There’s one book I always turn to during what I consider my times of need, and it never fails to comfort me. Although no one would really think first of Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress when choosing a feel-good book, my increasingly beaten-up copy has seen me through every breakup I’ve ever had, my grandfather’s death, and countless other failures and misfortunes and miseries.
I’m not alone in taking comfort and hope from particular media, whether it’s in book, game, or movie format. Take, for example, the members of the 501st Legion. Storm Troopers are also not exactly what comes to mind when someone thinks about hope. (Star Wars: A New Hope quite aside.) Yet the costumed fans of the 501st book their love of fandom and applied it to good use.
While the 501st was initially founded to unite costumers with a penchant for Star Warsvillainy, one of our real-world missions is to bring good to our communities through volunteer charity work. The 501st is always looking for opportunities to brighten the lives of the less fortunate and to bring awareness to positive causes on both a local and global scale. (source)
Among other charitable work and fundraising for nonprofits, the 501st has developed an anti-bullying program for elementary-age students called the Heart of the Force.
Fans of other genres and franchises have similarly taken the comfort and hope their fandom provided and turned it into an inspiration that could bring comfort and hope to others around them, from immediate regional needs to much larger national and international ones. Anime convention Shuto Con in Lansing, Mich. chooses an annual charity to benefit during the con; The Hero Initiative helps comic creators during times of emergency and other need; Con or Bust utilizes donations to provide convention and conference registrations to fans of color who otherwise would be unable to attend, offering those faced with disadvantage the chance to seize new opportunities.
Perhaps one of the most prolific examples, though, is fueled by one of the greatest fandoms of our generation. Founded in 2005, the Harry Potter Alliance exists to mobilize fans of the Harry Potter series to engage on issues of literacy, equality, and other human rights.
Over the course of 10 years, the organization helped change official Warner Brothers merchandise for the Harry Potter series to be sourced as free trade, raised over $100,000 for relief efforts in Haiti, and donated over 250,000 books to build libraries around the world.
Fiction can be mindless entertainment, but it can also be so much more. It’s an escape for some of us, a chance to disappear into someone else’s life for a while — or it can be a reflection of the struggles we face every day and offer the hope that there’s something brighter and more beautiful waiting ahead of us.
Sometime around breakup number four, it occurred to me to wonder just why The Will of the Empress made me feel hopeful. It doesn’t exactly scream sunshine: the ninth of the Emelan books, Empress begins with the discovery that the four protagonists have grown apart, their once-solid friendship fragmented and broken; they go through heartbreak, betrayal, PTSD, and an abduction that comes close to something much worse.
Except the story in The Will of the Empress isn’t a story about despair. It’s about rebuilding friendships — not repairing the friendship that was with the people you once were, but building something new between the people you have become. It’s about people who change, and the way their friendship has to change as well.
And, more than anything, it’s about friendship as a light through the darkness and love as a beacon of hope in times of despair. And that’s exactly why we look to fandom and fantasy in the first place: to provide us with hope in our darkest times.
Feliza Casano edits and writes for all sections of the site. In her approximate 2.3 hours of free time each month, she loves watching anime, reading science fiction, and working on her novels-in-progress. Keep up with her antics at felizacasano.com and follow her on Twitter @FelizaCasano.
Header image: “Star trails while watching Perseid meteor shower” by Ralph Arvensen. Licensed under Creative Commons.