In discussing Fanatasy I've come across a lot of claims that the genre promotes escapism. This seems to be sort of a heated debate surrounding the genre. In one camp you have the people that say all fantasy is escapist and therefore worthless. It rots the supple minds of young children and corrupts otherwise normal productive adults and we should probably just burn all works of fantasy in a giant communal bonfire. In the other camp are those who think that there are important lessons and themes addressed in works of fantasy that are applicable to everyday life and real life situations. These individuals read works like Tolkein, become well versed in the Elvish languages and the lore of Middle Earth and often become so delusional that they end up convincing themselves that they must go on quests of some kind. These quests typically involve roaming around inner city neighborhoods and dark alleyways dressed as Wizards and Elves searching for discarded cans and placing them in old rickety shopping carts that they believe possess magical powers.
I think that there are some problems with both sides of this argument. First of all I have a hard time with claims that fantasy is less legitimate then other genres because it promotes escapism. Escapism as I understand it and as defined by the Compact OED is "the seeking of distraction from reality by engaging in entertainment or fantasy" (http://www.askoxford.com/). According to this definition all fiction promotes escapism to some extent because it engages the reader in an imagined set of circumstances often for the purpose of entertainment. Even in the most staunchly realist fiction the reader is creating a world out of the text that is seperate from the real world. This argument can even be extended into the realm of non fiction. History and Biography texts use techniques and structures akin to fiction writing in order to construct and interesting and comprehensable story. This allows readers who are interested in the subject matter to immerse themselves in the stories that are created and temporarily escape the circumstances of their everyday reality. Escapism is something that readers can concievably do with any kind of text so to say that the promotion of this act devalues the genre is to devalue all coherent forms of narrative.
If escapism is an act that a reader can do with any text then the claim that fantasy promotes that act more than other genres becomes increasingly complicated. I've seen first hand that fantasy does not promote escapism for everyone. Since I am in both the American Studies course and the Major Authors course I got to see a wide range of reactions to Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. In the Major Authors course it is safe to say that at least some of us were able to temporarily escape from reality through Tolkien's elaborate flowing prose into the world that it constructs. It's a class full of English Majors, thats pretty much expected. In the American Studies class it seemed that the only escapism that Tolkien promoted was the escape from reality through dreams after the book's painfully long descriptions put everyone to sleep. So the so called escapist literature worked well with one group but not another. In order to press the connection between the fantasy genre and escapism it seems you would have to make the claim that the genre attracts a readership that is more inclined towards escapism. There could be some truth to this claim and to similar claims that some fans of fantasy tend to over-indulge in escapism to the point where they become detatched from reality. There could be interesting work to be done here but it seems to fully support these claims there would need to be some extensive research that is more focused on the psychology of individual readers and the culture of the general readership of fantasy.
It seems to me that there are also some problems with arguments in defense of fantasy. When faced with a claim that fantasy is illegitimate because it is escapist, advocates of the genre quickly point out all of its other redeeming qualities. It may be escapist but it is legitimate because it is well written or influential or because (as Armitt suggests) it is really a part of an elaborate and long standing literary tradition. All the while the actual question of escapism is largely ignored. I think a stronger argument would be that all texts perform the function of escapism to some degree and that fantasy does it exceedingly well for certain types of readers. Escapism does not make the genre illigitimate but is instead just one way in which the text functions. This among other functions make fantasy intersting to read and worthy of study.