To an outsider, fantasy literature may seem strangely bloodthirsty. For whether the story involves an epic war or an adventurous quest or anything in between, a fantasy narrative almost invariably involve hacking things with swords (or blowing them up with magic). While it is in fact quite possible to place a story in a fantasy setting without also invoking warfare/combat (as in several of the short stories in Almost to Adulthood), such stories are few and far between in the genre as a whole. One might naturally ask why this is or has to be the case.

Perhaps the “sword and sorcery” and “knights and dragons” concepts of fantasy are so ingrained in our initial association of fantasy that it predominates simply as a matter of custom. But that should not excuse us from wondering why a custom should come to be, or remain so popular. And as to that popularity I do have a theory (which, I shall admit up front, is from a decidedly male perspective; therefore I do wish to specifically invite female readers to share their own perspectives in the comments).

I believe that combat in fantasy resonates with a deep part of our human nature that wishes to see and participate in the triumph in battle of good over evil. Men in particular, as part of their natures, are wired to fight; more specifically, I think it is a part of their spiritual makeup to be watchful, willing, and able to do combat against evil—though alas! fallen/sinful man easily re-interprets this native battle-instinct as a program for fighting not against evil, but against whatever is “Other.” Nevertheless, people, and men particularly, respond favorably to stories in both print and movies that feature the combat triumph of good guys versus bad guys (even while the sophisticates deplore this “simplistic” native worldview).

I believe further that vicarious participation in the triumph of good over evil through fantasy is of particular medicinal value to people in a confused world where good and evil are not so clear. In our modern world, we easily and frequently feel powerless against the complex and often undefined evils that threaten us and our societies; and we feel doubly powerless that even when we can identify a specific instance of evil (such as the bully beating us up on the playground, or, when we are older, the bully beating up our child at school while we must be away at work), we are commanded to do nothing physical about it (the child, for example, is taught at school that fighting is always wrong; and the adult would be in great legal trouble if they stooped to beat up their child’s enemy). So we want to fight evil, but so often, we can’t. We must instead figure out merely how to endure it.

But open up that fantasy story and we can vicariously participate in this important combat. We are elevated from our powerlessness to an incarnation of power (in some stories, this elevation may itself be a major journey, involving much character development—which we can also participate in). We are delivered from our confusion to a vision of clarity. And we are promoted from our victim-hood at the hands of evil to a position of judgment (in both the discerning and executive senses of the word) over it.

Now do all fantasy stories purposely exploit this yearning? Certainly not. Writers are as fallen and imperfect as readers, and I think many times we create things without being much aware of what elements have gone into their creation. Therefore many stories do this accidentally, or imperfectly, or even with some inversion of values on the part of the writer; but I think that among the larger body of humanity, this is a native element in our enjoyment and production of such stories.

Naturally, when I wrote my own novel,The Servant and the Scepter, I made an effort to make good use of this concept. (So if what I’ve written here really makes sense to you, maybe you’d like to check it out!) But I do understand that not everybody is as excited about this concept as I am. In any case, I invite you to share some of your own observations in the comments below.