Tolkien and the Escapism Debate

If you’re a reader of fantasy—or an avid reader of general fiction—you’re likely familiar with the idea of “escapism.” This word, turned about by authors, readers, and critics throughout the decades, is defined by google as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.” 

I don’t necessarily agree with this definition, as I believe that the concept can appear in many literary genres. Any piece of fiction, it can be argued, is a form of escapism. Anything that serves as a mental diversion from negative aspects of life can fall under the definition. In a two-part series that begins with this post, I’ll be breaking down the roots of the term, and examining both sides of the debate as it stands. 

Literary theory aside, one can easily point to the media as a form of escapism. Social media; youtube; reddit; what you’re doing right now in reading this—it might be defined as escapism. One finds it difficult to pin down a single definition. Even within literature, the true meaning of the concept is controversial.

Some literary critics might define escapism as “the absence of allegory.” This is heavily derived from authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, who viewed allegory as something evil and escapism as something beneficial. A popular from quote from the author states: 

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

The primary debate is roughly as follows: should fiction be used as a way to grapple with the concerns of the world, or as a means of escape from it? The answer remains heavily controversial, and it is not one answered easily. Should everything in a story have some form of relevance? Is a novel useless if it doesn’t teach the reader anything about the world?

Before going on, it is important to note that pure escapism—the sheer absence of philosophy, similarity to real life, etc.—is very difficult to achieve. There also isn’t much of an argument in favor of that form, so let’s define it differently for the sake of the argument: We can call literary escapism “a work being written or interpreted primarily to help the reader mentally escape difficulties they might face in real life.”

In fantasy, this is often done by transporting the reader into a new world, in an effort to compensate for the bleakness or unpleasant aspects of the real one. An easy example to point to here is Tolkien’s “Middle Earth”— the fantastical world in which his stories are set.

Tolkien obviously meant for his world to provide some degree of literary escapism. I should think this still holds up today: there are certainly aspects of modernity that readers want to escape from. To name a few, political tensions are driven to the sky by social media. Social and global issues are more relevant then ever. People want distractions in times of conflict. So what do they look to?

In the mid-1900s, they might have looked to literature as a means of escape. Today, unfortunately, the majority of us look online.

Amazon.com: The Hobbit: 9780547928227: J. R. R. Tolkien: Books
Amazon.com: The Lord of the Rings: One Volume eBook : Tolkien, J.R.R.:  Kindle Store

A significant part of Tolkien’s urge to write fantasy may have come from his time serving in World War II. Do not confuse this with his inspiration—Tolkien specifically stated that the war did not influence his writing. However, the reasons for which he might have wanted to “escape” from 1940s Europe, for a time, are clear. Another quote of his states that “the war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world.” He obviously wanted to express that beauty in writing, deciding that the horrific state of the modern world was not the greatest place to achieve such goals.

Obviously, the debate leans in favor of allegory when applying it to historical fiction as opposed to fantasy. Historical fiction usually aims to teach about the past, and as such it will have real-world aspects, from real points in time. Some may argue that it does so well or not so well, but that is a debate for another time.

Conclusion

Next week, I’ll be touching on Philip Pullman and his opposing views on the subject. Particularly, allegory, analogy, and metaphor.

Thank you very much for reading my analysis on Tolkien’s side of the debate. What is your opinion on the topic? Is allegory necessary, or should fiction’s primary goal always be to help the reader escape from life? Do you stand somewhere in between? I believe I do, but everyone has their own ways of seeing the world.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Nai aurelya nauva mára! 

-J.

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