In my old life, I used to spend a lot of time arguing against fantasy as pure escapism; I was quick to point out that, while some fantasy was undeniably escapist, GOOD fantasy was primarily literary.
The older I get, the more I come to understand just how unlikely things are to be only one thing, and the less interested I am in defending juvenile attacks on things I see as valuable. This has led me to realize that yes, all fantasy is inherently escapist—but every fiction book that you’ve ever read is escapist as well, and there is really no reason for the term to have the derogatory connotations it's taken on.
I just recently finished reading Book of Negroes, for example, and I feel comfortable saying that it was escapist; now, did I escape into a desirable world? Absolutely not; the book is phenomenal, but deals with undeniably difficult subject matter. But I was still moving from the world I know to a world that might arguably be more exciting (and I would argue that we expect our novels to be more exciting, or we wouldn’t bother reading them at all...or we'd be reading works by Harold Biffen from George Gissing's New Grub Street).
That led me to a question: rather than deriding this escapism, why aren’t we celebrating it? Just because it’s escapist, doesn’t mean that that is it’s only function!
I wonder if this isn’t precisely the same sentiment which Tolkien felt when responding to accusations that his Lord of the Rings trilogy was merely a metaphor for the Second World War—to which his answer was a resounding “no!” And he was right, though I certainly see not only historical bits, but sentiments and feelings from the Second World War bleeding into his novels; his novels were not MERELY a metaphor, just as they were not MERELY escapism—those were only facets of a living, breathing body of work, with its own world, rules, heroes, and villains. To reduce it to merely a shadow of external events is a literary tragedy.
So embrace the escapism that awaits you in fantasy, or any other fictitious genre you choose (or even the non-fiction, narrative pieces of literature you read) and wear it proudly—in Star Wars thongs and elvish hose.
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