largely screwed out of the profits that came from it and its subsequent film adaptation by Rankin-Bass. (You can find out more about the whole thing and Beagle in general by clicking your heels together twice and smacking BAZINGA with your mouse.)

The Last Unicorn turned out to be a great book. The interactions between male and female characters were both stereotypical and advanced, helping people like me form ideas on how women and men should interact. Not just from a heroic standpoint, but from an emotional one. And truly, understanding our emotions as men is one of the ways we become our strongest. We, men, are typically stronger than women physically. With that, comes an understanding that true strength means knowing when that strength should be held back rather than flaunted. I have found that the characters in fantasy books, really compelling books, advance that sense of strength not just in the face of adversity but in the face of relationships as well. The strongest act is that which lifts another up.

Unicorn was one of the first of many books that would challenge my perceptions of what it meant to be a man and how that related to women. Not just women in the context of  “the fairer sex,” but women as equals. I’m sure it helped that I had a mother who worked in a management role as I was growing up because I never really saw my parents in competition with one another. But it was the fantasy worlds that involved maidens and dragons and uppity maidens and knights and sultry maidens and wizards that really formed my concepts of who I wanted to become in the real world. We can say what we like about the “geek” culture, but you will generally find more evolved people there. Maybe not socially, but then, maybe more socially developed than we suspect. While the recent uptick in misogyny among gamers related to console video games has tainted the geek culture, those of us who still haunt gaming and pop culture conventions are a breed apart from those fools. Its the story, not the combat, that we relish. And in the story are found the clues to our concepts of masculinity and femininity.

Given the recent national attention on rape, it seems to me that most of us need to read the book Deerskin by Robin McKinley. Not only is it great fantasy literature, but its an intriguing look to understand the horror of physical and sexual violence.

I’m not into summarizing plots, but they key point here is the violation of a young woman  that forces her out into a fantasy world. It’s truly an ethereal read, and the concepts are all presented from her viewpoint – thus giving the reader a greater insight into the subject of interpersonal violence. I know that many male writers have put this kind of thing down in their books, but it takes a female writer to truly express the full measure of challenges presented in the female psyche. And we, as manly men, would do ourselves great favor by reading these. 

I’m not saying that fantasy literature will save the planet. But it might. As we look at science fiction and see the world created in Star Trek where the planet managed to conquer most crime, poverty, hunger and other social ills, we see that at the heart of every great story is the will to be better human beings. And that, my friends, is what manhood is all about.

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