One thing that this lockdown has made clearer than ever before is that, by and large, human beings hate being caged. It doesn’t really matter what your box looks like, where it is or how soft the walls are – given enough time, any palace can start to feel like a prison. To make matters worse, many of us are trapped with people that make us want to cover ourselves in honey and run naked into a room full of murder hornets.
While poor company obviously isn’t ideal, I personally feel even worse for those who’ve found themselves alone at the moment. Humans are social animals; we’ve evolved to live in large, complex social groups not limited to our own kin, made possible by adaptations like complex language and large brains. With so much of our lives focused around cooperation and social interactions, being kept at a distance from one another can feel inherently unnatural. While poor company obviously isn’t ideal, I personally feel even worse for those who’ve found themselves alone at the moment. Humans are social animals; we’ve evolved to live in large, complex social groups not limited to our own kin, made possible by adaptations like complex language and large brains. With so much of our lives focused around cooperation and social interactions, being kept at a distance from one another can feel inherently unnatural.
"Lacking social connections has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns, raise blood pressure and is considered to be as damaging to our health as 15 cigarettes a day."
So, whether we’re physically isolated or stuck with people who make us feel alone, loneliness is a very real and serious health hazard that can affect just about anyone. Lacking social connections has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns, raise blood pressure and is considered to be as damaging to our health as 15 cigarettes a day. Furthermore, loneliness is a major risk factor for conditions like depression or anxiety and has been shown to exacerbate the effects of a wide variety of mental health disorders. It can lead to catastrophic consequences, with loneliness and low social interaction being predictive of suicide in later life. The negative impacts of loneliness on our health are clear no matter the root cause of our isolation - be that choice or circumstances outside our control.
But what can we do? Are we totally helpless? Doomed to fall out of touch with each other and, after slowly shrinking into the shells of ourselves, eventually cease to feel anything real ever again? No, absolutely not. That’s where Fantasy comes in. No, not football; I’m talking grown-up make-believe - the more exquisitely nerdy the better.
I’m talking books with a strange, impossible map in the front and an appendix of races, characters and languages in the back. I’m talking twenty–sided dice; I’m talking Dungeons and I’m talking Dragons. I’m talking ancient magic sowed deep in the earth and technology beyond your wildest dreams. Laser swords and space wizards, epic quests laid out by smiling old men with long beards and half–moon spectacles. I’m talking gritty, harsh stories with more twists and turns than a roller coaster off the rails. I'm talking Good versus Evil, Light versus Dark. Knights in shining armour standing hopeful against impossible odds.
I’m talking witty, clever princesses and quippy banter between timeless foes. About Ents and giant sandworms, handsome sparkly vampires and very strong French men. I’m talking big blue telephone boxes and sonic screwdrivers. I’m talking destiny, seized by the brave or thrust upon the unprepared: icons like Taco, Merl and Magnus; Luke and Leia; Geralt and Ciri; Drizzt and Artemis; Moonshine and Hardwon; Sabriel and Lirael; Vin and Kelsier; Legolas and Gimli; Aragorn and Arwen; Kvothe and Denna, Ged and Tenar, Arthur and Merlin. Come on. You know the drill by now. Once upon a time. The good stuff. The business.
"These worlds...offer a real chance to feel connected to something more than just a voice on a phone or a face on a screen."
Truly, these things have never been of more value to us. Chemically speaking, there’s no difference between the emotions we feel in response to words on a page, or as a character in a role–playing game, and the emotions we feel in response to our everyday lives.
As the author and psychiatrist Keith Oatley puts it “the emotions that you experience as you breathe life into a story are related to the characters, but they are not the characters’ emotions. They are yours.” So, now, in a time where life has started to feel claustrophobic, Fantasy lets us get out of the box. The human brain’s remarkable ability for mental time travel and free thought quickly allows us to just be somewhere different. All it needs is a little inspiration.
What kind of different you ask? Well, that’s pretty much totally up to you. There are settings and stories written by professionals who’ve spent lifetimes devoted to designing worlds that exist nowhere but in our own heads. Think Pratchett and Discworld, Sanderson and the Cosmere, Mercer and Tal’Dorei, Mcaffrey and Pern, King and the Dark tower, Rowling and Hogwarts, Herbert and Arrakis. Or if you’d rather a more active experience, whole solar systems can be made up by you and a few friends over a Zoom meeting once a week – armed with nothing more than a few books, some dice and a decent internet connection. I get that this sort of thing really might not be your cup of tea, but these are strange times and they call for even stranger measures. Be careful though, you really might just end up enjoying yourself.
These worlds don’t just offer an opportunity to escape our current situation – if we let them, they offer a real chance to feel connected to something more than just a voice on a phone or a face on a screen. It is so easy to cheapen Fantasy by dismissing it as childish or odd. All I’d say to that is that in the last two months of lockdown, I haven’t laughed harder or cried more deeply than when I’ve been steeped in somewhere totally imaginary. If you’ve got a case of the munchies that only real emotion can fill, fantasy of any flavour might help with the hunger; and if the only barrier to entry is a misplaced sense of shame, what have you got to lose?