Image: Square Enix, Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Fantasy literature: the capitalist roots of our desire to escape to another world

Fantasy novel sales are on the rise, having doubled since 2010 and are now forecasted to break the £50m mark for the first time ever this year. Aside from social media’s enormous contribution to the genre’s popularity, the take-off of fantasy’s success can be attributed largely to a growing desire for ‘escapism’ – increased political turmoil, conflict, climate catastrophe, and the rapid spread of global news are enough to make anyone retreat into the world of the fantastical and absurd. But are dragons and trolls more than just manifestations of our instinct to run away from it all?

‘Escapism’ is hardly free from negative connotations. It raises a chorus of psychological alarm bells; it’s a slippery slope to the neglect of our responsibilities, avoiding real-life challenges until, before we know it, it’s turned into full-blown self-delusion. In fact, escapism is defined less by what it is, than what it distracts from. Sure, we’re all accustomed to life’s relentless tedium, hardships, and injustices, but you’ve just got to get on with it!

“We know how escapism manifests, but not why”

But what, exactly, is the cause of this discomfort? Why are we so endlessly dissatisfied that self-indulgence in ‘make-believe’ is so desirable? We know how escapism manifests, but not why.

In modern society, it’s impossible to separate our perpetual discontent from the socioeconomic system that keeps a choke-hold on lives and our happiness. When the value of everything is defined by profit, including our time, the pressures of endless productivity become inescapable. And as a result, the implications of late-stage capitalism manifest internally, and guilt, restlessness, and dissatisfaction become familiar realities that we experience all too regularly. It’s easy to see why the idea of escapism is so discouraged: how is ignoring ‘reality’ supposed to keep you participating in consumer culture? In a competitive world that defines self-worth in entirely money-based terms, a moment of relief in a fantastically unconstrained world seems only natural.

But that doesn’t mean you’re simply burying your head in the sand by picking up a Tolkien novel. Escapism can be a healthy coping mechanism – some critics even claim that reading fantasy can have psychological benefits, as balancing rationality and imagination is necessary to maintain mental well-being. But beyond the imaginative and creative essences of fantasy, the genre may have a political quality that is often overlooked. Beyond the obvious commentary on industrialisation in The Lord of the Rings or the parallels with the Russian Revolution in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, fantasy’s political function may be more covertly hidden in its daring attempt to present an alternative reality.

For China Miéville, author of the steampunk high-fantasy Perdido Street Station, fantasy’s political possibilities lie in simply the construction of a fantastically fictitious world. By familiarising the unfamiliar and making true what is clearly an impossible world for its readers, fantasy literature ‘mimics the ‘absurdity’ of capitalist modernity’; within its own internal limits, fantasy  creates an ordered, logical, and coherent ‘reality’ for its characters that they know to be ‘true’. What, then, distinguishes its ‘reality’ from our own? We indulge in full knowledge that what we are reading is an impossibility, but it is our desire for an alternative that shows us what we feel we’re missing out on.

Even the most absurd forms of fantasy can reflect back on our world to reveal the nature of our discontent, and it would be impossible to mention absurdist fantasy without Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. While magic is often presented, when in the right hands, as a scientifically straight-forward force for good within the genre, in Pratchett’s novels it carries a vague and elusive characteristic, and intentionally so. In a later instalment in the series, Thud!, protagonist Sam Vimes exclaims:

“And that’s why I don’t like magic, captain. ‘Cos it’s magic. You can’t ask questions, it’s magic. It doesn’t explain anything, it’s magic. You don’t know where it comes from, it’s magic! That’s what I don’t like about magic, it does everything by magic!”

Magic is frustratingly undefinable for Sam, and the parallels with our own form of ‘magic’ are unavoidable. We are motivated by a mysterious force that is not immediately obvious to us, though keeps us in competition, working endlessly to secure the basic needs of our survival, pervading our self-image though never presenting itself as the answer to why we’re just so tired all the time. If that’s ‘reality’, then it’s just as much of a fallacy as any kind of ‘magic’.

Can we really see reading fantasy as any kind of political action? In a system where time is money, with the colonisation of free time meaning leisure is an impossibility, perhaps there is something inherently rebellious in ‘escaping’ reality for a moment to imagine another world. Maybe we don’t truly ‘escape’ reality, then, but we construct it somewhere else, and it is our desire to do so that could just be engine fuel for real change in our own lives.


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