7 min read

Becoming Gandalf

This essay was originally published by The Book Smugglers in January, 2015. My daughter is now six years old, and has a younger sister who's about to turn three, but I think the lessons here remain the same.

Art by Levente Peterffy

“Petite, her silver hair shining, Le Guin shrugged and grinned when Neil Gaiman placed the medal around her neck,” described The New Yorker of Ursula K. Le Guin when she accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters presented by the National Book Awards on November 19, 2014. Le Guin might be petite in stature, perhaps, but her words in acceptance of the achievement were anything but small.

“Hard times are coming,” she said, her voice ringing out over an awed crowd. . “We’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”

Le Guin is a legendary figure in science fiction and fantasy, author of many classics, such as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Wizard of Earthsea, and a champion for literature’s place in the every changing landscape of modern society — a “realist of a larger reality” is there ever was one. Her acceptance speech rang through the SFF community and beyond, a tolling bell of optimism. Through her ongoing insistence to use fiction as a lens through which we examine ourselves, Le Guin, and writers like her — poets, visionaries, realists of a larger reality — has continued to challenge speculative fiction to be a catalyst for positive change, a limitless medium that can offer hope to a world that obsesses over hopelessness.

Le Guin’s full acceptance speech is available on YouTube, and is mandatory viewing for anyone who worries at those hard times ahead.

In October, my wife and I welcomed our first child. It was, without question, the most defining and important day in my life since the day I was first introduced to my future-wife outside the gymnasium in high school. Having a child changes you. That day, I stepped from a path of selfish self-preservation, to one of nurturing father, teacher, and protector. My wife and I are no longer Frodo and Samwise. We’re Gandalf.

“Hard times are coming.”

Le Guin spoke of the challenges that we will face as a global society in the coming years and decades — sociological issues that threaten to crush us under the weight of our past mistakes. However, on a smaller scale, that same phrase applies to every new child born. My daughter is going to be a growing up in a world that is at once larger and smaller than it’s ever been before, a world that rushes by faster than a speeding bullet, inundates us all in a tidal wave of information and societal pressures. My wife and I will be there to guide her through these challenges, but, like Gandalf leaving Bilbo and the dwarves under the boughs of Fangorn, there are going to be moments when we have to send her off into the wilderness alone.When those moments come, it’s important that we know we’ve raised a child who understands how to face the challenges along the way.

We do not, however, have to do it alone.

Always to me, since I was first introduced to science fiction and fantasy by my mother, reading has been a safe place, somewhere that I could fall away from the troubles of daily life, somewhere that I could find solace and companionship no matter the circumstances. Reading, and particularly the vast worlds imagined by best genre authors, is always an answer, because books hold the answers to all questions. When imagination is allowed to run wild, to explore limitless boundaries, then problems do not become dead ends, they are puzzles to be solved.

This is the power that Le Guin points to when she calls upon “realists of a larger reality” to stand tall, to take an aggressive step ahead of the difficulties that we face as a society, as families, as individuals. We’re struggling to understand how we must change in the face of new methods of communication to ensure that the world is safer tomorrow than it was yesterday. We must not be limited by the world as we believe it is, but inspired by the world as we believe it can be. This is the lesson taught to me when my mother introduced me to science fiction and fantasy, and a lesson that I hope to teach to my daughter in turn.

The world can be a scary place. It can be a very scary place for women. My daughter will struggle against sexism in her lifetime. She already has to wade through the endless piles of pink sleepers and onesies that proclaim her “Daddy’s Little Princess” or a “Heartbreaker” or that she’s “Not Allowed to Date. Ever.” She will be denied opportunity because of her gender. Things will be decided for her. She will have to fight harder than the boys she grows up alongside. She will have to fight harder than I had to. This is the world where she will grow up. And yet, she will still be more privileged than billions of other people around the world and throughout history, just by the luck of being born where and when she was.

Le Guin’s “realists of a larger reality” remain an integral asset in introducing my daughter to this world, They will help her recognize the power she has to reach out and mould the world around her. Some might categorize science fiction and fantasy fandom as a place full of outcasts, those who live at the fringes, are not accepted by society at large. People who run to novels to escape a world they don’t understand. Instead, I believe this fandom is comprised of Le Guin’s “realists of a larger reality,” those who do not accept society as unmouldable or absolute. As curators of the fantastic, the endless boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, we — readers, writers, creators — hold open the door to better worlds, gateways into a future that is better than our past.

This is especially true in a world where names like John Chu, Ann Leckie, and Sofia Samartar can clean up at the Hugo Awards, a scene that has been dominated by a predominantly white male audience for decades. A world where Anita Sarkeesian can find strength in her supporters that overwhelms the vitriol of the racist and hateful people that act violently against her important message. We must find the light Aristotle spoke of in the opportunities created by the Chus and Sarkeesians of the world.

I entered science fiction and fantasy fandom around the time I was three years old. I don’t remember the book anymore. Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, perhaps. Or, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. Whatever it was, I was a fan for life afterwards. When I became aware of the fandom, in the early- to mid-2000s, alongside the first popular science fiction and fantasy websites and blogs, I believed that it was special because the community was full of so many other people like me. In the intervening years since, I’ve discovered that the beauty of our fandom is not only that there are people like me — those who share my interests, passions, problems, worldviews — but because I’ve discovered so many other people not like me — those who can show me new ways to understand the world; new paths towards empathy, and generosity; new borders of an imagination that I would never otherwise understand.

This fandom — all of us, who together make up the whole, whether a casual reader, or a many-times published award-winning author — has been inspired by the ideas woven before our eyes by visionary creators. We would not expect of genre literature what we do if we had not been shaped by it, had not been touched by its ability to bend the rules of nature, society, and belief. We have all found strength in fiction to overcome an issue that harries us in the ‘real world.’

It is unusual while reading science fiction and fantasy to encounter somebody facing exactly the same type of situation that troubles you in real life. Usurping thrones from tyranical overlords, delving depths for lost treasures, or discovering a hidden magic deep within you all make for wonderful, adventurous stories, but, let’s be honest here, are unlikely to provide direct parallels to life as a student struggling with math, or a desk jockey looking to escape to a new career, or someone dealing with the loss of a loved one. But, as you and I know, if you look sideways at that heroic usurper, the journey to find that lost treasure, and the responsibility that comes along with the hidden magic, shift your perspective a quarter turn to the fantastic (to steal a phrase from Rob Wiersema) and those fantastic adventures become lenses through which we can learn lessons of humility, strength, passion, and love.

So when my daughter comes home from school with a skinned knee, is bullied, or struggles with school, my wife and I will be there for her. I’ll remember the courage I learned from Wil Ohmsford as he faced down the terror of the Reaper in Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara. With that courage, I’ll teach her to understand that we fall down so that we can learn to get back up. We’ll remember Samwise carrying Frodo up the slope of Mount Doom, Ellen Ripley facing down the Xenomorph aboard the Nostromo, or Chihiro Ogino uncovering Yubaba’s conniving ways and freeing her parents from their curse.

We’ll remember these lessons I learned, and the ways in which we learned them by watching ordinary people do heroic things, and heroic people do ordinary things. Along the way, my daughter will learn her own lessons, and find perspective through the wise and true words of her favourite authors. My mother introduced me to this world that accepts no excuses, that opens its arms to all who want to love it, and all who need it to love them back. Now, as a father, I dearly look forward to being able to introduce my own daughter to the wonders and many lessons made possible by the boundless imagination of science fiction and fantasy writers, and to help her become one of Le Guin’s “realists of a larger reality.” Because she, like every other person born to this planet, has an opportunity to make tomorrow a better and safer day than today.

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