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* Even before the contemporary genre known as fantasy had become a formalized marketing category notorious for novels starring plucky farm-boys turned heroes, set in a generic medieval Europe, and trumped up with garish jacket art often featuring a good bit of exposed female flesh, the modern "fairy-stories" popularized by such writers as George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien had come under fire from critics who labeled these childish flights of fancy as "escapist." From Plato to the Puritans on down, something like the charge of escapism has plagued poets and fiction writers of all stripes, but, curiously, this particular accusation has also persisted as an indictment of genre fiction originating in what science fiction fans and critics have taken to calling the mainstream literary establishment. (1) Indeed, while the study of science fiction and fantasy has now become institutionalized and genre works are no longer roundly dismissed as "paraliterary," both inside the academy and out, a certain snobbery persists and literary realism remains regnant--all in spite of the best efforts of both those destabilizing, irrealist postmodernists and the magical realists on the fringes. (2) Of course, Tolkien or C. S. Lewis would famously refute early charges of escapism either by associating a predilection for the mode with an ability to awaken to the occulted but ultimate reality of the Christian faith, or, more pithily, by pointing out that the typical opponent of escapism was the jailer. (3) Long after Tolkien delivered the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews that became the essay "On Fairy-Stories," readers and writers of all manner of fantasy would, to varying degrees, appeal to Tolkien's argument for the form's liberating potential in order to defend against criticisms of the genre, in particular his incisive distinction between "the Escape of the Prisoner" and "the Flight of the Deserter" (79). What interests me here, however, is the response of later fantasists who have instead rejected Tolkien's defense of the fantastic; for example, outspoken socialist "New Weird" author China Mieville has recently attacked escapist fantasy by invoking an equally witty retort to the Inklings' witticism: "As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape" ("Tolkien"). We see then that fantasists like Mieville and Moorcock fault Tolkienian fantasy particularly for its failure to be socially progressive, (4) but, especially in recent decades, works of fantasy across the political spectrum--and across narrative media--have become all but obsessed with the escapist impulse and its ramifications. In this essay, I will trace the charge of escapism as expressed and addressed in Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth and Guillermo del Toro's own fairytale fantasy from exactly two decades later, El laberinto del fauno {Pan's Labyrinth). (5) In light of the staggered appearance of these two rather different films that nevertheless share this same thematic focus, it may be significant that the early years of both the 1980s and the 2000s saw respective explosions in the production of Hollywood fantasies, and largely in the ever lucrative category of heroic fantasy: notable examples include Excalibur in 1981 and Conan the Barbarian in the following year, and then the serial box-office powerhouses in the Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and Harry Potter (2001-11) mega-franchises. Whether or not we should understand Henson and del Toro's somewhat lower-profile fantasy films as direct responses to such mainstream hits must remain an open question, but they are unmistakably united in their efforts to take up and examine the challenge of escapism by employing the trope of the labyrinth in addition to several trappings of the "postmodern fairytale."

Professional & Technical
March 22

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