Monday, July 2, 2012

On Fantasy and Escape

Tolkien once famously said of fantasy literature: "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape? ... If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"

I hate to disagree with the grandmaster of modern fantasy literature, but disagree I do. Not, of course, concerning his value of escapist literature (which I suppose is alright), but rather with his judgement that fantasy is necessarily escapist at all. George R. R. Martin, in an interview, explained why so many beloved characters died in ASIAF; he said it was not comfort literature. I would argue that Lord of the Rings isn't comfort literature either.

Fantasy does not have to be light-hearted, uplifting, or hopeful. What good is the escape of following Ned Stark? No good at all, in terms of escapism, I would argue. But the same can be said of poor Frodo, who is in essence a tragic hero: he wins only to also lose. While Middle Earth is saved from the machinations of the Dark Lord, Frodo himself is hollowed out and ruined by the experience. He sacrifices the things that make his life worth living in order to protect Middle Earth—he sacrifices himself.

This isn't escapism. Fantasy literature can be as true and vital and vibrant and necessary as any other genre. Just because it takes place in a secondary world doesn't mean that there are not truths about our world there. Indeed, Derrida would scoff to think that you could ever construct a document that was not riddled with hints and truths of the author's society and intention. Deconstruct Lord of the Rings and you will find the truths that Tolkien thought were essential to humanity.

I'm tired of hearing slanders made against fantasy literature. What exactly irks people about it? That it's not history? I'm sorry to say that most novels are not history. That novel you read about a love story? It didn't really happen. Not only that, but it probably couldn't have happened. What about the authors we most value as part of the English corpus? Shakespeare? Well, again, I'm sad to tell you that Shakespeare (while he didn't make up his stories, since he wasn't a great plot-author so instead had to take them from other sources) wrote a lot of things that didn't happen.

It seems hypocritical, strange, and almost unbalanced to rage against the fantastic simply because it is fantastic. Sure, you can be angry at bad writing (and I suppose fantasy has been an umbrella for poorly written work for a long time, due to the fact that critics simply dismissed the whole genre and refused to help sift through the shit) but to be angry at the genre of fantasy itself is as senseless as hating adventure, romance, documentary, or any other genre-style.

Fantasy itself is exactly as credible and as real as any other fiction.


  1. There have been some fantasy/sci-fi literature awards that have had none traditional genre fiction in the shortlists recently. Sadly I found this out whilst reading articles on my work's intranet that I can't access from home so can't reference them completely.

    One was a discussion board that included Salmon Fishing in the Yemen as a work of fantasy. Some people in the field argued that this went some way towards opening up the fantasy genre to other readers, but at the same time, I was thinking that there's plenty of superbly written stuff out there that is clearly fantasy that could be included. (As a side note, the panel ended up choosing Joe Abercrombie's latest book 'The Heroes' as it's favourite. Since I love the guy's books, I was at least happy with that.)

    1. I think there's a lot of improvement that's been made in our own lifetimes regarding Sci-fi and Fantasy Alley (even the term Sci-fi Alley excludes fantasy) and the way its treated as serious literature.

      I remain hopeful to see it grow in acceptance.

  2. I think *genre fiction* is suspect - and rightly so, I have to admit - because it often caters to particular interests, formats and conventions.

    Perhaps *literature* shouldn't cater to anything. Tell your story and if it's a 10,000 words novel about flying pigs, so be it.

    If it's easy to classify that may be a warning sign that you're on the beaten path... Seminal works don't adhere to genres, they define, subvert or comment on them.