Escapism as a good thing

There are some who denigrate the reading of fantasy as escapism, a willful rejection of reality in favor of a more pleasant existence in un-reality. As a young consumer of Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillip, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, Robin McKinley, and (naturally) J.R.R. Tolkien, I encountered this view from time to time in a personal way. The same critique could be applied to an immersion in any fictional work, but seems inordinately often to have been leveled at fantasy works specifically (and science fiction by proximity).

Now, there is well crafted fantasy and groaningly bad fantasy, works that open new views to your imagination and works that plunge you into depression or nightmare, stories that inspire and those that oppress. But is stepping into an alternate reality really escapism? And if it is, should we be concerned?

I hadn’t thought about this issue much recently until I encountered it in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” He has several thought-provoking things to say about the craft and purpose of such stories, and he also tackled the criticism of escapism. He points out that “escape” is generally viewed as a positive thing, implying as it does the freeing of oneself from a bad situation. (People generally do not “escape” from happiness, wealth, joy, or love.)

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Escape has only taken on a negative connotation in this context because the critics have confused, “not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

I had an Aha! moment reading this. The negative use of “escape” really intends the meaning of “desertion”. Desertion implies the shirking of responsibility, an abandonment of one’s right course and duty. It is as if, in engaging our brains in imagining dragons or aliens or telepathy, we have deliberately rejected and abandoned the world that lacks those things—and further, that there must be a moral flaw in doing so, because we have some sort of commitment to be faithful to reality alone. But what makes it our duty to muddle along in raw reality, given that our ability to imagine the hypothetical and counterfactual is one of humanity’s unique and awesome gifts?

Tolkien takes this even further, turning the criticism on its head by linking fantasy with faith. The same ability that permits us to dream of dragons and rings is also what permits us to imagine deities, an afterlife, and an existence that improves upon the reality we currently experience. If you believe that there is more to existence than just this world, then you should see value in “escaping” (in the positive sense) from its evils and ugliness. Fantasy is one vehicle for doing so, for reminding us that there can be greater forces at work, and good ends to come, especially when reality seems grim or hopeless. Tolkien seems to view the modern world as a decidedly flawed place, and sees no trouble, and indeed benefit, in imagining and sharing better places.

That particular justification doesn’t quite work for me, but then Tolkien had been through much grimmer times than I ever have. For me, stepping out of my own reality temporarily is valuable in that it tends to help me reset my perspectives. There is a danger in too much fretting about details, in focusing on personal troubles until they are magnified beyond all reason. Stepping aside into someone else’s story can enable a healthy distancing from those concerns, allowing a calmer and more balanced return to them later. More than that, it can give you virtual experiences that allow you to be more compassionate towards others. In short, it broadens the mind.

I wonder what Tolkien would have thought of the Harry Potter phenomenon, in which fantasy reading (about wizards and witches, no less!) swept around the world in a screaming wave of me-too popularity. And if the whole world escapes into the same alternate reality, does that make it a part of reality by annexation?