Lynda Barry, who is a treasure beyond compare and has never been given a tenth of what she deserves for it, once appeared on Letterman and said something to the effect that her favorite television was anything that had a cell dividing in it.
I'd known about Barry before, having stumbled across her strip Ernie Pook's Comeek and later on her album The Lynda Barry Experience. A line like that made me think of the likes of Laurie Anderson or even Virginia Woolf: someone with great and gentle attention to the wonderful things, when so much of the rest of the world has no such thing.
She also said this once, in her book What It Is:
There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.
I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.
They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.
Emphasis mine. Her notion complements my oft-quoted line from Václav Havel: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
Fantasy can be used as an anaesthetic or a distraction, but I don't think that's its real function. Its job is to give us new ways to look at what's around us every day, to shake that up a little, and to let us take something away from that shaking-up.
Zen practitioners (me included) talk of "beginner's mind", the ability to face things without preconceptions. Beginners have it so easy in some ways: they don't know what's not possible. Lester Bangs often told a story about a disheveled-looking guy (drug addict? psychiatric patient?) who wandered into a jazz club one night, picked up a double bass, and just started whacking away at it — didn't even know what end to hold. But Bangs heard music, and was convinced if the guy had stuck with it, he could have become a free bassist of remarkable talent. But he wandered back out into the night and was never seen again.
Fantasy knocks our frames of reference out and lets us see things like that would-be bass player. Everything becomes new and has to be rediscovered. Not in the tedious "re-lean how to make shoes and boil water" way Paul Goodman warned against (when talking about the dangers of autodidactism), but constructively so. It wipes the soot from our eyes.
We also have a tendency, and not a healthy one I think, to think fantasy has to become its own self-sustaining thing, a universe unto itself, to be any good. A while back I ran into a blog post about someone who disliked the Harry Potter franchise (this was long before J.K. Rowling's abysmal self-outing as a garbage person) because of its attitude towards magic. Instead of letting something magical shake up our daily lives a little (a la, say, Freaky Friday), it put a prep-school straitjacket on the whole thing. Other people have told me that one of the big influences on Potter, The Worst Witch, didn't make this same mistake, if only because it didn't try so hard to be a world unto itself. Not everything in our fantasies needs to be encyclopedically detailed; that's the pedantic version of an immersive experience. You want real VR, reach for the reader's heart.
If creating fantastic things has any greater motive, it's not to run from our world, but to bring something new into this one and thus transform it incrementally. One of the ways we transform it is by way of perspective, by altering how things are seen so that we respond to them differently. And by "differently" I mean with more compassion, more humanity, something that can in time transform everyone's actual situation and not just yours.