The (literary) heroes who saved me
For Children's Book Week, author Stephanie Burgis writes about the fictional heroes who helped to see her through even the most difficult times
I grew up on books, so when I think of heroes, my first thoughts all come from the novels I adored when I was a kid, the ones that formed me as a person. I think of Frodo in Lord of the Rings, taking on a challenge so big, he knows it’s probably impossible - and it will almost definitely kill him - but going ahead and doing it anyway just because it is the right thing to do.
I think of Anne of Green Gables, stepping into the unknown again and again as an orphan sent to one family after another…but still somehow keeping her faith and dreams alive, even when family after family ends up treating her as nothing but a (rather unsatisfactory) servant. Even when she finally finds the family that will eventually become her very own, their first reaction is: But she’s not a boy. They plan to send her back to the orphanage, just because of her gender.
How do you stay courageous, in those circumstances? How do you keep faith in yourself?
Those aren’t just literary questions. They’re the questions we have to grapple with day after day in real life. Real life can be full of joy, but it’s also full of challenges that seem too huge to survive, of rejections and setbacks that batter at our faith and courage.
In my own life, my scariest, most earth-shattering moment came when I was diagnosed with M E in 2007. I was told that no one really understands how this illness works; I found out on the day of the diagnosis, almost two years after I’d first become ill, that I was probably never going to get better again.
All that time, I’d been waiting as patiently as possible for my diagnosis, so that I could finally be cured - but there is no recognized medical cure for M E, and there’s honestly not much likelihood of anyone finding one within my lifetime.
I had to give up my job, because I was too ill to work. There were days, weeks, and months when I was so weak, I couldn’t even get off my couch.
How could I live with this illness forever? How could I possibly make a life worth living?
If I looked in the papers, I could see columnists and politicians ranting about people claiming disability benefit - about the outrage of people daring to think they deserved help and support if they were too ill to work and bring in an income.
If I looked online, I could see other people claiming that illnesses like mine must be purely psychological, or lies meant to defraud.
If all I’d had to support me in this period of terrified re-definition, when my body had suddenly turned against me, was society’s view of people with chronic illness…well, things could have been very, very bad.
But I had something else. I had books.
I had heroes like Frodo who took on challenges that were seemingly impossible and refused to give in to despair - even when despair sounded exactly like common sense. I had heroes like Anne who steadfastly refused to think of herself as dirt even when other people called her that.
And I had my own new heroine, Kat. As I lay on my couch, often too dizzy and sick to stand up, and terrified about my future, I wrote about my dauntless heroine, Kat Stephenson. Kat launched herself onto highwaymen’s horses and refused to listen to anyone who told her to sit down and be quiet. Kat might be a 12-year-old girl in Regency England, but she refused to be treated as helpless or insignificant…and through her, so did I.
I wrote my way through fear and darkness into a new life, and I hung onto every literary hero or heroine I had ever read for my support.
This is why literary heroes matter so much: because sometimes, they really can be life-saving.
Stephanie Burgis is the author of A Most Improper Magick and the other books in the Kat Stephenson series (Templar)