Damien Walter has written a really interesting article on Does Fantasy Offer Escapism or Escape? It's a perennial question, but one that's worth revisiting and he's got some interesting stuff to say. Here's an extract, but be sure to read the whole thing...
The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned.
I think it's clear that there are two possible senses to "Escapism", which I discussed in a previous post on Escapism vs Imagination. When discussing fairy-tales, Tolkien distinguished “The Flight of the Deserter” from the “Escape of the Prisoner”. The fantastic can be used as a way of withdrawing and disengaging with reality. But it can be a way of accessing alternative ideas and resources from those immediately real to us, in order to change reality for the better. In my previous post, I used the term “Escapism” for the negative sense of Escape, and “Imagination” for Escape in the positive.
By Imagination, I mean stories that take us beyond ourselves, that broaden our horizons, that give us new windows on the world. C S Lewis explained in An Experiment in Criticism that he saw “Imagination” as what made stories worthwhile (although he didn't call it by that term):
What then is the good of - what is even the defence for - occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist...? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and selectiveness peculiar to himself... We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hears, as well as with our own... We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors...
This is escapism, not to get away from reality, but to discover new ways of seeing reality. Escapism on the other hand are stories merely as distraction, a withdrawal from reality. Escapism is to Imagination what pornography is to real relationships. Escapism never challenges us, or makes demands. It only serves to gratify our existing tastes, rather than to give us an appreciation of new things, the challenge of encountering people who are other to us. The majority of mass entertainment – books, films, television, video games - functions primarily as Escapism.
Science fiction and fantasy is often seen as particularly escapist. But although a large proportion of sf/fantasy is escapist, I’d argue that’s no more or less the care than fiction set in the “real world”. To pick an easy target, romance novels and chick lit are often just as transparently wish-fulfilment as any story in which a hero defeats the Dark Lord, rescues the Princess and saves the kingdom. Literary fiction and social realism and the like can all take Escapist forms. Science fiction and fantasy can and sometimes are imaginatively subversive of "reality".
Sometimes stories can be accessed either as Escapism or Imagination depending on the reader. It’s possible to read The Lord of the Rings simply as a glorified boys-own adventure story, but that misses out on the rich imaginative resources it offers of goodness and heroism, a love for the humble and natural, that’s a powerful counternarrative to the materialistic wasteland of Western (post)modernity. And sometimes a story that isn’t in itself particularly insightful or engaged might have a powerful Imaginative effect on the reader if it’s sufficiently outside the reader’s pre-existing awareness.
But Imagination is not just the enlargement of the self, the encounter with perspectives that are truly other to those we have already. Imagination is also the faculty through which we connect to Goodness, Beauty and Truth as transcendent realities beyond the simply material. That connection is mediated through symbols – through words, images and stories – which are embodied materially as paper and ink, or film and light, or bytes and pixels, but connect us to something extra-material.
As a Christian, I believe that Truth, Goodness, Beauty are all realities rooted in the character and being of God. We desire them and imagine them because we are made in his image, and our hunger for them is part of our hunger for Him. By accessing these through Imagination and seeking to make them real, we are ourselves imaging God.
But I don't think that you have to agree with me on the spiritual underpinnings of Imagination to buy into its importance as a positive escape that equips us to change the world. The fragmentation of modern life, the weak sense of community, and widely absent or insipid spirituality in our culture, are all reasons why Escape has a powerful appeal.
We are too often escapist in our reading and writing. But both as readers and writers, we have a responsibility to Escape not to run away from the problems that confront us in life, but to discover the imaginative resources to overcome them. Fantasy doesn't have to be escapist - use it to enlarge your self, to recover a sense of the good and true, and be more engaged with reality.
On this subject, I'd recommend listening to Andrew Fellows' lecture "Fantasy vs Imagination", which engages many of these themes and has influenced my thinking a lot.