As the queue for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them extended outwards, I began to wonder why fantasy fiction holds such power over us.

 

Magic, superpowers, uber-abilities, immortality and AI are the power ingredients making this world giddy for all things fiction, fantasy and sci-fi. It is the reason why Ms J.K. Rowling is a billionaire, why Marvel have at least another decade before their stock of superhero characters begins to nauseate, and why there is more chance of getting published if I write about robotic vampires instead of a pastoral thriller set in the mundane now.

Life, it seems, hasn’t gained much from the social contract and remains ‘… nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes). Clearly the only solution is to avoid it as much as possible and revere all things not of this world, but of a possible, parallel or alternative dimension where many other, more enticing, opportunities exist. Enter 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and of course Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — clearly, only in the resplendent mind of Ms Rowling herself.

Of course this social pandemic for all things fantastical is an interesting one to try and understand. The simple explanation is that we never fully grow up, so any excuse to dip back into childhood is treated innocently. But the childhood default mode is in itself something that needs explaining. The safe haven of the imagination is usually visited for two purposes: to indulge the childish instinct or as a way of dealing with trauma. Indulgence, I suggest, is a luxury, whereas trauma is a form of ailment over which the sufferer has little control. Now, despite Fantastic Beasts earning 64.4 million worldwide on its opening weekend, and holding prime position for four consecutive weeks at the UK box office, I take none of this to be a symptom of PTTD (post-traumatic Trump disorder).

No, on the contrary, the figures suggest an unprovoked choice to indulge, let go, forget — abstract from the confines of reality. If Albert Camus were alive, he might say that we are trying to escape the Absurd; that lucid and inevitable predicament which tells us that the world has no ultimate meaning, no providential truth, no God, no magic solution — only this life and death. In fact, I suspect that Camus would have taken a strong dislike to the Harry Potter novels, for their ability to raise vacant hope and distract the mind by an unattainable, romantic escapism.

Is this too gloomy, reader? Then you have misunderstood. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ closing words are: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’. What! A man condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a huge stone up a hill, only to see his efforts revert to nothing as it rolls back down again. How can such a man be happy? you might ask. But it is this burden, this effort, and this rock which constitute Sisyphus’ reality and the ingredients of his contentment. He accepts his universe, however small, without illusion of being saved. The repetition is gratifying because ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart’, god or no god. And that is why, Sisyphus may conclude to himself that ‘all is well’ (ironically, the very same words Ms Rowling uses to conclude Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

But all is not well. We unlike Sisyphus, are the ordinary, tragic beasts; largely dissatisfied, privately confused. Unlike Camus’ hero, we just can’t seem to stay in the real, in the sobering present. It is the reason why the next four instalments of Fantastic Beasts will undoubtedly entice legions of fans, and why a mediocre book about sadomasochism has been made into a film that earned $571 million worldwide — that too, indulges more the fantastic than the erotic.

Certainly, the appeal of fiction — particularly the Gothic — has always been favoured. Just think Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Merry Shelly’s Frankenstein. These haunting stories appeal to something very basic in us; the desire to be offered more than what experience is capable of giving. For us, Sisyphus necessarily becomes a creature to be pitied. There is no happiness in the everyday. No peace in the routine, meaningless struggle that always eventually ends in death. We are, to borrow a title from this year’s Oscar favourite, willingly in La La Land, because the alternative is confronting the absurd battle with ourselves — happily.