When we speak about fantasy or fairy-tales, the term “escapist literature” often goes hand in hand with them. However, it is not always used in a good sense: while some view escapism as good and harmless, others treat it with contempt and mistrust.Professor Tolkien was very well aware of the latter category of critics. In his essay On Fairy-Stories he addressed this issue in details, claiming that Escape was one of the primary functions of fairy-tales and fantasy. But what and how can we escape from by reading this kind of literature? In On Fairy-Stories Tolkien gave several notions we might need escape from, including the miseries of the Robot Age, poverty, hunger or death. The present essay will be primarily concerned with escape from various aspects of the Robot Age.
Tolkien’s own fiction is notably marked by the absence of any elaborate machinery we can see and apply in our times of industrial progress. There is, of course, Saruman with his genetic engineering, technological advances in Isengard and devastation in the Shire; Lotho Pimple with his mechanised mill which pollutes the Shire and spoils the scenery with its hideousness; or Sauron and Saruman using explosives and other advanced weaponry in battles. Within Tolkien’s word machinery remains mostly confined to the villains’ perusal, and otherwise characters use axes, swords or bows to fight, horses to travel and fire to cook on. Earlier versions of the published stories, which can be found in the History of Middle-earth, feature inspired by Sauron and used by the Númenóreans metal ships without sails that can travel at a high speed at any time regardless the wind or missiles that fly big distances. When the siege of Gondolin begins, there are iron serpents that carry a lot of Melko’s Orcs inside and can climb over the mountains. However, these extreme displays of advanced technology were left firmly in transitional versions and never made it to the published texts. There seems to be a good reason for that.
In On Fairy-Stories Tolkien called not including electric street-lamps in a story a form of Escape, arising from “a considered disgust for so typical a product of the Robot Age, that combines elaboration and ingenuity of means with ugliness, and (often) with inferiority of result” (Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 376-377). Writing stories about the world of our imaginary past and not being particularly fond of industrial progress, Tolkien chose not to include so many hideous manifestations of the increasingly industrialised everyday life in his books as it might as well have contradicted his philosophy and outlook on life.
One of Tolkien’s major criticisms of those who looked at Escape with scorn, was their definition of real life. It is with irony that the Professor commented on one Oxenford clerk’s welcoming technological progress as it helped his university be in touch with real life. Tolkien could not comprehend how constant racket in the streets or smoking chimneys of factories could be more real and alive than the sun, sky or stars:
He may have meant that the way men were living and working in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual).
(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 378)
Tolkien claimed that Elves, magic or dragons were not the only way to shut out reality, so if one preferred to read about knights, princesses or castles, they were also escaping “from our present time and self-made misery” (Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 380). Thus said, historical books also fit the “escapist literature” label as they do not feature any Robot Age realia, but offer, without using magical or unreal devices, the world of the past with its traditions, way of life and landscapes.
Love and care which Tolkien dedicated to describing nature in his writings emphasise his firm belief that the escape of a prisoner (i.e. a reader of fantasy) from the circumstances he does not like is not bad, as it does not take us away from what really matters — from fundamental and important, everlasting notions which cannot even be compared with fads and fashions, passing and getting substituted by other trends so quickly that one does not even have time to get tired of them. In this respect an escapist is even in a more favourable position as they do not grow dependent on things or material objects:
The escapist is not so subservient to the whims of evanescent fashion as these opponents. He does not make things (which it may be quite rational to regard as bad) his masters or his gods by worshipping them as inevitable, even “inexorable.”
(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 377)
Thus the escapists of the sort Tolkien approved of appreciate what really matters in life and keep their feet firmly on the ground as technological fashions change, but the natural world and timeless values remain relevant forever. Such readers know that a breathtaking sunset or a morning forest are not only beautiful, but also more beneficial for a person than the latest developments in rattling machinery: nature and its phenomena connect us with something fundamental that had been here before us and will remain long after us.
Thus escape by means of reading fantasy is not a bad thing when a reader uses it to get distracted from the things they do not like but still remain in touch with what is really important and fundamental. Those who truly appreciate fantasy have a keen aesthetic perception of beautiful things and can appreciate the world around them remaining free from the bonds of ever-changing tendencies. Who can call escape bad after it?
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008
Images — Wikimedia Commons.