Made of Books: Ten Things I Learned From Reading Fantasy Novels

Banner: red fabric fluttering from an antler against a black background; text: celebrate the fantastic

Some of the first books I remember falling in love with were fantasy. I’d devoured AlannaThe Weirdstone of BrisingamenThe Chronicles of PrydainThe Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia by the time I was 8. So in honour of Wyrd and Wonder, I thought I’d review what I learned from reading fantasy…

I learned some important life lessons from reading fantasy books as a kid. Alanna taught me about menstruation years before my Mum got a chance (sorry Mum). Kit Kerr taught me where my buttocks were (AKA questions you ask in a very public place, only to realise from your Mum’s response that maybe you’d rather not have her show you the answer, actually – well played, Mum). Alan Garner made me uncomfortable in confined spaces (I’m still not over the Earldelving. I will never be over the Earldelving).

But fantasy had many other things to teach me. You could call these tropes (these are not my top ten favourite fantasy tropes, but I suddenly have an inkling about a future Top Ten Tuesday topic); but I like to think of them as sensible rules to live by in a fantasy world…

1) Never Trust The Guy With The Biggest Warband

Fantasy is frequently about the underdogs. Stark heroism benefits from unbeatable odds, which is maybe why the Guy With The Biggest Warband is often a closet villain. Or maybe Lloyd Alexander just got to me young (Lloyd Alexander got to me young. SPOILER (mouse over to read) I have a love-to-hate relationship with both Madoc and Pryderi, in spite of their practically identical motivations. Honestly, cookie cutter bad guys). There’s just something about having more warriors at your disposal than anyone else that seems to turn warlords into arrogant, self-interested, double-crossing bastards.

2) It’s Not About Your Birth, Stupid

Noble birth is not an indicator of noble worth. Farm boy to hero – or king – is a well-trodden trope from Tolkien (…god bless hobbits, sticking it to the Man for all of us) to the Chronicles of Prydain (yes, I’m back at Lloyd Alexander), dedicated to teaching us that Assistant Pigkeepers (for example) can be every bit as good a man – or a hero – as a Prince. It’s not who you are, it’s what you do that counts. Now there’s a lesson to live by.

3) It’s All About Your Birth, Stupid

The Chosen One is a recurring theme in fantasy literature – from King Arthur himself (if not before) to Star Wars (I once heard certain types of space opera described as “galactic fantasy” and given Star Wars revolves around space wizards, it seems entirely apt) and more recently Harry Potter. The idea that some people have a Special Destiny is a delightful if sometimes discouraging idea (hey, it could be you. Maybe it just isn’t your time yet. Clearly we need stories about pensioners discovering they are the Special One).

4) Men have a Special Relationship with their Swords

Ahem. Sword. I said sword, I meant sword. Although ‘stick them with the pointy end’ has suddenly never sounded so salacious. Arthur is made King because he can draw his sword (OH GOD I’D NEVER LOOKED FOR DOUBLE MEANINGS HERE WHAT HAVE I DONE); Aragorn gains legitimacy for wielding the reforged (and renamed) Narsil; Prydain opens with Taran trying to prove he’s all grown up by forging his own sword… and ends with the world nearly ending because Gwydion has his sword stolen. I don’t need to ask what it is about swords, do I? I clearly started in the right place after all. Sheesh. Don’t mock a man’s sword.

5) Anything You Can Do I Can Do… too

So many fantasy books when I was growing up revolved around heroes. Women were prizes or victims; so the ones who were given agency and arcs have always been closest to my heart. Some pretended to men to be taken seriously, and sometimes that worked out (hooray for Alanna) and sometimes it didn’t (because I’m not convinced by Éowyn; she still ends up settling down to be married, effectively abandoning her dreams and glory). Regardless, the rarer but much-loved fierce female characters reinforced the idea that it’s not just men that matter, and that’s a lesson I’ve very much taken to heart.

7) All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter

Quoting Tolkien is fair game this month, right? Right. I love the recurring idea that ‘that which seems fair, feels foul’ – whether it’s golden-tongued Sauron or a second-hand car salesman, it’s a useful thing to bear in mind. And it’s far more poetic than ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ (I’m going to keep doing that, sorry).

8) Never Underestimate A Farmer

Seriously, how bad-ass are fantasy farmers? Farmer Maggot, who sees off a Black Rider (and that’s without thinking the Rider wants his mushrooms); heroic, bald-pated Coll of Caer Dallben with his reluctant but unerring spear; Gowther Mossock of Alderley Edge who doesn’t believe in any of this nonsense but won’t let it hurt you – these craggy, no-nonsense men are far too used to getting up early, dealing with disappointment and just doing the work to be over-awed by, well, anything. A special, heart-felt call-out goes to John Rowlands for reasons best not discussed. Just go read the Dark is Rising sequence in full.

9) Be Careful What You Wish For / Always Look A Gift Prophecy In The Mouth

I’m conflating these two as they’re so closely related. Wishes seem like such an amazing opportunity until you read fantasy novels and see how horribly they can backfire. Prophecies seem like iron-clad promises – or dooms – until you examine the wording. Was fantasy first written by lawyers? It’s certainly taught me to look at the small print…

10) Never Insult A Fairy

They’re magical, they’re often whimsical and they’re probably capable of making your life a living hell. Be good to the Fair Folk. Help strangers in need (I mean, this is generally a good rule to live by, right? Just tenfold if they turn out to be Fae). Show respect to others (oh look, another way to be a decent human being). It’s almost like fairies exist to push us in the right direction.


…and I may be up to ten, but there’s one more:

Don’t Get Attached To The Cinnamon Roll

My poor, trampled heart. I refuse to take this lesson on board. I will always lose my heart to the cinnamon roll, and be distraught if anything happens to them. Fantasy authors are cruel and cold-hearted. You were warned. So was I, I just refuse to stop caring.


Have I missed any important lessons in my fantasy reading?