The (Un)Familiar

I’ve just returned from a family trip to England. We had a wonderful time, with a castle, and wizardry, and a giant Ferris wheel, and a gorgeous baby nephew. And daffodils: lots and lots of daffodils.

It was a strange voyage of discovery and rediscovery. I spent the first eight years of my life in England, and have visited countless times, but it had been almost thirteen years since my last visit. Things change, and your vision of the world changes, so things appeared at the same time familiar and unfamiliar. And my children were visiting their mother’s birth country for the first time, so I was also experiencing everything through their eyes.

And then, when we returned, there was that same feeling of known-yet-unknown that I always get when arriving after a while away. When, just for an instant, you see your home through a stranger’s eyes and marvel at how different it all looks, before the ordinary crashes down and takes over again.

But that small moment in which the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, when what should be familiar looks utterly alien for a heartbeat or two, that’s the sense of wonder that my favorite fantasy writers manage to capture. Worlds that are enticingly new, but feel oddly like home. Stories that mesmerize and draw us in, not just for their freshness, but because, deep down, they are also hauntingly mundane.

Wonder, and yet also recognition. Children’s fiction does this very well. Narnia is a new universe for a child reader, but it also reminds us enough of home that it makes sense. It has lampposts and fishing rods among the swords and talking lions. It feels real, open-the-wardrobe-and-check-for-yourself real. The Percy Jackson imaginary world of Greek demigods is laced through our modern-day life, anchoring it, making it feel possible. In Alice in Wonderland, familiar day-to-day objects like rabbits and watches and cups of tea give Lewis Carroll’s surreal tale enough normality to allow us to navigate its pages.

Adult fantasy fiction often achieves this same sense of the known-yet-unknown through more subtle ploys. Often it’s the characters themselves, with very recognizable feelings, goals, and morals, which anchor the story and give it just enough reality that we can take the leap into a new world while knowing, deep down, that we retain some level of comfort. As readers, we crave the new, but if we can’t find something to relate to, the new can quickly become overwhelmingly alien.

Next time you’re immersed in a book, take a moment to identify the strands that harness you to the tale. What makes the story appeal to you? And then sit back, close your eyes, and remember some of your favorite trips. Why was that place so special? Can you find any common threads between stories and real-life journeys?

Give it a try. Because in every unfamiliar moment, there’s a tiny drop of the familiar. And even the most brazen adventurer among us needs a thin tether to that which we already know. What’s yours?

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Mock up of Diagon Alley at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. J.K. Rowling does a beautiful job of intertwining the familiar and the unfamiliar.

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