I am contemplating a work of fantasy right now–I have one or two seeds of ideas, but haven’t yet settled on a narrative or even a demographic. But the prospect has me thinking through various questions related to the genre, one of which is whether fantasy literature is escapist.
Meghan O’Rourke, writing in Slate at the time of the release of the Walden Media/Disney Pictures film version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, had this to say about the inspiration behind C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books:
His bleak childhood, so vividly present to him, made him intuitively understand that kids long to be treated as adults yet simultaneously look to escape from the harsh truths of dawning adulthood in the refuge of their own inventions. Narnia was his synthesis of these conflicting wishes. It is a place where girls like Lucy–the youngest of the Pevensie siblings–can serve as a queen and feel responsible for the arrest of a friend by the “secret police.” But it is also a place where she can bring her brother, Edmund, back from death’s door with a drop of a magical potion.
O’Rourke mentions the child’s psychological need to escape from the harsh truths of dawning adulthood as one inspiration behind Lewis’s creation of Narnia. Could the point be extrapolated to the entire fantasy genre? Is it, if only in part, escapist? (I say in part, because O’Rourke also notes that part of what fantasy literature answers to is the child’s longing to be treated as an adult.)
Compare, however, Bradley J. Birzer’s discussion, in his wonderful book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (ISI Books, 2003), of Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s attraction to what Tolkien calls the world of faërie. Drawing upon Tolkien’s famous lecture, “On Fairy Stories,” Birzer writes that for Tolkien
fairy stories provide humans with a means to escape the drabness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity. Tolkien warned that this is not the same thing as escaping from reality. We still deal with life and death, comfort and discomfort. We merely escape progressivism and the progressive dream, which reduces all complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders (Birzer, p. 39).
So we must distinguish: escaping from reality as opposed to escaping from the progressive dream.
Which is not to say that O’Rourke is claiming that Lewis and the children who love his stories, in seeking to escape from the harsh truths of dawning adulthood, are seeking to escape from reality in a negative sense. For it could well be that the harsh truths children seek to get away form in turning to fantasy and fantasy literature are the harsh truths of the progressive dream. Not the progressive dream, perhaps, in the forms of mechanization or consumerism. But any aspect of that dream–or nightmare–that obscures for the child nature’s true wonders.
A return to a golden place of wonder, the chance to operate as an adult (or hero) within it–these I’m reckoning are what we long for in escaping into faërie.
And far from being a flight from reality, fantasy literature, in this light, seems instead to be a flight to it.
“We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it; our whole nature…is still soaked with the sense of exile.” –J.R.R. Tolkien