By now you know I am convinced fantasy is the best and most beautiful genre of fiction in the world. But I don’t often talk about why.
A while back (yes, concerts and work and university finals, I know. I’m awake now) I stumbled across Sarah Seele’s lovely post “They Found Loveliness Everywhere.” Do go read it because it’s a fascinating discussion on escapism and it should convince you to read Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories and rethink your life.
How I envied him, getting to write academic papers on fantasy.
I, however, am going to take an entirely different direction on the topic.
I’m going off on the deep end by examining actual characters who use escapism in literature and how it matters. And then promptly get far too dewy-eyed and philosophical and say things that might not mean anything at all.
So here I was, reading about escapism.
I was almost instantly reminded of a scene from The Princess Bride. In the Zoo of Death (Pit of Despair in the movie version), when Count Rugen is torturing Westley. There’s a line that echoes in my mind from the day I read it until now.
You have gone away in your mind!Goldman, William. The Princess Bride.
In context, it’s about how Westley could withstand anything, absolutely anything, because he could think about Buttercup and leave the real world behind, completely oblivious to his own pain. Romantic, I know. Do not light your hands on fire at home.
What does it mean, going away in your mind? Escapism? Something more?
No. Nothing. Of course. Nothing.
Patrick Rothfuss does something similar in his genius, revolutionary, to-die-for novel The Name of the Wind. He calls it “Heart of Stone,” when a man “could go to his sister’s funeral and never shed a tear.” A mental process that makes external situations totally remote, even unimportant. Further, the magic system is based on splitting one’s mind into sections, each one focused on a different thought, and with it, controlling the physical world. Knowing that you can’t make something that is real be any different from what it is, and somehow, somehow with the power and strength of your will and mind, changing it anyway.
Impossible. Beautifully so.
Even Death in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief uses escapism to cope with the struggles of a stressful job. The opening descriptions of colors, little vacations he takes in his thoughts since he can’t get away in reality is more mesmerizing than it has any right to be.
A pirate, a wizard, and Death, all using escapism. All finding a place, even within their beautiful, enormous, enchanting fictional worlds, where they can rest, feel safe, breathe again.
Maybe nothing. Fictional characters are reflections of people in unexpected situations. Maybe it’s nothing remarkable at all.
But before we’re done, let me tell you one last story. One that isn’t published anywhere, and lies much closer to home.
This may come as a surprise to you, but I’m terrible at communicating in real life. Seriously. As in I don’t talk. At all. Strider the Ranger in the corner of the Prancing Pony Inn is more chatty than I am. It’s difficult to have people understand you when that’s the case, when conversation is often endlessly irritating. And so one day I found myself, at the end of my rope, saying (not quite shouting) to a loved one You have gone away inside your mind!
It was the only way I knew how to explain it.
The situation boiled down to this–as long as I could handle the trashy stuff in my life (and let’s face it, we all have a little) with one eye on something else, it didn’t bother me. As long as I didn’t have to discuss all the finer points of planning out solutions, as long as it didn’t fill the whole of my thoughts, I could handle it. And be chipper enough at the same time.
By being a very good liar. By telling myself stories in my head, all the time. By preoccupying myself with the fact that the Phantom of the Opera’s mask is perfect for a violinist because it only covers the right half of the face. By laughing at one of my character’s reactions to old movies. By always having a story, a novel, a movie, a play, at the tip of my tongue, the corner of my eye, playing itself out in the back of my mind. By not looking down.
By going away inside my mind.
It’s rubbish. Nonsense. Not real.
Except, maybe, for someone who’s a little insane. Or a writer. Someone like me.
This is more an observation than anything else. A question. Something book characters do. Readers. And me, apparently. But I’ll take this chance to express a dangerous sentiment.
Suppose escapism isn’t just a coping mechanism. Suppose instead that it’s a perspective. A different way of looking at life. One where dragons and hovercraft populate the sky and untold treasures and lost empires lie buried in the soil beneath your feet. One where anything can happen, and we act like characters in books.
I don’t mean, of course, the standard YA trope fests, stereotypical romance novels, or spy stories that think CIA means “I can shoot anything that moves and get away with it.” I mean the sort of characters who live in the moment because the reader doesn’t have the patience to sit through chitchat or coffee or putting off the adventure until tomorrow. Book characters get things done. They face their fears. They live, in ways that make them more vibrant and real than any of us.
So I wonder. What would happen if we treated the world as a story? One we have the power to write. To change. Just a little.
What stories would we tell?