Is fantasy an escape from reality?
For centuries, that’s what critics of the genre have claimed.
I freely admit that reading fantasy can be a distraction for me, a means of procrastination. Honestly, I’d much rather be exploring Tolkein’s Misty Mountains than delving into the mountain of laundry covering my bed. But the fault there lies with me, not with hobbits or elves. A serendipitous phone call from a friend or a piece of really good dark chocolate could distract me just as easily.
However, I believe that the key element of fantasy is not its perceived “disconnect” with reality, but its undergirding connections with deeper realities.
What are the deeper realities in your life? What dreams do you harbor, for example? I’m not talking about your Amazon wish list of “stuff” you’d like to own, or even about your goals and ambitions. I’m thinking about foundations here. What lies beneath those cherished wishes and ambitions?
I remember, as a tween, wanting a pair of chestnut-brown high-top boots so badly that I could hardly think of anything else for weeks. But of course, it wasn’t really about the boots. It was about the person I thought I could be in those boots: stylish, confident, and popular (for a change). It was a desire to be loved.
So, what do you long for? Maybe you feel like an outcast, and just want to find a place that feels like home. Maybe you feel insignificant, and dream of doing something that’s glorious and brave. Or perhaps you simply feel misunderstood, and desire to be known and loved for who you really are.
Open a well-written work of fantasy, and you’ll find those same longings reflected there. Even better, you’ll often find clues to their fulfillment. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter extends friendship to fellow outcast Ron Weasley, and finds his true home-place with Ron’s family at the Burrow. The hard, small challenges of living with (very) difficult people like Draco Malfoy prepare Harry for his stand-offs with bigger villains. And he repeatedly learns that in order for others to understand him, he must take the time to listen to their stories.
All right, so Rowling gave us a character who shares many of our own struggles; someone we can relate to. But is a vicarious journey through the life of an imaginary hero or heroine actually helpful in the ins-and-outs of our own daily grind? After all, you probably don’t have a house elf in your closet or a fight with a Hungarian Horntail looming on your schedule for the week.
Though he lived decades before the arrival of Harry Potter, I like what C.S. Lewis, author of the classic Chronicles of Narnia, had to say on this question. To critics of his work, he argued that fantasy, “far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth.” A person “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” (Of Other Worlds). In other words, the “inner worlds” of fantasy literature can actually enrich our “outer worlds” of work, home, and recreation.
Let’s look at this from another angle. Have you heard of “imitative behavior”? It’s a term used in psychology and sociology, and it’s one of the primary ways in which culture is passed down from one generation to another. The idea is that we learn by imitation, but here’s the cool part: thanks to “mirror neutrons” in our brains, we don’t even have to actually perform the task ourselves to learn it. Just watching another person enact it–or even vividly picturing the event in our own imaginations–fires off connections in our brains, creating a neuron pathway.
In other words, vicariously living through the adventures of your favorite fantasy characters can actually affect the way you deal with “real life” situations (which is another reason to choose our heroes and heroines carefully!). If you’ve braved high-stakes battles in imaginary realms, those experiences can give you courage to fight the lower-stakes battles you face every day. It’s a lot easier to stand up to the Uncle Vernons in your life once you’ve faced down Lord Voldemort; Ted Sandyman the hobbit is small fry once you’ve brought down Orcs, Nazgul riders, and Sauron himself.
And quite honestly, when I pick up a book, especially a work of fiction, I want it to change me. I want to connect with the characters I encounter, and learn from them–to be someone better, someone stronger than I was before. When I turn the last page, I don’t want to be the same person I was when I started the journey. After all, reading should be a voyage of discovery, not a workout on a treadmill!
So no, fantasy isn’t an escape from reality. Not really. As human beings, we’re limited by the confines of our own humanity. No author can create a book that’s entirely apart from his or her own “real life” experiences. But fantasy can help us to understand the deeper realities we live by: the “real-er” reality that’s so easily obscured by traffic jams, endless “Reply All” texts and spilled coffee. It’s like traveling outside of Earth’s orbit for a while, so that we can get a fuller, more complete picture of this planet we’re living on…and return home with clearer vision and stronger resolve.