Aug 20

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Content TKTK: A Soul Unchained by John Ottinger III

As an education student at a small liberal arts college in northern Georgia, I was safe and secure. My environment was supportive and close-knit. I had a circle of friends who shared similar interests and beliefs, and was living a comfortable, unchallenged middle-class life.

As part of our undergraduate coursework, students were required to have a cross-cultural experience. I had not yet pursued any method of completing this requirement, though I was not yet feeling rushed, since I was only a freshman. Then an opportunity came. I always wanted to study abroad to fulfill my “cross-cultural experience”—rather than the usual method of spending a spring break working among the poor or on a summer missions trip—but had not put in the work of figuring out how to do it. Then, as I was sitting in a common room, a fellow undergrad, whom I barely knew, walked up to me. He asked if I would like to study abroad the next semester in Slovakia. I knew nothing about the country. Always a rash youth, I impulsively accepted his offer immediately. After completing some paperwork and getting a passport, I was on my way.

So I, an untried, untested youth of nineteen, felt brave enough—or was idiot enough—to try living there in the six-year-old nation of Slovakia for three months. I was sincere in the belief that I could study at the University of Trnava, though I had done no preparation for life outside of my own country. Fortunately, this particular study-abroad program did not require local language knowledge, but had sent a professor of English from my own college along. We were to take courses in Slovak history, culture, and language from native professors while our American professor taught all our other classes.

The economy of my new temporary home was not strong. Slovakia was not yet a member of the European Union, though that was a sought-after goal of the current government. For example, I could eat at the nicest restaurant in Trnava—and did, several times, while being watched by several patrons—for a measly $5 USD. This was a superb meal that would cost approximately $50 per person in the United States.

This was also a pre-9/11 world, so border crossing was easier, and my compatriots and I were off to see what we could of Eastern Europe.

I was not ready. I have always been emotionally stunted, lacking social graces and a friendly demeanor, as well as the maturity to handle challenging situations. I have always been that way, always just a few years behind my age-peers emotionally. So I was decidedly unready for the rigors of living in an urban environment. The concrete tenements comprising much of the city of Trnava were still liberally decorated with English-language graffiti from the Soviet era. I walked several miles from the outskirts of the city each day past run-down buildings and trash-strewn vacant lots to reach the school in the city center. From my thirteenth-floor window, I could see a nuclear power plant billowing steam into the air across miles of fields. While money was no object—I could have literally survived on one measly American dollar a day—my mental health suffered under the stress of the wet and gothic dark of the Slovakian autumn.

On top of feeling emotionally stunted, there was a family history of depression (unknown at that time). All of this combined poorly with a foreign city, a new language and customs, and an inability to make friends with the very people with which I had arrived. You can imagine the lonely days of my life in Trnava. I was not happy. This is why, I think, for a handwritten essay assignment—I chose the topic “Friendship.”

(There were almost no computers available, only about twenty for the whole university. Wait times could take days; Internet cafes were rare, small, and prohibitively expensive at their minute-by-minute rates—even for an American.)

I was in despair, despair such as I had never known before.

Loneliness was my stock in trade. I began to sleep an inordinate number of hours. I kept to myself, avoiding others and going for long walks through the compact city of approximately 70,000 people. I tried drawing (I still have my shaky sketch of gothic St. Nicolas’s Church), read all the fiction I had with me, took to brandy like a fish to water, and even tried to learn a little guitar from the free spirit of our small group of Americans. But it wasn’t enough. I had dark thoughts. Really dark thoughts. Thoughts that might have led to worse things than an abiding sadness, thoughts I kept well hidden from the others. Suicide became an option. There were a few times I considered throwing myself from the balcony—which belonged to the room I shared with the two students who had come abroad with me. My soul was chained to depression, unable to break free of the dark dungeon of my surroundings and circumstances.

That was my state of mind one Sunday morning. I had arisen earlier than my companions, so on a whim I snuck out of the room and headed for the train station. I had heard of an English-language bookshop a half-hour train ride to the southwest in Bratislava, the capital. So I boarded the ugly but functional coach, and set off towards Slovakia’s capital, not knowing if the shop would be open. I had been there once exploring with the other Americans. We found an Irish pub for ex-pats where I tasted my first Kahlua and milk. But the pleasure of drinking would not soothe the ache that prompted this solo trip.

Words have always been a balm to me. Even in the worst of times before this, I had been able to turn to a book for solace. I needed succor badly. I needed fiction that would take me away from my  concerns. There was nothing I needed more than a world apart from time, a world new and original. A fantasy.

I have since lost the name of the bookshop, and also lost or given away the edition I bought there, but it was located in downtown Bratislava, not far from the ex-pat Irish pub and the U.S. embassy. I was fortunate, because the store was open, and I was able to browse its modest twenty volume fantasy section. All of the books were UK editions and were unfamiliar and often differently titled from back home, but I came across a title I had not read before. It was The Diamond Throne, book 1 of David Eddings’ Elenium series, featuring the noble Pandion Knight Sparhawk.

I had read Eddings before, beginning at King of the Murgos and reading the subsequent novels in the Mallorean series. (That was when I was a middle schooler and mistakenly thought I was at the beginning of that particular series—a typical mistake of mine at that age). I knew I liked Eddings. So I walked out of the store with The Diamond Throne under my arm and boarded the train back to Trnava.

Awake since 8am, an early hour for me, I was exhausted from the trip, so I fell asleep on my way back, nearly missing my stop. But fortune smiled on me and I awoke just in time. I then made the half-hour trek from the train station to the northeast end of the city, getting back to my tenement safe and sound.

There I opened the crisp mass-market paperback, and left the world that made me so miserable. For hours I was enveloped in the embrace of Sparhawk and his motley crew as they faced evil and beat it down. I soared with their success, was brought to tears by their mirth, and left with a pleasant sense of well-being when I was done.

Days passed. I no longer thought of suicide. Eddings awoke me to the necessity of companions in trying times. My thoughts turned away from my own loneliness to the shared hardships all of the American students were undergoing. The windy balcony of my thirteenth-floor room, once so appealing, became something to abhor. I began to make friends with my roommates and the others who had come with me on the trip. I came out of my shell somewhat, found joy in living in the lush and wonderful country that is Slovakia, and had some of the best times of my life traveling about Europe.

I credit David Eddings’ storytelling with unchaining my soul and saving my life. Oh, I might be giving myself over to some hyperbole there, acting overwrought perhaps—but to this day, eleven years later, I very nearly cry when I look at the spine of my current copy of The Diamond Throne. Was there anything special about this epic fantasy? Not really. It’s a good story, fun and easy to read, but there are many just as enjoyable and entertaining. Yet it was this book, this seemingly innocuous book, that stepped into my life at just the right moment to save me from myself, to reach out, to grab me and remind me that life has much worth living for, not least of which is good companionship and raucous laughter. There are noble things too, like fighting for good in the face of diabolical evil, searching for truth in a gray and empty land, holding on to honor when all hope seems lost.

These and more are the legacies of fantasy on at least one life, my life.

Thank you, David Eddings, for unchaining my soul.


John Ottinger III has published reviews and articles in WORLD, Publishers Weekly, Electric Velocipede, and Black Gate, and online at SF Signal and Tor.com. He also edits the popular blog for science fiction and fantasy news and reviews, Grasping For the Wind.

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