In Defense of Escape

There are still people who criticize the fantasy genre for being “escapist.” They are not wrong; they are missing the point.

Readers, fans, lovers of fantasy do not return to the same shelves at the library only because we want a temporary respite from our own lives, although fantasy does offer such respites.

We do not pre-order our favorite authors’ forthcoming books while browsing fanfic blogs merely because the successes of heroes whose adventures we eagerly follow inspire our own deeds, both great and small – although the heroes of fantasy’s countless elsewheres do provide such inspiration.

We do not dress in costume for midnight movie premieres to demonstrate our disillusionment with the modern world (even if we are disillusioned). We do not cosplay at conventions because fantastic characters and settings have somehow become more “real” to us than our everyday experiences (well, not to most of us anyway – I do have my doubts about some).

The truth is that everyone needs escape, but we find it in different forms. Any engagement with fiction, any exercise of the imagination, is escape – just as the solitude of a painter or poet, working to complete a jigsaw puzzle, keeping a sabbath, or even cleaning the garage, is escape. Everyone loses themselves in some kind of habitual activity which, though doing nothing directly to solve their problems, refreshes them for the return to life’s task at hand.

Escape is a kind of mirror. In losing ourselves we find ourselves; a step taken into another world is a step taken back from our own lives, a chance to re-examine where we are and what we are doing. Time and again the winding path through familiar yet ever-changing woods, the twisted intersections of a car’s mechanical bowels, the road going “ever on, down from the door where it began”, there and back again, all turn out to be disguises for a map depicting the places we have come from and are going to.

In the foreword to her collection Tales from Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin has rightly written that “people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truth, immutable simplicities.” We are all born with the need for escape; for some, studying the reflection of an alien landscape makes it easier to see the common wisdom linking our heroes’ lives with our own. Familiar lessons stand out against an unfamiliar backdrop.

And if we take solace along the way in the arms of a dream that seems fairer, at least for the moment, than our own prospects, which of you – boomers, hipsters, yuppies – will blame us? Which of us has not, when faced with a problem that seems insoluble (however temporarily), wished ourselves into a different sort of arena – and a champion’s laurel? Who among us has not spent part of his our her life seeking out lesser challenges as an excuse to put off a dubious attempt at something greater? He who is without dreams among you, let him cast the first stone.

Fantasy does indeed offer escape, and it is a noble offer. No chance to better understand our own existences should be lightly put aside, and sometimes the translation of the familiar into the foreign and back again results in surprising clarity, fresh perspectives on subjects and people we look past every day but have long ceased to notice. A good fantasy is useful as well as enjoyable, instructive rather than obstructive: distraction with application.

Tolkien was on to something when he said, in his Andrew Lang Lecture On Fairy-Stories, that we create because we ourselves are made in the image of a great Creator. Regardless of what you believe about how we all got here, it’s difficult to deny that the sum of all of our creativity and scientific inquiry is engaged in a vast effort to make sense of it – to understand what and where exactly ‘here’ is, and why we are at it.

When we depart for a time to explore realms of fantasy, we return in the knowledge – not always admitted aloud – that the wonders we have seen are only shadows of the forms of this world (just as this world may be nothing more than shadows of a world of true forms, as Plato suggested). The imagination can conjure no deeper magic than sunlight in oak leaves; it can sculpt no elf-maiden tall, lithe, mysterious, to compare to the beauty of a young mother laughing in a rainstorm; it can summon no demons more horrible than those that haunt and damn us every day in our homes, on our streets, at our jobs.

The funny thing about escape and escapist literature is that escapes are temporary, and for that we should be grateful. We cannot spend forever reading about the passion and the pain and the joy of love, watching other peoples’ happily-ever-afters on the silver screen, or cheering on sports teams, racers, politicians, or prize-fighters whose victories will never get us anywhere; and ice cream and popcorn make lonely company after awhile.

My point is this: make your escapes, and make them good. Use them well and wisely, and come back to us with whatever little thing you have gained. It is just possible that the wisdom we gather from reading fairytales could help us make real-world fairytale-endings a little less rare.