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Why fantasy matters

Shard of Glass | Tuesday, April 10, 2012

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” – G. K. Chesterton

It is easy to get a sense of isolation as you enter through the main gate into the Terezín concentration camp outside of Prague. Many would leave Terezín after an extended period, being transported eastward, and many would perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. If they stayed in Terezín, many would die of disease.

Although isolated, the children of the ghetto were able to draw. This was part of the clandestine schooling system within the ghetto. The world in which these children found themselves was chaotic – a vast deviation from what they had been used to, but also absurd. It was a town-like holding cell in the midst of a horrendous era. But in this absurd world, they drew.

Doris Zdekauerová drew herself as a princess – a beautiful, golden-haired princess with red lips and a bow on her dress. But the rest of the surrounding paper is colored black, perfectly outlining the dress. Beyond the blackness emerges a dragon with green scales, bright colored wings, a myriad of claws and a protruding mouth hurling flames at the frightened princess. I can imagine that Doris was asked to draw how she saw herself at that moment. She drew herself as a princess, as she was in real life, being threatened by the evil of the dragon. But as she transported from reality to fantasy, she saw a world where good conquered evil dragons. She knew that dragons existed, for they were the reason of her incarceration. She needed to know that the dragons could be defeated. So she entered the realm of fantasy.

So what can we make of fairy tales? What can we make of fantasy?

We oftentimes seem to merge fantasy and reality, perhaps making the reality easier to handle. But instead of merging one fully with the other, we must walk, as Doris did, on the line where fantasy and reality begin to blend. It is on that line, the dawn of one and the dusk of the other, we must tread, because hope lives there.

Fantasy’s interaction with reality does not create escapist hopes, nor is “hope” itself escapist. Fantasy comes from our imagination and the desire to do more, to see more, to feel more or to be more. Fantasy does not neglect reality, as escapist notions do, but instead, fully integrates our desires into our present contexts, and gives us the hope of fulfillment. Whether we are condemned to push a rock up a hill continuously, like Sisyphus, or to shout cries of justice into the deaf and irreverent night, we do so with the hope that we can change things. And sometimes, in fact, many times, we can.

Sometimes that hope creates and facilitates realities we never thought possible. In many cases, these hopes give us the courage to do things we would not otherwise do, to believe in the possibility of things we might not otherwise believe or to appreciate those things we sometimes take for granted. Hope can keep us sane, whether it is hope for tomorrow, for a few years down the road or for a lifetime.

We do well to remember Andy Dufresne’s aphorism in “Shawshank Redemption,” “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” Hope can lead us to defy expectations, as Andy did in Shawshank. Hope can leave a legacy, as Harvey Milk did in San Francisco. Hope can move millions, as the Tunisian success inspired another fifteen million to topple their dictator. Hope can redeem the world, as we have yet to see.

Fantasy is invaluable because it creates a sense of certainty for an uncertain future. Hope that we gain from fantasy broadens our perspectives, keeping us grounded in reality but still looking towards the sky.

Doris Zdekauerová did not survive the Holocaust. She died in Auschwitz at the age of 11. Hundreds of other Terezín children did survive, and they drew and they hoped. Everyone needs hope, so everyone needs fantasy. We do not know what that hope will bring. We do not know if we will see success. The only thing we know is that, through everything, those societal, personal or figurative dragons can be defeated.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.