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Escapism as a positive good (Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," second essay) - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Escapism as a positive good (Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," second essay)
As threatened, I've written another long essay on Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories." And there are more to come. Oops.

I don't have my copy of the essay right with me, so the little sample of Tolkien's humor will have to come later. For now, I'd like to look at this concept, a central one in his thinking about the function of fairy stories. In the thirties, as in the contemporary world, "escapism" was a charge thrown scornfully at fantasy, with the clear academic preference going to realistic "slice-of-life" type writing. Tolkien was quite impatient with this, writing it off as a misuse of the term... and suggesting some darker motives for the dislike. From "On Fairy Stories":

In what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life, it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism, it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently, we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. 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 has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape 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...

In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on Desertion, but onto real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.

Honestly, I think I'm slow on the uptake. It's only fairly recently that I realized there are people in the world who read a book or see a movie and don't wonder what else is in a world, what might have happened next, what might have gone before.

No, really--they exist, I swear!

Oh, I mean I had some intellectual idea that they were out there, but I never really accepted it in a tangible way. I think I figured they were all covering it up, the way my mother does sometimes. (She says she doesn't understand fanfic writing, but I know she wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E. fanfic as a teenager--she swears they stole The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. from a story she showed her teacher--and I've heard her speculate about Star Trek side stories, and Hawkeye and Margaret's children from M*A*S*H. She's a major Hawkeye/Margaret shipper.) Maybe they didn't realize what they were doing, or were keeping it private. Maybe they were afraid of the smear brush from popular culture. (That popular culture is created largely by consumers didn't strike me as a contradiction, since all of these people were obviously trying very hard to keep their fannish interests secret.)

Finally, it struck me. Some people just really don't open the escape hatch in the brain and jump through it gratefully. In fact, they've covered it up with a throw-rug because it's an unsightly mark on the floor, and they never even look at it or wonder what might be under there. These folks are different from the paranoid types who padlock it and set a twenty-four hour guard, but they're far more numerous.

It's like they don't even see the bars on the windows, and ignore the fact that there's something on the other side of them that might look different.

The funny part of all of this is that they seem to feel sorry for me. Lives in her imagination, tut-tut, poor thing, all obsessed with airiness. Or they despise me--"Let's lock her in her cupboard under the stairs until she comes to her senses! I'll have none of that nonsense at Number 4, Privet Drive!"

Tolkien's metaphor of everyday life as a prison where innocent men are held--and the imagination sets them free--may be a bit extreme for some people, though as a metaphor, I think it works quite well. (If you don't believe me, watch (or read) The Shawshank Redemption, aka, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," from Stephen King's Different Seasons... King uses the metaphor directly, right down to Andy Dufresne's imaginary girlies literally covering up his escape route, and Darabonte--thank heaven--is faithful to this.) We're all, to some extent, trapped in the shapes of our lives, imprisoned by vague, impersonal factors. We see what we see and experience what we experience, and that shapes the way we respond to a great many things. The memories we build day by day push us one direction or another, and as often as not, we find ourselves in a rut--the prison Tolkien speaks of.

On an individual level, fantasy serves to pull us out of the rut. Tolkien refers to this as Re-covery, a subject I'll tackle in depth some other time. For now, to continue the prison metaphor (and, what the heck, the Shawshank connection), it's a chance to tar the roof... to feel, for a moment, like you're free, to see further and breathe fresh air.

This isn't true only of fantasy-the-genre, of course; it's true of deep reading and deep viewing of any genre. But the stories that seem to draw this type of reading and viewing most often seem to come from the speculative fiction genre. (Yes, Shawshank is an exception... sort of; it's too metaphorical to exactly be called realism.) People who are drawn to imagine are drawn to imagine things that no one has ever seen.

For deep readers, books also create new memories, not, at a primal level, any different from their primary, real-world memories. I don't have the book with me for a direct quote, but in the introduction to Orson Scott Card's Maps in the Mirror, Card points out that, at a certain level, there is no difference between individual and communal memories, that his thoughts and choices are influenced by memories built of standing at Mount Doom with Frodo, and knowing the price of ultimate power. This isn't a conscious, pat-yourself-on-the-back use of the imagination, it's just... where the story goes. It becomes part of the building we live in, expanding it, giving us more room to maneuver. We don't make conscious choices based on it (as Card puts it, "Who would have time for such complicated thinking in a moment of crisis, anyway?"), but because it's been an experience--a real experience in a very real way--it has built part of our minds, and that resource is now part of us. It's ours.

At this point, imagination becomes not only an escape hatch, but a social force. When Tolkien speaks of "Disgust, Anger, Condemnation," he's not speaking idly, nor metaphorically. It's not overblown. When part of your "life experience" is walking through Fangorn forest, then the loss of even the pathetic remnants of forests in the real world isn't an abstract concept--it's something happening to a sort of place that you love, and it's disgusting, and it makes you angry. When you've seen humans of all hues living with aliens of all species in reasonable harmony, tribalist hatred of the Other becomes not only infuriating, but utterly disgusting. You've seen something better; you can no longer simply tolerate what is. I think this is why, of all the fiery speeches delivered during the Civil Rights movement, the one that is remembered is "I Have A Dream"--it was a vision, a story to believe in, and we believed in it.

Which, of course, becomes a real problem for people very invested in the status quo, one way or the other. People who use their imaginations can see things as they aren't, and people who can do a thing like that... well you never know what they might do.

This certainly has its flat-out dangerous face. Not for nothing is Faerie also called the Perilous Realm. The person who believes a violent story or who has become too deeply entrenched in a story to note the subtle differences between vision and reality is mad, and needs counselling. But I think this face is a much rarer face of the imagination, and it's certainly not the one that is simply scorned, derided, pitied, and otherwise marginalized.

