Need more magic in your life? Why we're still so drawn to fantasy worlds

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Francesca Brown
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With wars raging and Trump in the White House, is it any wonder we need a little magic? As the latest Harry Potter movie hits cinemas, Stylist explores our relationship with escapism

Words: Francesca Brown
Illustration: Justin Metz

It’s fair to say that this year has been less than excellent – David Bowie and Prince left us, Britain voted to leave the EU (much to 48.1% of the population’s dismay) and now Donald Trump is preparing to take his place as President of the United States of America. DONALD J TRUMP. General feeling: pretty low, if we’re honest.

So is it any surprise that we might choose to escape into fantasy worlds from time to time for a little light relief? A quick look at cinema listings or TV schedules reveals that the fantasy genre is now a modern day entertainment staple – no longer niche or geeky as it was once seen. In fact, against a backdrop of political and social turmoil over the last decade or so (roughly post 9/11), sales of fantasy books and films have soared to unprecedented levels. Take Harry Potter. It’s hard to believe that a children’s book about a boy wizard by an unknown author – sold in 1995 to Bloomsbury publishers for the lowly sum of £2,500 – went on to sell 450 million copies worldwide, create the world’s first billionaire author and generate £6 billion in film spin-offs. In August this year alone, the Harry Potter And The Cursed Child script became the fastest-selling book in the UK this decade. And when Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is released this week, it will become the 10th instalment in the Harry Potter mega franchise. But then, say cultural critics, that’s the enduring appeal – or magic – of the fantasy genre during uncertain times. Rather than the preserve of arrested adolescents as once depicted, fantastical fantasy worlds are now seen as a comforting form of escape for world-weary audiences of all types.

And of course, our current love of magic is not restricted to Hogwarts. The Marvel Comics films (featuring Norse gods and levitating corpses) make up the world’s most successful franchise (beating Harry by £1 billion). On TV, Game Of Thrones, American Horror Story and Stranger Things all have rabid fan bases and are heaped with critical acclaim.

Experts put this surge in popularity down to the parallels with our own lives, because what happens in these fantasy realms is pretty similar to what happens to us in real life (including the evil overlords and their obsession with building walls around everything). These realms serve as a reflective tool, shining back moments of social upheaval and political tumult at us – pretty much everything that’s happened in the last week then. “Fantasy often serves as political commentary on the real world,” says Professor Susanne Kord, a cultural historian and language expert at UCL. “The less possible it is to make that commentary in the real world, the more this function is shifted onto fiction.” This is why, for example, Harry Potter is read by some as a political or religious allegory (the ‘evil’ Voldemort and his desire for pureblood wizards and witches as Hitler; the sanctimonious and redemptive Harry as a risen Jesus).

These ‘magical’ realms simultaneously provide a comforting escape from the ills of the world while also taking inspiration from them. It’s a role that fantasy has played throughout history. The 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz, for example, switched between glorious Technicolor escapism and the harsh black and white of the period’s Great Depression; while Tolkien’s experiences of World War One inspired The Lord Of The Rings books featuring ‘the little people’s’ fight against a malevolent ruler. Of course there’s one crucial difference. Unlike the outcome of the bloody battle between, say, Clinton and Trump, our lives won’t be affected by what happens in these other realms. We’re safe to inhabit these worlds, ride the rollercoaster of good versus evil, but ultimately, escape unscathed.

Unsurprisingly, a survey in PS: Political Science And Politics earlier this year discovered that Harry Potter fans were more likely to dislike Donald Trump than those who hadn’t read the books (Rowling herself tweeted, “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad”). And in this political climate, fantasy’s foothold might be no bad thing. In 2014, an Italian professor named Loris Vezzali conducted a series of studies with Italian schoolchildren and their attitudes towards refugees. Half were asked to read a passage from Harry Potter where Draco (a pupil at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry for those who don’t know him) calls Hermione a ‘filthy little mudblood’. A week after the last session, the children who’d read the Draco passage showed more empathy towards refugees than they had previously. At a time when everyone could do with upping their kindness and compassion levels, perhaps a little bit of fantasy is exactly what the world needs right now.

And fantasy shows no signs of slowing down. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them – the latest film from the world of Harry Potter, about a wizard who unwittingly releases a load of magical creatures on Twenties New York – is only the first in a five-part film franchise, while Star Wars’ highly anticipated ‘war film’ Rogue One is released next month. Although the death knell has been sounded for Game Of Thrones in its current guise, creator George RR Martin has already teased that a prequel could be in the works.

Our relationship with magic and fantasy will seemingly continue as long as banks go bust, countries go to war and politicians make excruciatingly bad decisions (for centuries to come then, yeah?). But hopefully it will provide us with a few happy endings along the way too. Read on to discover how the symbiotic relationship between fact and fiction has played out over the years.

