Sometimes fairy tales and other fantasy stories are described as “escapist” literature by their critics—a means of escaping from the realities of the real world. When labeled as such, “escape” is often laden with negative connotations. But should it be?
In the middle of his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien pushes back against the scorn with which some critics described fantasy stories as mere “escapism.” Although he didn’t deny that this term applied to this kind of literature (and fairy-stories in particular), he did challenge the tone with which it was often used.
He points out that “escaping”, in itself, isn’t blameworthy. Consider the family trying to “escape” from a tyrannical regime, or the prisoner trying to “escape” from a prison in which he’s unjustly held. These attempts at escape are not held in contempt. Contrast that, though, with the man who “deserts” his post. While desertion of one’s duties may deserve scorn, the act of escape need not. It all depends on what you’re trying to leave and why.
In one sense, fantastical stories do help us “escape” the modern world. But is that such a bad thing? What if there are elements of the modern world that merit escaping from—at least periodically? Each generation has its own values and perspectives. And it also has its own blind spots. Escaping from our own context on occasion may remind us of values that are either distorted or absent in the world around us. It may give us a different perspective on what it means to live the “good” life in our own context.
Sure, stories like these may not be “real” in the modern sense, but some of them may also open our eyes to things more real and transcendent then we normally consider. Not all of them have this kind of value, mind you, but some do. And using stories like these to momentarily “escape” from the values and perspectives of our own day could have a profound effect on how we live our lives in the here and now. Instead of causing us to “desert” our responsibilities, they may even cause us to better fulfill them when we return.