When you are sad, where do you go? Some stay inside watching their favorite shows, some break down and cry, others go out, attempting to drown themselves in a plethora of drinks or people. I have done all of these things at different times, in different moments, yet there has always been somewhere just the tiniest bit more welcoming - fantasy. Fantasies are often defined by their magical features, obscure worlds building and compelling characters that span across time and space. This is what draws you in, that otherworldliness that seeps through pages and images on your screen. It's as if you are being sucked into a completely different place, not just observing a narrative in a story you are already a part of. Perhaps that is why I was so drawn to and intrigued by the worlds built by Rick Riordan, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Sarah J. Maas. These were worlds expertly carved from cracks in this world; myths, legends, that small magic in every aspect of life that was stretched, explored and finally written down for everyone to see or experience. But let's go back to the definition of fantasy - not the definition I have given it, not the properties that often define it but the true definition, “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible and improbable things,” (Lexico Dictionaries, n.d.). This is where escapism comes in.
Escapism can be defined as the “tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities,” with this, fantasy is the perfect place for many to delve into for a moment’s solace (Lexico Dictionaries, n.d.). However, this belief of a moment of escapism is based on the idea that the individual will return to their unpleasant reality, something easier said than done. Nobody likes pain or suffering, especially not those that insist on invading their lives. With that pressure of this reality building, some would rather drift into the comfort of their favorite fantasy world with fairies, elves, orcs and witches. However, when one is faced with a more pleasant or less-threatening reality, they have difficulty returning to their own, such as rereading that pivotal kiss between the main characters after destroying the Evil Magic King rather than reflecting on the fight you just had with your partner. This here would be avoidance and though calming in the moment, can lead to a distanced approach to your own life, becoming an observer rather than the main character with feelings drifting further away the more pages you flip. It is a coping mechanism that is dangerous when used in excess, like all others. But now I question, is fantasy only a temporary escape or a prolonged vacation from reality? Can these fictitious landscapes not tell us more about our lives, about this reality when facing something directly is a bit too difficult?
There were times when I could barely understand anything, war, genocide, pain, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, all of it. I wondered why over and over again till I felt suffocated by the box my questions had put me in. Is it not improbable that someone would want to destroy an entire population purely for an arbitrary reason such as religious beliefs, a sense of superiority or greed? Should that not be the thing that is impossible instead of me being able to bend the elements with my hands? This is where fantasy assisted me. Contrary to popular belief, fantasy is not solely used to escape the binary confines of this world but rather to illuminate its flaws and make them understandable through its own absurdity. For example, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a series that focuses on a boy who can bend the four elements, water, air, fire and earth, in a world where some can bend those elements while others cannot (Dante DiMartino, 2005). Based on the description I just gave and the demographic this show was marketed to, one could assume that it was simply a show displaying a powerful chosen one facing his task in a world that is very unlike our own. However, this world is built on clear divisions between kingdoms and does not shy away from the mass genocide committed by a singular kingdom in order to achieve power (Dante DiMartino, 2005). This was a children's show but it did what many adults were unable to answer for me which is answer why people destroy lives and who is held responsible. The answer was shown through a plethora of amazing fight scenes and funny quips, but from the beginning, there was a light shone on the inner workings of what we defined as improbable and impossible. Genocide happens over the most minimal differences, people can be exploited and war puts children at the forefront of violence they most likely had no hand in creating. Yet, it is not only conflict that fantasy has the ability to explore, it is ourselves, the individual human condition which can be surprisingly told through less than human characters.
Take the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, also known as ACOTAR, as an example. It is marketed as a Beauty and the Beast retelling using fairies and humans fighting your average curse through love but that is not all (Maas, 2017). ACOTAR explored the warning signs of emotional abuse within a relationship as well as our own romanticization of toxicity. I was able to follow a relationship first-hand through the main character, Feyre, watching as she justified gaslighting, victim-blaming and lack of regard for consent till the conditions became so overtly abusive that she realized her imbalanced relationship (Maas, 2017). As soon as these behaviors became apparent I reread the first book and I saw it all. I misattributed overly-controlling to overprotectiveness, aggressiveness to emotionality and lack of communication to silent caring just as she did. I missed warning signs that were so clear. With the series I confronted my own lens of relationships, of their development, of traits that could seem endearing but in excess are just plainly dangerous.
Abuse seems obvious, war seems obvious but perhaps we do not actually know what we think we know until someone with pointed ears and wings goes through the same thing, because behind this unlikely power or improbable situations, there are genuine feelings, genuine lives encapsulated in a magical, glittery form. It is in these works that I find the truths of our own reality, when things seem just a bit more tangible as told through something that is meant to suspend my disbelief. With this, I was taught friendship, love, war, pain and even mental illness through people I related to purely in mind rather than species or circumstance. My perspective on the real world acclimated to this distillation of human values in these “fantasy” scapes because when something was explained through another in a completely different place, with different rules the components of those things are manageable. PTSD is much more simple when you see an elf struggling to come back from a war with the orcs than when you watch young men dying in a war against other young men. And racism seems so much more arbitrary and stupid when the reader knows the main character who has blue skin is just as important, intelligent and powerful as any other person in that story despite the contant stares as well as microaggressions thrown towards them. Why? Because people are not blue, and suddenly that lack of realness and absurdity elucidates a problem some people still have trouble grasping the extent of, the realness of it right now, in this world.
With this, I say that escapism is a double-edged sword and not King Arthur’s. Delving into a world that is not your own can either cause a disconnect and make it so you avoid the reality you struggle with or makes you more aware of that same reality. I have experienced both. I have nuzzled my crying face into a book till late at night after my mother screamed at me, wishing I could be anywhere but here and I have fallen deeply into a book world with demigods and satyrs only to realize the importance of friendship. And yes, there are times when the veil between what is healthy and what is detrimental in escapism is very thin. I have walked that line and fallen over, struggling to find my way back into my own life but the truth is, it is more real than many would like to admit. It is not delusional to see yourself in the characters of elves or as a bender of water, it's by far more absurd to be so lost in the reality of only your life. With that I say, read, watch, play and imagine being a fairy if that makes you happy, but please come back to this world with what you found, we need more fairies.
Dante DiMartino, M. (2005, February 21). Avatar: The Last Airbender. whole, Nickelodeon.
Lexico Dictionaries. (n.d.). ESCAPISM: Definition of escapism by Oxford dictionary on LEXICO.COM also meaning of escapism. Lexico Dictionaries | English. https://www.lexico.com/definition/escapism.
Lexico Dictionaries. (n.d.). FANTASY: Definition of fantasy by Oxford dictionary on LEXICO.COM also meaning of fantasy. Lexico Dictionaries | English. https://www.lexico.com/definition/fantasy.
Maas, S. J. (2017). A court of thorns and roses. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.