Fantasy is a genre that is typically thought of as being escapist.
At a basic level, this means that people turn to fantasy to get away from the mundane—to experience something new and exciting, and to permit themselves to leave real-world stressors behind. However, reducing fantasy to escapism is a mistake, and it compromises our ability to appreciate all that fantasy has to offer. This approach to fantasy—treating it as something purely escapist—can also facilitate problematic ideas. For example, the notion that secondary worlds are somehow entirely divorced from our own and that we can therefore write those words however we please can lead authors to reproduce oppressive or violent dynamics without much self-reflexivity.
This is a mistake because, fundamentally, secondary worlds are always based on our own and therefore reflect our pre-conceived notions, internalized beliefs, and unconscious biases. No writer can conjure a world from nothing, so it goes without saying that all secondary worlds will reflect our own world to varying degrees. By extension, then, we can say that when fantastical worlds mirror our own, we are given a new lens through which we can view, interpret, and understand our world. This process is known as defamiliarization, and what fantasy offers us is a way to defamiliarize ourselves from the familiar. Ultimately, this gives us a way to step outside of our usual perspective and look at things with fresh eyes.
In other words, fantasy is anything but escapist.
One of the most poignant ways that fantasy has a positive impact on the real world is through something known as ‘transference,’ where diffuse or complicated concepts like trauma are transferred or embodied in something fantastical. Basically, it’s a fancy metaphor. The fantastic lets you take something otherwise abstract and give it a concrete form. By doing so, it allows you a space to explore it. Furthermore, it provides space for the indescribable to exist and affords an avenue to speak the unspeakable. Sometimes, speaking trauma is just too complicated or painful, or perhaps there is no language to express it effectively and in a way that others will understand. This indescribability is why so many authors are drawn to horror fiction as a way to explore specific traumas, because the fantastic offers them a way to speak the unspeakable through metaphor. For some, trauma can be likened to the experience of haunting, made manifest by a lingering, ghostly presence. For others, specific historic moments create specific monsters. Godzilla was born out of the trauma of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has transformed into a malleable symbol for all things apocalyptic in the human imagination. However, for Japanese people watching the first Godzilla film nine years after the nuclear attacks, the hulking monster provided an emotional catharsis and an avenue through which they could work through the devastation of the bombings.
One cannot understate the value of fantasy in giving us a tool to communicate. The ability to give form to our monsters also provides us with a way to confront them, understand them, and hopefully overcome them. This is not unlike the importance of giving names to specific experiences that come to inform identity; by externalizing the painful and complex aspects of our inner lives, we are able to form a clearer picture of them, name them, and begin to untangle them. Only then can they be productively incorporated into our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Fantasy also gives us space to imagine a world that is better than our own, and I don’t mean this in some fluffy, idealistic way. Rather, I mean that subverting expectation in small, unexpected ways can be extremely productive in helping us set an example for how people can strive to be better. One major argument against bare-bones realism in fiction is that it can sometimes reinforce already-existing, problematic dynamics. For example, gratuitous depictions of slavery in secondary worlds for the sake of realism do not serve any good purpose; they only reiterate something we already know about the real world, and if anything, they might only reinforce that bleak historical reality. The same can be said about misogyny; producing secondary worlds where women are persistently relegated to positions of powerlessness for the sake of realism isn’t terribly useful. It doesn’t mean that secondary worlds must be a utopia or can’t engage with these problems; these problems will likely find their way in regardless because they are so deeply rooted in our reality. The point, instead, is to be aware of them and the ways they inform our secondary worlds so that the fantasy can actively confront and subvert them. For example, rather than having a story that focuses on rulers, we can write a story that focuses on those who serve them to show how people in disadvantaged positions are still able to assert their agency and how those with power over them can respond kindly.
On the whole, fantasy has always been a genre that speaks to us about our existing circumstances, whether it’s by giving us metaphors for things we can’t put words to or by helping us imagine small ways to do better. Put another way, fantasy as a genre helps give us nuance in understanding our reality, and without it, the world would be a far less colourful place.