The fiction of escape

Written by William Campbell

In sixth grade, I stumbled upon a red paperback with the image of three men around a glowing sword. The Sword of Shannara (I tried to find the original cover photo in public domain, but alas, it doesn’t exist). At the beginning of the story, Shea Ohmsford is approached by a mysterious figure named Allanon who reveals to him that he doesn’t actually belong with his family, and in fact, he’s a descendant of a powerful and heroic king who once defeated a dark sorcerer and saved the world. Unbeknownst to Shea, that dark sorcerer is back, and Shea is now the only person in the world who can stop him. Holed up in my bedroom, I followed Shea as he left his small farm, gathered his fellowship, found his magical macguffin…erm…sword, and improbably conquered an improbable enemy.

And I loved every minute of it.

At the time, I didn’t know that the Shannara books were borrowing heavily from the fantasy template that Tolkien created. All I knew was that it spoke to something within me that looked at my rural existence and wanted something more. Just as the mysterious figure was to Shea, Terry Brooks was to me.

Where C.S. Lewis laid the foundation of my literary life with Narnia, Brooks opened the wardrobe and ushered me inside. The next few years would find me devouring Robert Jordan, Anne McCaffrey, and Terry Goodkind. I wept when *spoilers* Garet Jax died. I was distraught at Moreta’s ride. And I longed to be as powerful as Nynaeve.

Soon I discovered Shea wasn’t just the descendent of a powerful king, but also a powerful literary trope – the male savior from the small rural community. In his family were Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Rand Al’thor and Richard Rahl. Sparrowhawk and Eragon.

All young boys from farms, hamlets, or islands who found themselves suddenly approached by a figure who would show them that their life was a lie, and that they were meant for so much more.

It’s interesting how widespread this trope became, but that’s something I’ll explore time. Right now I want to point to how it actually helped give me new insight in a time when I needed it.

Growing up, I felt genuinely and uniquely odd. I was this gay kid with an over-active imagination in rural Iowa. I was a male in generations of men who were farmers, yet I had no interest in pursuing that career. I liked band, music, and theater where others around me like football, hunting, and nascar. Eventually, college would serve its purpose and show me that I wasn’t all that unique, but at the time I felt like the odd little duckling. Finding Shea’s story was like water to a parched tongue. In her latest post to Un/Settled, my sister said, “When I was 18, I had been very happy to leave. One of the reasons I’d been attracted to art history as a field of study was because I saw it as a means to escape my rural background and move toward something I imagined to be more worldly.” I felt a similar experience with fantasy fiction. Sometimes I wanted so badly to escape, I would try to walk through closets with my eyes closed just hoping that I could make the back wall disappear out of sheer will. Or like Shea, maybe if just maybe there was a reason behind why I felt so different then it would all make sense. Some nights I would even pray (and yes this is embarrassing) that I would discover I was a mutant like the X-Men, and Professor X would come in and take me away from this mundane place.

No Professor X, Gandalf, or Allanon ever came for me, though, and I never stumbled upon some secret ability or secret world. But that didn’t stop me from creating worlds to live out those fantasies. In the summer time I would bike for hours dreaming up fight scenarios where I inevitably won at the last minute or the last punch. In the winter time I would create maps and outlines for my stories, even drawing up the places of past and future battles (the cover photo is from a map I drew when I was a kid!) Over time I became a writer and a world builder, not because I yearned to be a famous creative but because I wanted the adventure. When the fantasy didn’t come to me, I created it for myself.

I can’t help but see the irony in my writing now, which is about a book that pulls heavily from this childhood of “playing make believe” on a farm. I’m looking back to the place I wanted to leave find a new form of escapism.

Though it sounds horribly cheesy, I’ve realized that the legacy of books like the Sword of Shannara was perhaps more subversive than I had thought. For the last decade I’ve made a career out of working with college students in their leadership capacities and pointing them to the call of serving others and working for social justice. In a weird way, did I become my own (hopefully less mysterious) version of the stranger like Gandalf? Instead of the hero, am I acting out the role of the one who sees the potential in others and helping them unlock their skills to “change the world?”

The problem is, those characters usually die in the books… :-/

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