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Tolkien’s Fairy-Story Gifts: Escape

“I don’t want to analyze a story. I don’t want to find hidden meaning. I just want to escape from the real world for a bit.”

I’m guessing you’ve either heard some variation of those words or said them yourself. Books are for “escaping.” Stories are for entertainment value. A page-turner is all we want – something that will help us to “veg out,” to leave the day behind.

Authors: Mindless Entertainers, or Careful Artists?

I can’t begrudge someone entertainment. I like entertainment. I watch a few TV shows just for the mindlessness, and I watch others because they make me think. But a line often gets crossed in this type of thinking, which goes something like this: “Authors don’t have imaginative keys to their works. They’re not keeping secrets. You’re just looking for a ‘Da Vinci Code’ or something. You’re looking for some secret gnostic meaning.”

The reason I think this crosses a line is that the one who quickly dismisses, out-of-hand, that books have deeper levels of meaning, claiming that authors just writing exciting books for the profit and fun of it all, is insulting the craft of writing. Why is it the default assumption that authors don’t have imaginative keys to their work?  Why is the author, by default, put in the role of mindless entertainer, instead of careful artist?

Escape to More Permanent Things

The real “gnosticism” in this discussion is not the artist who builds a story on an imaginative key, but one who thinks that books provide some “escape” from the “real world,” and that this escape is a good thing. Tolkien wrote,

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in a 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?

For Tolkien, the pejorative use of “escapism” was married to the false belief that current trends define Real Life – the electric street lamp, for example, is nowhere near as permanent as Lightning. But most of us know more about the lamp, because it’s more relevant to our daily existence. The fairy-tale takes us to the lightning, the “more permanent thing.”

This also answers the person who thinks that escape is simply a mindless, page-turning getaway, a vacation in your own armchair. The Escape is most certainly a delight, a joy, and a “break” from the daily mundane activities of life, as well as the more prison-like aspects of our existence. But it is an Escape that puts us in contact with themes and symbols and a cohesive, magical world from which we should not return unchanged for the better.

And if this is what Escape is, why would the careful artist not deliberately choose her imaginative key, what Michael Ward calls the kappa (or secret) element?

Tolkien believed that the true escapist, or the “fugitive spirit,” will be drawn by the “oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” This “Escape from Death” is at the heart of the best books – the ones that stir our hearts, give us deeper understanding of our pain, and glimpses of joy to come.

Adapted from the post “Escape Into the Perilous Realm,” which applies these thoughts to J.K. Rowling’s books.


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