When we needed the magic most

The fantasy tales that helped us escape in times of crisis

1939: The Wizard Of Oz

Many critics have had theoretical fisticuffs over the original 1900 The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz book – with some claiming it’s an allegory about US politics at the time (with the tinman representing steelworkers and the scarecrow the farmers – who were both fighting for union rights). But the 1939 Judy Garland classic was released at the end of a tumultuous decade in global politics which featured The Great Depression (the biggest economic downturn in America’s history), a march towards mass production in the US, the rise of the far right in Europe and, ultimately, World War Two.

“Oz is probably one of the most overtly political films of its time,” says Professor Kord. “Drab grey tones are reserved for Kansas, which is impoverished and storm-ravaged. But then it turns out that even in fantasyland, not everything is right: evil witches, injustices, mourning and fear still exist.” The bright, technicolour Oz, she says, represents society’s fears about how America will handle modernity and an increasing sense of urbanisation and industrialisation.

1954: The Lord Of The Rings

Possibly the most famous fantasy book franchise in the world (before Harry Potter stole its, er, one ring to rule them all), JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy has sold 150 million copies since its publication, while Peter Jackson’s early 2000 films based on the series have made £4 billion in ticket sales. However, it was Tolkien’s experience in World War One in which he lost “all but one of [his] friends” that inspired the epic battles for Middle Earth (the books are seen by some as a form of anti-war protest). “The Dead Marshes owe something to northern France after the Battle of the Somme,” he explained in a moving 1960 letter.

But as the fantasy writer China Miéville wrote, when the books were first published, “Nothing much happened. This was the dress rehearsal for the revolution. That revolution came in earnest 10 years later, when the book, The Lord Of The Rings, was published in the US.”

Once officially released in America in 1965, the trilogy sold a quarter of a million copies in 10 months and stayed on the New York Times’ paperback list for 49 weeks (at a time when only five books appeared on it). US college campuses were flooded with copies and a new wave of hippy protest against the 20th century’s atomic bomb and Vietnam War cited its mysticism and focus on nature as inspiration for the “anti 20th century” movement. As a result, the graffiti ‘Frodo lives’ and ‘Gandalf for president’ appeared in subway stations across the US. If only…

1977: Star Wars

While Star Wars may look like an ode to the future, its roots remain firmly in the 20th century’s most defining moment: World War Two (stormtroopers and evil generals in knee-high boots, aerial dogfights between fighter pilots). But that was part of its appeal – it was a comforting case of good vs evil during a confusing decade that shook America, and the western world, to its foundations: a messy end to the Vietnam War (1954-75), the crisis of the Watergate scandal and the ongoing Cold War with Russia.

However, politically, its enduring legacy was to be stolen by President Ronald Reagan in the Eighties who used the films and their popularity for his own Cold War propaganda, calling his 1983 nuclear missile programme ‘Star Wars’ and referring to the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire’.

Either way, Star Wars provided total escapism: “If you watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will [a 1935 propaganda film made for the Nazi party] and the army-parade scenes in Star Wars side by side, they are identical. They ripped off Riefenstahl something fierce, in many of the scenes,” says Professor Kord. Yet, in this fantasy, the plucky band of all-American rebels is able to destroy the ‘evil empire’ of Nazism without any of the harsh realities of war thanks to its setting in “a galaxy far, far away”.

1997-2016: Harry Potter

Describing the politics behind Harry Potter, JK Rowling explains, “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world.”

The first film was released in November 2001 – a few weeks after 9/11 – and there are now countless online forums explaining how the films and books provided an escape from a world that had suddenly become much more violent and insecure. “Cinema always reflects the pervading zeitgeist and if you watch the Harry Potter films they become increasingly dark and gloomy,” says Dr Frances Pheasant-Kelly, author of Fantasy Film Post 9/11. “In the opening credits of the first film, it’s very frothy and magical but that timbre becomes much gloomier and blacker over the course of the films.” Given that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is set in a divided US society, it looks like the new franchise will remain bang on the social button.

1996-2016: Game Of Thrones

Religious zealots. A banking crisis. Climate change denial. A previously united kingdom splitting at the seams. What relevance could HBO’s behemoth show possibly have to modern audiences?

But it’s where GOT meets religious extremism that the comparisons become really clear. Take the Sparrows, a group of pious and often violent religious fanatics, for example. “The Sparrows storyline has got a lot of contemporary resonance,” Colin Talbot, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Manchester told the Radio Times earlier this year. “Thirty years ago few people were writing either fantasy politics or realistic politics that took religion very seriously. Most people believed religion was dying out and would never be a big force in politics again. They’ve been proved very badly wrong.”

Ironically, it’s actually history that author George RR Martin cites as his inspiration: the War Of The Roses (North vs South), Hadrian’s Wall (The Wall) and Joan of Arc (Brienne of Tarth) are just a few of the recognisable allusions throughout the books. It’s not that much comfort but it does seem like awful human behaviour has been much the same for centuries. No wonder we need a little magic now and then.

Photography: Allstar/Warner Bros., Rex, Sky/HBO


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Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown