Since 1977, Terry Brooks has been writing his Shannara fantasy series. Once the first trilogy was complete, he gave up his day job as a lawyer and never looked back. In spite of his success, he has often been asked why he writes fantasy. Not so much now, with fantasy’s mainstream success, but some still equate fantasy with escapism.
True, any book, television show, hobby has that element — and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as most people know how not let one overcome the other. Good fiction, whether or not it is fantasy, ultimately rests on how much it draws on real life. From the outside, that may be hard to grasp when talking about stories with fantastic creatures. Yet we have detailed here in past posts that it was the depth and themes of fictional worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia that was in large measure the reason for their enduring success.
That doesn’t mean a thoughtful book cannot be entertaining (it should be) or should beat the reader over the head with messages (it should not). Finding that balance is what writers should strive for. And those works can be escapist, but if in the way Bradley J. Birzer writes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, that fantasy — or fairy stories as Tolkien would often call them — is worth “the effort of entering” in spite of “its many perils and the great possibilities of misunderstanding” because:
…fairy stories illuminate the vast inheritance our ancestors have bequeathed to us…[they] give us a new sense of wonder about things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace…[and] provide humans with a means to escape the darkness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity…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 of complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders.
So in that, and in Terry Brook’s talk here, we can see that great fantasy, rather than escaping from reality, shows what is wrong with it.
And, perhaps, how to reclaim it.
Really interesting post. In many ways escapism is part of why readers read a lot of fantasy, but as you mention it is not exclusively related to fantasy books.
There is that escapism component that brings people to fantasy and keeps bringing them back. Authors are great at creating immersive environments to get lost in. The mistake is when people, or critics in particular, think that fantasy – or fiction in general – is only about escaping “real life.”
It’s all perception, including reality. So what truly is real? Tolkien’s book had a profound impact on my “real” life – kicked off a love of writing, which led me to books that expanded my understanding of the world, and now I’m a fantasy writer. I think books, including “fairy stories,” have the power to change the world. 😀