Being a chronically ill person, especially a young one, I’ve felt isolated and vulnerable most of my life. In the midst of my most acute no-one-understand-me phases, both as a teenager and an adult, I could find solace in noticing literary characters who struggle with a chronic illness or condition.
As an incurable bookworm, my mind is constantly racing toward the next literary adventure, the next crush on a fictional character, the next deep dive into another world. I can’t live real life to its fullest, but I can and I will live vicariously and bravely through characters from the most imaginative brains in the world. I often fall in love with them, their unique personalities and their even more unique, yet extremely human, faults. Sometimes they make me cry or laugh or think about something I haven’t experienced in my life. Other times they make me feel less alone, more understood and seen in the pages I read through. That’s when I love them even more.
Yes, there is a whole young adult sub-genre devoted to chronically or even terminally ill patients who find love and courage in the most difficult circumstances, but that is not enough representation. Not for me. I needed to see myself as a warrior astro-pilot or the leader of a team of superheroes to truly feel seen.
A fan of obscure, misunderstood and vulnerable literary characters, I began to notice more and more chronically ill patients in the fantasy world. They are inspiring figures, trying their best to be heroes on their own terms. Riding horses and racing starships seems all fun until you live with constant pain, doesn’t it? Well, these creatures from the most imaginative worlds are re-defining bravery.
Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin)
Here comes George R. R. Martin with his subversion of expectations. His fantasy world is realistic in many ways and none of his characters truly embodies a stereotype.
This is especially the case with Tyrion Lannister, one of the most beloved and iconic protagonists of the Westerosi epic saga. He is the last child of a wealthy family, rich and seemingly invincible in his quest for power over the Seven Kingdoms. But Tyrion is different from his relatives, because he has dwarfism.
In addition to making him self-conscious about his appearance, achondroplasia also gives him extreme chronic pain. His joints hurt, his back is twisted, his legs crooked and aching. Therefore, mounting a horse or entering a battle, wearing armour or climbing stairs to the Tower of the Hand are difficult tasks for Tyrion. But he doesn’t give up. He sharpens his wit as Jamie sharpens his sword. His brain serves him much more than his body, and he is capable of greater things than most warriors.
Greer Sonnel (Star Wars Bloodline by Claudia Gray)
The Star Wars Universe is filled with surprising characters and creatures, but even in this context a woman pilot who is also chronically ill is quite the sight. With fierce bravery and quick wit, Greer Sonnel is a minor but impactful figure in the novel set before Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
At first shy and detached, at the end of the novel Greer reveals something meaningful about her personal life. She has bloodburn, a rare and mysterious illness that Claudia Gray invented for this novel. Incurable and mostly appearing in young pilots like Greer, bloodburn seems very similar to autoimmune human illnesses or even fibromyalgia, which I suffer from myself.
It gives you chronic fatigue, high fever and severe physical stress. But Greer is a determined and successful young woman all the same: first a member of Han Solo’s racing team, then the personal pilot for General Leia Organa, she won’t let her illness crush her dreams of an adventurous life.
Benjamin Button (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. S. Fitzgerald)
A very peculiar illness indeed has afflicted Benjamin Button since he was born. The protagonist of one of the most famous Fitzgerald’s short stories lives back to front. He was born an old man and de-ages with the years.
His illness creates such discomfort in people around him that he needs to change his place, job and friends more often than other people in order to hide his illness. Benjamin’s condition can’t be specifically compared to a real-world illness, but it’s a sensation many chronically ill patients experience.
When one suffers from chronic pain since birth like me, it is common to feel like an old person. Watching my peers running and playing and doing stuff I simply couldn’t because of my severe pain. I sometimes wished I could go back in time and live the wonderful youth I wasn’t given.
Charles Xavier (Various X-Men comic books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
Every Mutant can be considered a very special chronic illness patient. They all have some peculiar genetic condition that is both a power and an impairment, a gift and a curse.
But maybe Professor X has got the worst. Alongside with other telepaths like Jean Grey, he hears every thought of every person in the world. All of them, at the same time. It must give him a chronic migraine, maybe more severe than mine.
Charles Xavier, however, is not bedridden and powerless as I feel when I get a bad headache. He uses his power to understand, to feel, to empathize with others. To save people. To save lives. To make a better world for himself and his students.
Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien)
Frodo is not the typical chronically ill character. In fact, he is not ill at all. So why is he on this list? Because his condition in the epic fantasy saga is similar to many ill people’s experiences. Isn’t it?
Think about it: he is given a burden he didn’t ask for. A burden he can’t abandon on the way to Mordor, a burden that crushes his body and undermines his soul.
What the One Ring can’t invalidate is his heart. His willpower. His unshakable desire to do the right thing, to do what’s asked of him in order to free the world from evil.
Even as an adult reader I’ve always loved fantasy stories and been fascinated with finding struggling people there. In a world where the author is the only one making the rules, characters can literally be anything and have all kinds of powers, different creatures are roaming the world and even living peacefully together. Ideally there shouldn’t be any discrimination. Nonetheless, even in these invented realms, health conditions are still frowned upon. Chronically or mentally ill characters still struggle to find a path for themselves. Just like all of us out there.
(Note: This is the second installment in our summer reading series. Check out part one: Twenty Authors of Muslim Heritage Whose Books Should Go on Your Summer Reading List)Become a Patron!
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