From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Validity of Escapism

I was a lonely kid. As a nerdy, quiet child with big glasses and braces, I was at the bottom of the social pecking order. Books—fantasy books in particular—were my escape. I gravitated toward stories where the underdog gets what they want through sheer determination or discovers they have magical powers, or both.

I read about isolated protagonists like Harry in The Blue Sword, bookish ones like Lirael in Lirael, downtrodden ones like Taran in The Prydain Chronicles. I found myself in these pages and gloried in the idea that these characters did eventually triumph.

I think my baffled teacher—who caught me reading beneath school desks during class—assumed it was something I would grow out of. Reading lists were filled with books like Lord of the Flies, The Jungle, A Separate Peace, or Anthem. These were the books that mattered, or so I was told again and again.

Fantasy was just escapism. And thus, fantasy was unimportant.

But I think back to those younger years, and escapism certainly felt important to me then. It let me explore new landscapes, get to know people who had no chance to reject me. It showed me that someone like me could find acceptance. It gave me strength and hope.

I didn’t grow out of it.

Admittedly, yes, I write fantasy now, so reading it is sort of a job requirement. But we’re also living through a pandemic. We’re all stuck inside our homes for more hours in a day than we’ve ever been before. This is the reality we’re living in. These are trying times, testing everyone’s mental and emotional endurance.

But open a book and you can fall into an entirely different world. Fantasy is more important than ever—not just because it provides us with entertainment. It’s something to look forward to. Something to immerse ourselves in. Something to enjoy when everything around us feels more difficult than it should.

Escapism doesn’t just entertain; it bolsters resilience.

And it’s not just that. Escapism is often presented in a dichotomy with real-world issues. Would you like to read a fantasy book that is escapist, or something that addresses real-world issues? But these are not mutually exclusive. As the popular meme says—why not both?

By its definition, escapism means diverting your mind from unpleasant realities—but just like daydreams take us away from the day, fantasy can be a means through which we process events.

Real-world issues can still be addressed in a bright and immersive fantasy world. It doesn’t have to hold a dark mirror to our world. And sometimes, this can make ideas more palatable, easier to digest. Works like The Golden Compass are delightfully, deliciously escapist. Who doesn’t want a soul-bound companion for life? The story contains prophecies, witches, and portals to other worlds. But it also explores ideas of theology and oppression. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown immerses the reader in a tale of romance and magic—a beautiful veneer on a tale that addresses racism and sexism. And has there ever been a more entertaining example of escapism mingled with real-world issues than Terry Pratchett’s entire Discworld series? I have laughed my way through his books. I’ve turned to them when I’ve needed something that felt light and hopeful. At the same time, I’ve saved the passage from Men at Arms regarding Vimes “Boots Theory,” which delves into socioeconomic unfairness and explains why it’s so expensive to be poor. It’s as applicable to our world as it is to Ankh-Morpork. And what are you more likely to want to read, especially during difficult times? A treatise on economics or a comedic novel set in a fantasy world?

Come for the talking weasels, stay for the religious critique!

In all seriousness, escapism doesn’t just bolster resilience; it disarms us. It draws us in, lowers our defenses. It helps us to process things that we otherwise might shy away from or find too difficult to face head-on. Daydreaming can help a person solve pressing dilemmas or provide a safe space to tackle difficult problems. We often learn things we don’t intend to while daydreaming. What is escapist reading except a structured, collective daydream?

Fantasy doesn’t need to be dark or overtly literary to be the sort of work that matters, that is valid.

I hope to never grow out of wanting or needing escapism. As Neil Gaiman states in his The Sandman comic, “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” If growing up means putting such literature behind me, then may I never grow up.

Andrea Stewart

Andrea Stewart is the daughter of immigrants, and was raised in a number of places across the United States. Her parents always emphasized science and education, so she spent her childhood immersed in Star Trek and odd-smelling library books. When her (admittedly ambitious) dreams of becoming a dragon slayer didn’t pan out, she instead turned to writing books. She now lives in sunny California, and in addition to writing, can be found herding cats, looking at birds, and falling down research rabbit holes. Her debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, the first of The Drowning Empire trilogy, is out from Orbit Books.