For each day of Twelvetide, Christ and Pop Culture writers will point to some of the cultural goodness that gives hope in the midst of life’s messyness. It’s our version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, filled with things our writers have found to be life-giving. Some entries are 2018 artifacts, some are from years past. All of them point us to hope.

Twenty-eighteen was a year filled with both beauty and brokenness. I look back and see moments of quiet, ordinary, joy; the kind that comes when you’re not looking and drapes itself over you like a blanket on a cold October morning. But I also see the sting of heartache and sorrow and days where anxiety raged. It’s not surprising then, that 2018 was also a year filled with wonder as I’ve walked through far away worlds that are not my own. Worlds where good and evil vie for dominance. Worlds filled with adventure, truth, justice, and love.

Fantasy worlds have a way of offering hope and peace and time to think and process. They are fun but more importantly, they open my eyes to hope when I need it most. So, in no particular order, here are my top eight worlds to visit when my heart longs for wonder.

#1 Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

What fantasy worlds list would be complete without Middle Earth? It’s a land of Hobbits, Elves, Orks, and Humans. A place of ethereal beauty and stunning landscapes. But more than that, it’s a place filled with unlikely heroes and soul-stirring bravery. The juxtaposition between places of peace and places of war, between those who are ruled by self and those ruled by virtue, is so tangible in Middle Earth. For that reason and many more, it will forever be a place I wander when I need to see how powerful sacrifice and hope are, and how love and loyalty really can change the world.

#2 Hyrule, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo

If you’ve ever played a Legend of Zelda game, you’ll know the land of Hyrule. It’s a land of vast forests, sweeping planes, towering mountains, and bustling cities. It’s also the home of a princess named Zelda and a brave hero in green named Link, the two of whom work together, in various incarnations of the world, to defeat evil and establish justice. This year, the time I’ve spent in Hyrule has been mostly in Breath of the Wild, which is an open-world game with stunning graphics and an excellent story. When I want to interact with happy townspeople and marvel at visually stunning graphics, this is where I turn.

#3 Narnia, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Talking animals, magic, and Aslan… what more could you want? To be sure, the world created by C. S. Lewis is not perfect, and my feelings about Narnia do tend to shift and mirror what I’m going through at any given time, but I will always look for a wardrobe to wander through, lampposts in the snow will always make me smile, and every time I look out over the ocean I will see Reepicheep rowing his boat to Aslan’s shores and my heart will long to join him.

#4 The Final Empire, The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is up there on my list of favorite fantasy series of all time. The system of magic is amazingly unique, the characters are heroic and yet relatable, and the story is full of depth. But without the world in which it’s set, the books would simply not be the same. The Final Empire is a world where evil reigns, the people are harshly stratified, and ash falls from the sky covering the world in a constant layer of filth. It’s not the obvious choice for a world of wonder, but the fact that heros rise up in dystopian worlds to brave harsh dictators and rally the people to freedom brings hope where it is much needed and makes it a world I return to time and time again.

#5 Berk, How to Train Your Dragon from Dreamworks Animation

Breathtaking cliffs, vast oceans, and communities that band together make Berk a place of wonder for sure. Also, there are dragons so it’s pretty much perfect really.

#6 Tal’Dori, Critical Role: Tal’Dori Campaign Setting by Matt Mercer and James Haeck

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons for years now, and written previously about why I love it so much, but all my favorite stories right now are being told in the vast world of Tal’Dori. It’s a fantasy realm much like many of the others I’ve shared about here, however, unlike the others, it is a world specifically designed without a story of its own (at least not in the sense we most often think of stories). Instead, Tal’Dori was created to house the stories we create. It is a setting filled with craggy mountains, huge cities, breathtaking oceans, and diverse peoples. It’s a place to explore. A place to save. But most importantly, it’s a place to allow your creativity to flourish and for stories to be told together. And “together” is something we all could use a little more of right now, I think.

#7 Hogwarts, The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

Twenty-eighteen marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which, apart from making me feel shockingly old, also means that I have traveled to Hogwarts and wandered the wizarding world for 20 years of my life; and I don’t regret a second of it. Hogwarts is by no means a perfect place, and I’m not even talking about the raging lunatic of an evil wizard intent on world domination. But it is a place where there is love and hope and bravery. It’s a place of learning about life, more than academics really, and a place where even the most insecure young person can grow in confidence. It’s a place where a strong sense of self is entwined with a strong commitment to community and that makes it a place of wonder that I love to visit, and even more than that, it’s a place I love to take my children.

#8 Wakanda, Black Panther from Marvel Studios

I have so many thoughts about Wakanda but very few I can actually put into words; which is a hard thing for a writer, if I’m honest. Most of my thoughts exist as tears and longing and lack the structure of words to express them fully. I will say this, however: Wakanda made me long for heaven in a way that nothing in my life ever has. It is the epitome of world of wonder and is a place I turn to time and again.

C. S. Lewis once said that “the book is a specimen of the most scandalous escapism.… It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so.… This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.” And that, right there said in only a way Lewis really can, is why I walk these worlds.

When life is hard or painful or confusing or even filled with rest and joy, I find myself longing for worlds that are not my own. Not because I want to escape the one I’m in, but because these other places, these made up lands, have a way of opening my eyes to the wonder of my everyday life. These worlds are soul-stirring and hope-bringing and they have a way of pointing me to the one who created imaginations in the first place, to the one who is Lord over my life. I don’t know what 2019 will hold, but I know I will walk these worlds again and hopefully new ones as well. And if you need some wonder in your life, perhaps these worlds might help you find it too.