Beyond Escapism

George R.R. Martin provides an interesting take on why we read fantasy:

I had seen this before, though only in written format. It works quite well on Youtube, I think, and if nothing else is a genuinely gorgeous and stirring piece of writing. An Escapist Manifesto, if you will (readers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your boredom!).

I know where Martin is coming from. I understand full and unapologetic escapism, the pleasures that come from immersing oneself in a reality more rich and exciting than our own. Life is short – why not escape the prison walls for a few hours, and visit the wild and uncharted lands beyond the seas? As Tolkien himself notes, the escape of the prisoner should not be confused with the flight of the deserter, and as either C.S. Lewis or Terry Pratchett (or someone else) remarks, jailers hate escapism. In that sense, Martin takes what was once considered poison, and turns it into medicine – albeit in kinder social circumstances than the late, great Ursula Le Guin faced in 1974, when she wrote Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?

I would also defend escapism against the charge that it is literary lotus-eating. China Miéville wrote an article on this, back in 2002:

Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was ‘consolation’. In other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.

Back in 2016, I spent a good 15,000+ words rebutting the sentiment that Tolkien is a mollycoddling author of the conservative status quo, so I won’t rehash things here – suffice to say, The Shire is not utopia. I would also smile grimly at Miéville’s ‘socialist appreciation’ of Peter Jackson, in light of later events. For the present, however, I would take issue with the notion that escapism and escape are antithetical.

Miéville’s point is that escapism is de facto surrender. We give up hope of a better reality by retreating into a world of make-believe. To which I would make two rebuttals:

(i) Sometimes, change is impossible. It’s a depressing thought, but most of us only have limited control over our own lives, and bringing about a better reality is a… complicated… thing. If, indeed, most of us are doomed (through no fault of our own) to live a drab existence, what is wrong with a safety blanket that makes existence liveable? I am reminded of The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell, where Orwell notes that while the middle-class may enjoy healthy food, the poor and destitute will often consume sugary treats as a way of easing their misery. Fantasy might sometimes be a sugary treat of the mind, but if it gives some small satisfaction to people after a long day at the office, then that is no bad thing.

(ii) Less depressingly, but more importantly, one cannot escape without escapism. If someone cannot conceive of a world outside their prison, if grey bricks and narrow bed are all there is, and all there ever can be, then they will remain stuck forever. Miéville would have us build a better world. Fair enough. But to build a better world, you must first imagine one. I do not think it an accident that modern fantasy was birthed by the pen of William Morris.

So, yes, I am on board with escapism being fundamentally rewarding on its own terms. Indeed, I would go further, and suggest that a degree of escapism – a degree of taking the reader to a different reality – is an integral part of modern fantasy’s job description. A pre-modern fantasy could conceive of witches or angry gods on the other side of the forest. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft could conceive of strange, outlying places amid the Antarctic mountains. We in 2018 do not have that luxury – the world is too well-known – so we fall back on self-consciously escapist worlds. Or on space exploration, which I think feeds into the same sense of wonder, the same innate hunger for the exotic.

But I think Martin’s quote also creates a false dichotomy between fantasy and real-life, as though the great purpose of the genre is to replace the latter with something more pleasant and exciting. Pleasant excitement is great, but is it necessarily why we read and write this stuff? For some people, perhaps. It is not my place to judge. For myself, I feel one of the chief roles of fantasy – and indeed of fiction in general – is to present different views of reality, of exploring the human experience. Why else have humans invented storytelling, if not to hold a mirror to our mundane lives?

To clarify, I do not mean that fantasy ought to function as allegory. I normally find “message” stories rather dull, even if I agree with the message, which is why I keep preachy politics out of my own fiction. Rather, I agree with the often-suggested idea that fantasy is a sort of literary abstract art. It allows us to view reality differently. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov – a fantastic social satire, in both senses of the word ‘fantastic’ – would be a far less interesting novel without the premise of Satan visiting Stalin’s Moscow. But at the same time, I think it would also be a less interesting novel without the premise of Satan visiting Stalin’s Moscow. This is less about escapism, and more about some very real and very clever social commentary. It just uses the vehicle of fantasy.


Nor is fantasy limited to commentary on real-life social questions. It can also be used as a means of exploring the real-life individual. Stephen Donaldson is particularly fond of this, suggesting the genre can be viewed as an externalisation of the internal:

“Put simply, fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises
or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they
were external individuals or events.”

Two of Donaldson’s own series, Thomas Covenant and Mordant’s Need, fit this particular framework – Covenant’s experiences in the Land, and Terisa’s experiences in Mordant, both reflect back on their own individual circumstances. The former is a man afflicted with leprosy, the latter a woman bereft of purpose. Neither series can really be called escapism – neither character is escaping their problems. Rather, they’re confronting them, in a very literal sense. Does one read Donaldson for escapist value? I suppose he can be read that way – Thomas Covenant still follows a Tolkienian framework, even while it challenges it – but it is just as valid to read him as a psychological study, as expressed in fantasy format.

As an aside, there is also the more problematic situation where the author tries to reverse the polarity… err… reverse the direction of the real-world vs fantasy world commentary. A major offender here is later-book J.K. Rowling, who opts to play up the Nazi/Death Eater comparison, via giving her villains recognisable salutes, et cetera. The problem is that this comparison does not offer any insight into real-world evil, or indeed real-world anything. It is simply an attempt to offer an insight into fantasy evil – an extremely banal and uninteresting insight at that. Giving Death Eaters a Nazi salute is shorthand for “these people are bad”… as though we did not know that already, and as I mentioned long ago, Hitler was not evil because he saluted people. Hitler was evil because he started a genocidal war. But I digress.


I do appreciate Martin’s vision of fantasy as a genre of dreams. A genre that satisfies our desire to explore, to experience something greater than ourselves, “to find the colours again” in a world of grey and beige. I fully agree that we, as humans, have a deep innate hunger for such things, and that one of the joys of reading fantasy is sating that hunger. And I would also oppose the Miévilles who see escapism as surrender. But I think to point to this, and say “this is why we read fantasy,” is too reductionist, and indeed risks buying into the notion that fantasy cannot say anything about our actual world. That fantasy is a lie, even if it is a lie breathed through silver. No. Fantasy can say much about ourselves and our society. It can satirise and study, even as it mesmerises and provokes. Martin describes good fantasy as “more real than real… for a moment, at least.” He does himself a disservice with the qualifier.

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