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Katie Mohar


Fantasy Fiction is for Everyone

Sep 13

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Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.

Fantasy Fiction is for Everyone. Castle.
Image credit: Joshua Kettle on Unsplash

Fantasy fiction is not just for children. Fairyland is the realm of imagination, innovation, and invention—three tools that adults and children alike need to thrive and succeed.

In last month’s post, I discussed research that supports exposing kids to imaginative worlds. Today, I’ll examine additional research suggesting that everyone, including adults, stands to benefit from reading imaginative genres like fantasy.

Reading books of any genre for any reason is not enough to reap the most rewards. Research suggests that it is necessary to enjoy the books we read and to read for intrinsic motivations (more on this below). Additionally, genre matters. Non-fiction readers do not gain the same cognitive benefits as fiction readers.

Don’t let life pass you by without reading high-quality fantasy. Here’s why…

Cognitive Benefits of Fantasy Fiction

Let’s look at a recent study led by Sandra Martin-Chang of Concordia University in Canada. This study of young adult readers found that “reading enjoyment” is a predictor of cognitive benefits like strong verbal abilities.

Young adults are an interesting population to study because it is during this time of life that readers start exercising more choice. (This study defined young adulthood as the span between the upper teenage years into the early 30s.) Free from external mandates like school assignments, young adults control their reading habits, making this study’s findings more applicable to the larger adult population than many previous studies focusing on children.

Researchers found that young adults tested significantly higher in verbal abilities when they read for intrinsic enjoyment, described by the study as: “to relax, to be entertained, to become immersed in other worlds, and to experience emotions of other characters.” Most fascinating, adult readers achieved intrinsic enjoyment primarily through reading fiction genres. In contrast, reading non-fiction was associated with less intrinsic enjoyment and weaker verbal abilities.

Fantasy excels at taking readers on entertaining journeys through immersive, imaginary worlds. In light of this research, fantasy fiction is worthy of everyone’s consideration, especially at a time when fewer American adults are reading for leisure and those who do often opt for non-fiction.

To be clear, non-fiction has a place on every reader’s bookshelf. But every reader should also strive to enjoy fiction in order to gain the greatest cognitive rewards from reading.

Emotional Benefits of Fantasy Fiction

German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin writes in his 1955 essay “The Storyteller” that there is something special about hearing a story, especially an epic or fairy tale, versus receiving lifeless facts, information or news.

Unlike information and news, which is quickly-outdated and often drenched in personal biases, Benjamin maintains that a good story always delivers a dose of universal wisdom.

“In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. … A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller; even a man reading one shares this companionship.”

—Walter Benjamin

Adults sometimes dismiss fiction by saying, “I don’t have time for that.” A better question may be, can anyone afford to avoid fiction? Because fiction is uniquely equipped to help humans of all ages thrive and grow emotionally.

Fiction helps us process difficult questions for which there are no completely satisfying answers, such as: Why is there evil and suffering in the world? Philosophy and theology offer some answers for why evil exists and hope for the future, yet these answers do not eradicate evil or suffering in the present.

Reading fantasy—and other fictional genres—is a healing balm in an unjust world. When we read fiction we are communing with another human being, an author, who is holding up a mirror and saying: I see what you see. Keep hope. Truth and goodness will win in the end.

Fantasy is like music, expressing what ordinary words cannot say with emotional truth, beauty and grace.

Great Fantasy Helps Heal Trauma

Fantasy’s gift to the world is helping readers heal and thrive in the face of trauma. Statistically, we will all go through at least one traumatic period in our lifetime. During tough times, fantasy is there for us like a loyal friend.

“Most of us will experience at least one trauma in our lifetime that could lead to PTSD. … About 6 out of every 100 people (or 6% of the U.S. population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.” 

—National Center for PTSD

There are two reasons why fantasy fiction helps readers heal from trauma. First, because many of the best fantasy writers had first-hand experience with trauma—and their life informed their writing. Second, reading high-quality fantasy fiction helps the mind completely relax and release all worry, similar to athletes experiencing a calming, euphoric flow when they are in “the zone.”

J. R. R. Tolkien’s storytelling was shaped by trauma he endured through the early death of his parents and by serving in World War I. Fantasy authors like Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), P. L. Travers (Mary Poppins), Roald Dahl (Matilda), and J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter) each experienced trauma before writing fantasy.

One reason why these authors continue to resonate with modern readers is because the fantasy writer’s job is the opposite of what it seems, throwing a fireworks show. If fantasy fiction’s primary appeal were magical pyrotechnics, it would have gone extinct long ago, bowing its noble head in deference to the video game.

We all crave entertainment. Fantasy fiction and video games both deliver entertainment. We also crave compassion, wisdom and understanding. Technology is ever-changing. Human nature never changes. We all need stories from storytellers who understand human nature, and it is here that truly great creators of fantasy reign supreme over most, if not all, other forms of entertainment.

Trauma is uniquely educational for a storyteller because trauma is not a challenge that the writer can choose, like running a marathon or climbing Denali. Harder still, there is no clear finish line or summit. Trauma is so individual that, unlike completing a marathon, there is no proven path to follow. Those who battle trauma often wage their fight alone, in darkness.

“…speaking for myself as a child, I can only say that a liking for fairy-stories was not a dominant characteristic of early taste. … A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.”

—J. R. R. Tolkien

The above quote is from Tolkien’s 1939 lecture, “Fairy-Stories.” This quote from Tolkien should fascinate any adult who is apprehensive of imaginative fiction. Here, Tolkien, widely considered the grandfather of fantasy, openly admits that fantasy did not interest him in childhood.

Then, Tolkien grows up. No longer a boy, but a man, he fights in the trenches of World War I. He faces death and survives while several of his best friends are killed. And it is this first-hand experience with horrific trauma that Tolkien credits for awakening his taste for fantasy.

Tolkien’s “taste” for fantasy grew into a passion, defining his entire literary output. Emerging from the trauma of war a changed man, Tolkien penned his Lord of the Rings trilogy. He wrote battle scenes that are epic for showing the horror of war, the inglorious violence of men spearing each other to death because their leaders are too proud to broker peace.

By giving the reader a source of “recovery,” Tolkien says fantasy is “prophylactic against loss.” And he would know. Loss of life, limb and peace is the unholy fruit of war.

Life brings loss to us all and we need a way to recover. For this reason, Tolkien insists that a quality fantasy story needs a happy ending, giving readers a glimpse of true joy. I tend to agree. A magical story that ends on a completely depressing, warring note is likely incapable of doing the one thing fantasy can do better than any other art form: uplift.

If you have not yet found a fantasy book that you enjoy, keep looking. There is a fantasy out there for you. It may even be a “children’s fantasy book.” The best books for children are those capable of also moving adults.

“For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

A growing body of research supports the benefits of exposing children to imaginative literature. I hope this article inspires all adults to enjoy reading fantasy in their leisure time. Especially parents, grandparents, and caregivers. Because when a child sees an adult reading for pleasure, they will be inspired to fall in love with reading.

References and Further Reading

  • Martin-Chang, S., Kozak, S., Levesque, K.C. et al. What’s your pleasure? exploring the predictors of leisure reading for fiction and nonfiction. Read Writ 34, 1387–1414 (2021). 
  • National Center for PTSD (
  • Image credit of woman near lake: Nadi Whatisdelirium via Unsplash
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote is from her 1972 National Book Award Acceptance Speech