Have you ever heard a line of poetry or a fragment of a song that just stays with you?
When I was in college, I took a Shakespeare course—actually two of them—in which we covered the Bard’s most famous works (plus some lesser-known, infamous ones). To help us categorize the huge amounts of text we were reading each semester, our professor would have us memorize each play’s most famous lines.
Several of these lines have stuck with me over the years, but none of them as much as these:
A course more promising
Than a wild dedication of yourselves
To unpathed waters, undreamed shores …
My professor called these “the most romantic lines in Shakespeare.”
Ironically, these lines, taken from the lighthearted fantasy The Winter’s Tale, are actually supposed to be negative. Lovers Perdita and Prince Florizel, having been forbidden to marry, decide to run away by sea to wherever the wind may take them. The wise character of Camillo points out how risky this plan is, and suggests instead they flee with him to a friendly king’s court—the “course more promising” than the dangerous one they’ve planned. The lovers take his advice and everything works out well for them in the end.
But still, I can’t get over those lovely lines—the image of setting your sails for waters that have never yet been crossed, shores that lay undiscovered and unimagined.
But this is what fantasy opens up for us.
When we imagine ourselves in another world—whether one of our own invention, or vicariously through a book—we unlock the door to those undiscovered worlds, and imagine what might be just beyond those unpathed waters.
We’re spared the physical danger, perhaps, but the journey still has some risks. We wrestle with new ideas, we come across new insights, and sometimes we even discover things about ourselves that may be uncomfortable. But that’s the nature of growth.
And by dedicating ourselves to exploring those imaginary worlds, we gain tools to understand the real world better. By imagining the struggles of two faraway kingdoms to work together against a common enemy, we learn how we can better relate to those different than us. By casting our invisible struggles into allegory—imagining ourselves fighting back our demons or conquering towering mountains—we can make sense of and even better control our own life stories.
Fantasy and daydreaming aren’t a waste of time—they’re tools for us to better understand reality.
It reminds me of another bit of poetry that has stuck with me for years, this one from T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
So dream on, my dear worldbuilders. Your time spent exploring those unpathed waters is not in vain!
Photo credit: Marcocarli