That is the face of Revolt. Not violent Revolt. Not every Revolt involves tearing down streetlights (as Tolkien grumbled that he would like to do, though to the best of my knowledge never did). It means being able to envision something different from what is, and to act on that vision. While a non-imaginative person who looks at an ugly building may think, "That's an ugly building"--may even wish idly that it had been built differently--an imaginative one might, for instance, find out about painting a bright mural on it, or planting a garden around its base. This is a minor Revolt.

He might also envision that the whole neighborhood would be healthier with more murals and gardens, and start a neighborhood group to make this happen. As people work together and get to know one another, the neighborhood builds itself. Someone else sees the trash-littered alley behind the store and cleans it up. A third person realizes that the guy hanging out by the schoolyard is dealing things they don't really want in school. And so on.

Finally, our original imaginative person thinks, "You know, this has worked out well. I'll bet it would work in other neighborhoods." He envisions a healthy city full of gardens and murals, and he runs for city council. This is a major Revolt.

A lovely story.

Unless you're the current city councilor, the current mayor, or the entire network of groups that depend on the political machine operating the same way until the world ends. Or if you're the guy who's dealing things that parents don't want dealt down in the schoolyard. Or if you're the landlord who was planning to tear down an apartment house that no one used to care about. Or, to be fair, if you're a person renting at a low rate who realizes that the upshot of all of this is bound to be higher rents, which will force you out of your home (unless another imaginative person--someone more imaginative than I am, anyway--figures out how to short-circuit that particular effect). In other words, if you have a stake in the status quo, imaginative Revolt is a dangerous thing, no matter how pretty it may look.

And anyway, as the neighborhood cynic will point out, everyone knows that, with the way the world is--can't you just see reality, please?--the murals will be covered with graffiti, the gardens torn up, the alleyway re-strewn with trash, and the old man cleaning it beaten to pulp by the thugs who use it. And as for that guy in the schoolyard? Face reality. If he goes, another one will pop up in his place.

So really, why bother, anyway?

Nasty cycle, isn't it?

Still, in the end, I like my garden-planter better, and hope he's imaginative enough to help the poor little old lady in 5B, so her landlord doesn't throw her out for the latest yuppie temporaries. I certainly prefer him to the cynic, who is so trapped in her worldview that she's literally unable to conceive of things becoming better.

ETA: Story rec. I thought I'd done this awhile ago (hence its presence as an option on the quiz I did). But anyway, Autopilot is a story from Anakin's training, about a special lesson Obi-Wan devises for him to try and learn to trust the Force.

The link is to a_p_'s site, but this cool cover by Chris Madden is on TFN.

I feel a bit...: bored bored

5 comments or Leave a comment
mafdet From: mafdet Date: April 7th, 2004 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I happen to prefer historical novels, mysteries, romance (yes!) and fantasy for my reading. To hell with "litrachoor." (Even though Tolkien arguably falls into this category.) I want adventure, excitement, world-building, and larger-than-life characters.

This is one reason why I hate hearing canon characters disparaged as Mary Sues or Gary Stus. (Hermione "changing over the summer" or Harry developing "Quidditch Toned Muscles" in bad fanfics is different.) One doesn't read fantasy or history to learn all about the Mundane Life of Schleppy McBore, one wants Drama, Excitement, Passion and larger-than-life leads.

I like to think that Tolkien would feel the same as I do about the horror/waste of printed matter that is the "contemporary short story." I surmise that lovers of dry-as-dust "contemporary lit" which gets praised on the New York Review of Books but rarely actually read, are like those people who self-righteously eat very strict diets consisting largely of tasteless kinds of food. "But it's GOOD for you," they cry. That doesn't matter if it tastes nasty.

I prefer fantasy and romance to "contemp lit" and fettucine Alfredo to brown rice. :P to the anti-fans.
narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: April 7th, 2004 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, you've added yet another book to my summer reading list.

You put into words almost exactly what I've been thinking for a long time. In fact, I was planning to post my own essay on escapism influenced by Lewis, but you beat me to it. I may hold off on that until I read On Faerie Stories.

You may have read this already, but here's a quote from one of Lewis's essays on the same topic that I'm pretty sure stuck in my mind word-for-word:

"Fairy stories are important not because they teach us that dragons are real, but because they teach us that dragons can be defeated."
(Deleted comment)
sonetka From: sonetka Date: April 7th, 2004 10:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
When part of your "life experience" is walking through Fangorn forest, then the loss of even the pathetic remnants of forests in the real world isn't an abstract concept--it's something happening to a sort of place that you love, and it's disgusting, and it makes you angry.

Very true - but what if part of your life experience is being lost in Dante's Dark Wood? (Hmmm, I just finished updating with a bit of Dantean metaphor a few minutes ago - he's on my mind right now, I guess). In that case you might want to create more open spaces :). (Seriously though, very good essay. Thanks for sharing!)
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: April 8th, 2004 07:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Love, love, love, love On Fairy-stories! And I must second several of the comments already up here. I don't want to hear about people with dry lives, I want to hear about people who faced down the great dangers of life, who slew the dragon, who lived in a larger world than mine! Not because I'm dissatisfied by the world I live in, but because when I read or hear of these great adventures and great lives, it makes my own life look different!

After reading Tolkien's work, all great rivers are Anduin, and all mountains Caradhras or Erebor or Orodruin or Mindolluin. All forests are Mirkwood or Fangorn or Doriath. Tolkien said that fantasy creatures "ennoble" real creatures, and I think that's true. Fantasy or any imaginative literature lets us see our world differently, and with richer colors.

If there's one thing Escape does, is it makes us more aware of the world we're in, be it a prison or not.
5 comments or Leave a comment