Don’t Fight Fantasy

In 1983 a new craze spread through Britain’s children (mostly the boys). It was a range of books called ‘Fighting Fantasy’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston. Based loosely on the role-playing game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ that had taken the US by storm, the books differed in that they were for just one player/reader and they covered a much wider range of adventures and settings than the role-playing games did. The idea was simple. It was a book where you started reading and after a few pages you were given a choice. Did you want to go north or south? Ask the wizard for advice or not? Fight the monster or run away? Each choice would be accompanied by a page number which you would then turn to and continue reading. So you read the book by constantly moving from one page to another in a non-linear way. The aim was usually to survive long enough to solve the mystery. The adventures, whether set in a magical land, the past or the future where always very exciting and vividly described. The prose was always written in the present tense and from your perspective, “The door opens and you see stone steps leading down into darkness. Do you enter (turn page 263) or turn back (turn to page 47)”.

Then the backlash began. The books came to be perceived as a problem by many who misunderstood what was really going on. Some criticised the magical elements, feeling it encouraged interest in black magic (the same issue raised its head more recently with Harry Potter). Had these people not read Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Lord of the Rings?

There was also the old chestnut that turns up every time something is popular for children that they weren’t reading ‘proper’ books. English teachers frowned at the style of prose and bemoaned the lack of variety in children’s reading.

What they all failed to realise was that these books got children reading. We read them over and over again. We devoured them. And when we’d been through the thirty or so books in the series we moved onto other books such as Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams and devoured them too. It doesn’t matter what children read, just as long as they do read.

There were other positive side effects too (again viewed by teachers and parents as bad). We started writing our own inventive fantasy fiction. Initially it took the form of writing your own adventure books for your friends. It was easy to do. You plotted out your story, the characters, events, mysteries and twists and then numbered blank pages of an exersise book from 1 to 100 and then got writing, inventing numerous traps and tricks for the reader on the way.

Slowly and inevitably we all grew up and no longer had the patience to play the book adventures anymore, wanting instead the passive reassurance of a linear novel. But the concept of the Fighting Fantasy books unlocked a unique form of creativity and imaginative invention in those young minds that shouldn’t be underestimated. Don’t fight your children’s fantasy. Let them explore it and express it in any way they choose.

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