Thursday, April 12, 2018

Fantasy and/as Escape

A heartily recommended story in APEX (which can be read at no charge): "A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies," by Alix E. Harrow:

A Witch's Guide to Escape

There are two kinds of librarians in the world, "the prudish, bitter ones. . . who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches." This story's narrator, a librarian of the second kind, makes it her life's mission to guide readers to the books they need. Delightfully, books in her library have feelings and WANT to be read. A deeply unhappy boy in the foster care system finds his way to the library and becomes enthralled with tales of travel to other realms. Of one obscure novel whose "happy ending" returns its protagonist to the mundane world, the boy says, "The ending sucked." The narrator knows what he needs is the book whose title forms the name of the story, but to give him access to it, she would have to break a fundamental rule of her vocation.

Tolkien, in his classic essay "On Fairy Stories," lists the three primary functions of "Faerie" or "Fantasy" as recovery, escape, and consolation. About escape, so often condemned by "realists" as "escapism," he says, "I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter." C. S. Lewis, commenting on this passage, asks which people most dislike talk of escape; he answers, "Jailers."

This past week, I read THE HAZEL WOOD, by Melissa Albert, with a seventeen-year-old girl narrator whose grandmother wrote a collection of dark fairy tales that has become a cult classic. The narrator discovers that the world of the tales, as we would expect, actually exists and that the truth of her own past is inextricably bound up with the reality of her grandmother's stories. This novel combines my two favorite fantasy motifs, portals to magical worlds and a hero's discovery of his or her own other-than-mundane origin. (In THE HAZEL WOOD these revelations come with a grim twist, for the faerie realm the narrator enters is a far cry from Narnia.)

Another recent metafictional portal fantasy that grabbed me was Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children trilogy (EVERY HEART A DOORWAY, DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES, BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY). It centers on a boarding school for children and teenagers who have traveled to fantastic worlds, have returned against their wills to the "real" world, and find themselves unable to adjust to the change. Their oblivious parents expect the school to "cure" them of their "delusions," but in fact the founder of the home is a former traveler herself. Each inmate searches desperately for the door back into his or her true home; few ever find it. Such fantasies of "escape" incorporate the poignant realization embodied in many of "James Tiptree's" stories as well as countless other speculative fiction works: There is a place where I truly belong, but it is not here.

As more than one author has pointed out, it seems funny that critics often labeled science fiction "escapism" when that field grappled with world-changing issues such as nuclear war, overpopulation, and climate devastation long before they were on the radar of most members of the general public. (We may hope that attitude is fading away, now that many blockbuster films are SF or space opera and a science fiction romance—THE SHAPE OF WATER—won an Oscar.) Fantasy and SF, of course, aren't the only fictional escape portals available to us. Horror can serve as a consolation for real-life evils because the monsters in horror stories are clearly defined and able to be destroyed. In murder mysteries, including those populated by the bloodiest of serial killers, we escape to a realm where truth is revealed and justice prevails. Even a "realistic" novel about the dreary problems of a mundane protagonist can offer temporary relief from our own dreary problems, because art gives shape, structure, and direction to the turmoil of ordinary life. And aren't truth, justice, and artistic structure worthwhile phenomena to contemplate regardless of genre?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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