The Importance of the Impossible
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The Great Escape

Posted by A.E. Marling in Why Fantasy

Reading fantasy is a vacation on five dollars a day. For the price of a sandwich, words transport you on an all-expenses-paid adventure into dark cities, enchanted forests, jewel-glinting caves, and snow-covered mountain ruins. True, you could visit Paris, but in the urban fantasy version, the catacombs would include red mood lighting cast by the bloody sorcery of a necromancer. And I very much doubt the Jungle Book ever gave someone a parasite.

I asked the upcoming star author Saladin Ahmed why fantasy was a captivating genre, and he said, “It’s some weird blend of seeing myself in the book and paradoxically a radical escapism that ‘lit’ fiction can’t match. Plus swords!”

Escaping from the daily grind is often cited as a reason for reading fantasy. I met some great people on Goodreads who put the cherry on the Sundae:

“One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of straight fiction books is that I feel like a lot of those stories are all around me. I don’t really want to read about someone growing slowly estranged from their spouse and having an affair, or someone dealing with the loss of a child. Too real, and I’ve heard it enough.” –Carol

In a forum post referencing Dr. Who, where “chips = mundane deadly boring life,” Tracey wrote that “Fantasy is one way of – vicariously – having the ‘so much more’ when our lives are really all about the *&$! chips.”

I believe fantasy succeeds in part because it is fun unencumbered by references to our daily lives. Nothing depresses me faster in a story than a mention of a real-world politician, real-world smog, or real-world psychopaths. The angst of reality can bleed into novels, or the other way around. A thriller story about hobos attacking subway passengers is going to come to mind whenever I need to take public transportation, whereas I do not perspire an ounce of cold sweat fearing dragons while visiting Carslbad Caverns. (Though I may enjoy imagining a scaly tail curled around stalagmites.) Thrillers add fear to reality. Fantasy adds wonder.

But must we call it “escapism?” I prefer to call reading fantasy “rejuvenation.” As mentioned in last week’s post, Dr. Brown identifies play as essential for happiness, where play is something done for its own sake, tends to free one from a sense of time and causes a diminished consciousness of self (no self-judgment). Reading fantasy fulfills these roles and more, which will be the subject of future posts.

Disclaimer: I am not saying readers of fantasy should not also enjoy traveling in the real world. Nor should we look down on those who cannot stop talking about last year’s trip. Traveling is fine, for those who cannot afford a good imagination.

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