We, as (presumably) humans, working our way through the workaday world with its taxes and wars and dishes that need to be washed or else there’s going to be science in the kitchen….
We want out. You know it, we know it, and big famous writers know it, too. This is why so many of them craft vastly detailed worlds which could never exist, full of people who could never exist, and then open the doors wide to the rest of us.
Who hasn’t thought of shooting out the eyes of the deserving with an Elven bow? Or of casting a bitching firestorm spell which takes out all your enemies in one crispy fwoosh? Or, hell, kicking back with some applejack and some seriously mellow….uh. Pipeweed? We’ve all been there. But you should actually be really, really glad you haven’t been there at all.
1. Bad Things Happen To Good People. Like, Even More Than Usual.
Sure, we all know about the ancestral homes being destroyed, and the bosom companions being tragically-but-not-too-messily killed on the epic journey, and the shocking betrayals, and the terrible monsters who all want to eat you, and the epic journey itself being kind of ass—
Are you listening? No?
Well, let’s take George R. R. Martin’s unfinished series A Song of Ice and Fire. You’ve got your immense and fascinating world full of exciting people and tantalizing powers and frightening creatures—dun dun dun—from beyond the grave.
And you’ve got the upright, moral, mostly likable central family being, in one case quite literally, broken to messy bits. You’ve got your crippling falls, your unjust imprisonment, your terrible beatings, your life sentence of fear and pain and endless labor. Hell, you even have a dead puppy.
Do you want your puppy to die? Do you?
Not a good person? Well, you’re screwed, too. One guy gets his hand chopped off. Another gets molten gold poured down his screaming throat. People lose teeth—and not in the dentist way. Assassins get bound to incredibly violent little girls. Soup is used in ways I simply cannot recommend. Seriously, there’s just no good in fantasy.
And then there’s the fact that—
2. You’re Probably Not Going To Get Laid For A Long, Long Time.
Now, we know, we know, there’s such a thing as imagination, and pants—happying things happening off-screen, but let’s get real, people:
Epic journeys? Are epic.
Meaning they have a lot of miles, or in the parlance of the genre, leagues in them.
Meaning they take a long, long time.
Tolkien’s Fellowship may have only lasted a few months, and Frodo’s journey only a little less than a year (officially, and, no, we don’t buy it, either), but there was still the journey back home for everyone, and the clean-up process, and the wedding planning.
Yes, wedding planning. If you’re like most people, you get uncomfortable when you hear the Bridezilla theme music. How in Sauron’s name do you think you’ll feel when an elf asks you to be patient because everything has to be just right? The most famous couple in the The Lord of the Rings was Aragorn the mortal man and Arwen the elf. On their wedding day, Aragorn was ninety and Arwen was over three thousand years old. The two of them had been engaged for over thirty years.
Remember, kids: Old-school fantasies loved them some virgin brides. You do, too, don’t you?
3. And You Think Religion Causes You Problems On Earth?
You can’t swing a dead cleric without hitting a novel in which the Church, whichever Church it happens to be, has seized control of entire continents. Hell, entire races.
To put that in perspective, take a moment and think of the worst, most unjustly repressive church you know and imagine having to be a member of it from the time of your birth until you finally kick. Your entire family are members. All of your friends are members. That cute boy with the glasses? A member. That chick from the other side of the world who trades quilting patterns with your best friend? A member. You can leave the church just as soon as you want to…so long as you also leave your entire species behind, too.
That’s what happens with Drizzt Do’Urden, from R.A. Salvatore’s many popular novels set in the Forgotten Realms campaign universe, when he decides he has enough of the species-wide Lolth worship. For those of you not familiar with Lolth, she’s a bloodthirsty, evil spider goddess who commands her subjects not only to hunt down and sacrifice members of other sentient species, but also to sacrifice members of their own families to her—the more torturously, the better. So, you know, go Drizzt! He had the courage of his convictions, and when it came right down to it, he left.
His entire species.
Except for the ones who decided to hunt him down for his apostasy. Yeah, that’s a thing.
Good luck with that, buddy.
4.You’re Probably Going To Become A Horrible Person.
Some people think that being dropped into a fantasy realm is an excellent excuse to immediately enrich themselves by hook or by crook. Others use it as an excuse to make war on innocents, and ravish the first comely lass they spot. We’ve all read stories in which people choose the second option, and tend to pat ourselves on the back for not being like that. Odds are if you’re put in a world of fantasy, you are not going to be a better person for it. By the time you get home—if you get home—you may not even recognize yourself. And other people might not, either.
Let’s kick it old-school, people: Lemuel Gulliver, of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, is the hero of arguably the first fantasy novel written in the English language. He begins his adventures as a cheerfully optimistic young man. He’s happily married and considers his employment as a seafaring surgeon a life of pleasant adventure.
After Gulliver thinks he’s made friends with the Lilliputians, he makes the mistake of refusing to help them invade and conquer their neighbors. For this crime he is charged with treason and sentenced, by the tiny conquistadors, to have his eyes put out and starved to death. The Brobdingnagians, the giant inhabitants of his next would-be sanctuary, place him in his very own freakshow and make him perform so much he nearly dies. He does find a nearly perfect society among the Houyhnhnms, nature worshipping horses, but then he’s exiled by them simply for having a human shape. And it’s not just the fantastic beings he’s the first European to meet who break him down. Over the course of the novel, he’s marooned, attacked by pirates, and mutinied against. After each voyage he finds himself increasingly cynical until even his own family sickens him.
Nobody wants to grow up to be the recluse who hates other humans so much that they spend their days chatting up horses—or, you know, their fifty or sixty cats—and being considered crazy by members of their own species.
Did we mention that no one’s going to believe you about the talking horses? Because they so totally won’t.
5. You’re Probably Going To Die. And So Are All Your Friends. Seriously. All Of You.
What’s an epic fantasy without epic battles against epic enemies with epic numbers?
A war is even more epic than a battle, because wars have lots of battles. And since evil is attractive (the leather alone!), it’s completely understandable that the bad guys may have a lot more soldiers. Really powerful soldiers, even.
Not everyone is gonna survive these battles.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Deadhouse Gates, the second book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Humans die. Shapeshifters die. Wizards die. Women die. Children die. And, because Erikson’s apparently an…egalitarian, gods and immortals die.
One of the plot points of the book is that due to an uprising, a collection of refugees must be led by a small, hard-bitten force of soldiers across the length of a country in order to reach the one safe place in the world. Early in the journey, several wounded soldiers are sent ahead by boat.
Every last one of the rest dies. Every. Last. One.
They’re hounded by enemy soldiers. They’re forced to ration food and water until they starve or drop from thirst. And when, after all their suffering, the survivors make it to their destination, hundreds die within sight of the city they were trying to reach. Excuse me, within bowshot of the city they were trying to reach.
Sure, you might make it to the afterlife, or get resurrected, or even skip gaily past death into godhood (we’re almost sure that’s how it works), but you’re still not safe. Ghosts die.
Yeah, we said it. You step into fantasy, and you’re not even safe as a ghost.
Here, have our copy of Goodnight, Moon. Why don’t you start over again?