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.

Radcliffe looking east (1902) – Wikimedia Commons

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)

John Constable – Stonehenge at Sunset (Wikimedia Commons)

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?

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008

Images — Wikimedia Commons.

12 thoughts on “Escape to the book: J. R. R. Tolkien’s view on escapism from the realia of the Robot Age.

  1. This recalls a line from Peter S. Beagle’s 1973 introduction at the front of the Ballantine books edition: “The Sixties were the time when the word ‘progress’ lost its ancient holiness, and the word ‘escape’ stopped being comically obscene.” I was reading that in 1974. The Animals recording of “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” was already a classic, so the world had a strong streak of escape-approval in it already. It took a lot of looking backwards to figure out that Beagle’s last two words weren’t much of an exaggeration. J.R.R. Tolkien probably deserves a large part of the credit for that societal transformation.

    The Fount of All Knowledge informs me that Bruce Springsteen may have been recording the escapist’s anthem “Born to Run” at the exact moment I was first reading LotR. There’s a connection I’ve never made before!

    1. I agree completely. Reading the Peter S. Beagle introduction as a fourteen year old in 1978 (listening to Kansas: Song for America, by the way…) really prepared my unwitting and eager young mind.
      “For in the end it is Middle-Earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. (a bit of a quibble here, but Beagle’s point is taken KV) I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it.”
      Me too!!

      The pendulum seems to be swinging further and faster towards techno-narcissism, but I hope this will be corrected in a peaceful, sensible manner.

      It’s funny, Born to Run and that first car/girl was what tore me out of my “Escapist” youth and into the the grinding machinery. I’ve been very glad for the last ten years or so to escape back again with the help of my Tolkien friends and the wonderful, deep, revealing look into Middle-Earth, and kind Olga and her Reflections not being the least of these.
      Coincidentally, my current read is the very first Peter S. Beagle novel I’ve ever picked up, his latest called “In Calabria” which 2/3 through seems to be about a man living a 19th Century life in 21st Century rural Italy.

      1. I absolutely love that quote from the introduction you mention. Recently it’s been shared elsewhere and struck me to the bottom of my heart. What perception and understanding!
        “In Calabria” sounds very interesting. I hope I can find time to read it.
        I’m very glad that you find my blog so helpful 🙂

  2. I really enjoy and do certainly understand the position of the quote and commentary from Tale of the Perilous Realm pg 377. It is an almost Elvish/Entish notion that things pass by so swiftly as to hardly be of notice.
    Having always been of the “Escapist” mindset, which may also be look at as being ten years (at least) behind the times–no matter the times, I’ve tried to adopt a fashionless outlook.
    Natural beauty (however manifested) never seems to go completely out of style, and yet like Saruman the modern world wants to pave over the grass and replace unruly trees with pillars of metal. I’d bet you that Mrs. Farmer Maggot even a bit red-faced, wrinkled and rotund was a delightful beauty as a farm wife and mother and she was a young hobbit lass!
    Perfect photo images for this posting Olga. Well done!

    1. Thank you for reading!
      I totally share your outlook and in this, like in mant other respects, I choose rather to be fashionless. It pains me to see what progress is doing to nature and sometimes my sincere wish is to have an army of Ents to bring down the Sarumans of this world.

  3. This is one of the best posts I’ve read on WordPress. Kudos to you. I notice in your talks about escapism you keep mentioning a “robotic age.” This “robotic age” of technology of all sorts, draws my mind to science fiction. While I love both science fiction and fantasy, I prefer fantasy a bit more. Science fiction may soon become science fact, and some of it already has, but fantasy will always be fantasy. Fantasy will always be the ultimate form of escapism.

    1. Thank you very much, Jonathan!
      It’s the term that I saw used by Professor Tolkien, so I’m using it here, too. I like this combination as sometimes too much technology in our age is a bit overwhelming and one might feel the need to switch off not to start going through motions like an automated robot because there are so many other robots around you.
      I agree with you on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Fantasy seems to be the best form of escape and enjoy the change of scenery. In my opinion, it’s mostly the likes of Dune in sci-fi that can help one escape in a similar manner.

  4. I think that you have written something very important here. The Inklings tried to get their readers to rethink what reality is and whether fantasy seeks to enable us to escape from it or towards it. I live quite close to the city in which Tolkien grew up as you know. The industrialisation that he knew has now largely gone but people are still dominated by the kind of economy created in places like Birmingham. I think of my niece who solves software problems for big companies. She lives near to Birmingham and works at home networking with a team based in the city centre and another team in India. I think of a farmer near my home who looks after the family farm and runs a business that networks with a company in China. The farm does not pay enough money to help him raise his family. Tom Bombadil’s reference to Farmer Maggot seems true to my friend. I am sure that it is his determination to keep his connection to the earth that keeps him real.

    1. Thank you, Stephen! It’s amazing how we still see these things in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, what Tolkien wrote about so many years ago is still relevant today and in fact we can learn a lot from his writings once we know where to look.

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