Friday, April 1, 2011


In "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien made a big deal about the fact that escapism is not a bad thing—in fact, it is a good thing, and that escaping to a fantastical world can, if done well, renew and rejuvenate us so as to deal more properly with the problems in our world. He claimed that critics of escapism have not experienced escape as it should be experienced, and that this lack of experience inhibits them from truly understanding the value of such an escape. Although his argument is very solid on the whole, there are aspects of it that still make me somewhat uncomfortable. My primary argument is as follows: I agree wholeheartedly that we should not deny an imprisoned person the hope and the vision offered by an escape into a fantasy story. However, are we all to be considered to be imprisoned people? In my experience, I have seen it as my natural tendency to use fantasy stories not as motivation to deal with the world around me, but in order to define the standards of beauty by which my primary reality should be judged, and thus to be all the more dissatisfied with it, and to feign this world in favor of the fantasy that I have so loved. We see that these desires have become reality amongst those who can afford it—suburban settings and communities based on the fabrication of fantasy-like perfection (Celebration, FL, for example) are often examples of attempts to create a world that holds the magic of a fantasy story. The questions that follow in my mind are: 1) What is the prison that they are trying to escape from? And 2) Why is it that the wealthy are allowed the opportunity to try to escape from this prison, while much of the rest of the global society is afforded no such opportunity?

Therein lies my dilemma. Hope is so important for us, and fantasy can be a wonderful, beautiful tool that can help us to find hope when it seems impossible and distant, but I feel that it is so often misapplied. We come to adore the hobbits (as they were at the beginning of the story) so much that we segregate ourselves from the rest of our society, much like they did, and we ignore or deny the evil that lurks about in other sections of society. Of course, the beautiful irony in this is that hobbits were the ones who eventually were able to destroy the Ring—but we see how painful and heartbreaking that process was for Sam and Frodo, and it makes it hard to desire to take on such a journey when we are so very much in love with the beautiful, quirky Hobbiton. Or, perhaps, like Theoden, we have good intentions and good hearts as to how we would like to use fairy-stories, and yet our minds have become clouded such that we have become part of the problems of this world, rather than part of the solutions—even when we don’t realize it, we fall prey to overwhelming, apathetic selfishness, and we forget that there is a war raging outside of our minds between all things just and good and all things unjust and evil. We are told to look only at ourselves, to assert our own power, and to cite our position in society so as to justify our actions. Theoden was redeemed from this state before he was able to do much damage. Denethor, on the other hand, Theoden’s contemporary, never received redemption from his twisted mind. Likewise, some only use fantasy as a way to turn the focus on ourselves—my love for Lord of the Rings, my favorite character, my experience reading the books. Or, perhaps, we are like Aragorn—we are willing to fight here and there, but we are not sure as to whether we should take a stand, use our power and position for good and not for evil, and become the leaders that we were meant to be. Thus, we know and understand the true meaning of the story, and yet we are loath to embody it fully, to take a definitive role in making it come true, because we fear failure, a lack of readiness, and an unsure attitude as to whether we would actually be willing to give up our lives to such a cause.

But, perhaps our most poignant example of the potential dangers of escapism can be found in the character of Niggle—things definitely turned out wonderfully for him in the end, but we see prior to his journey that his obsession and concern with his painting truly worsened his attitude toward those around him, making him impatient and diminishing his care for those around him, even if he was able to do things for them out of a sense of duty. His picture was a glimpse of something greater, but his obsession with it inhibited him from sharing that glimpse with others, and thus it was, in the end, lost, forgotten. If it truly is a glimpse of something greater, it must be shared, it must be shown, it must be wondered at—otherwise, it is simply an escape that pulls us in, that becomes to us our “primary reality.” And when that happens, our capacity for true human relationship is stunted and broken, and we are incapable of bringing the goodness of the fantasy story into our own world, where it can be shared and appreciated fully.

Escape can provide the renewal and rejuvenation that we need in order to continue on in our primary reality, and it often does so. However, we must not forget that there are legitimate concerns, that fantasy, like all human creations, can be corrupted in its use. Thus, we need to take care not to escape in such a corrupted way, but to truly treat fairy-stories as they were intended—as a source of energy and inspiration to face the world around us today.



  1. You do realize that in using Tolkien's stories as a way of thinking about the problem of escape that you have demonstrated (among other things) how very powerful such "escape" can be precisely for thinking through the dilemmas of the primary world? But of course you do! ; )


  2. Dear JMB,

    I want to focus on an interesting point that you brought up near the end of your post. You assert that escape—undoubtedly correlated with the faculty, that is, the contemplative operation of fantasy—can provide renewal and regeneration in the primary reality. However, you also maintain that there is a point where escape can become depreciative—even corruptive to our own primary reality. Could extreme and immoderate appetite be the cause this depreciation? In Niggle’s case his appetitive “obsession and concern with his painting” caused him to substitute the primary reality for the fantasized secondary reality. Niggle’s escapism, produced by excessive fantasy, could be a form of the “morbid delusion” mentioned by Tolkien in “On Fairy-stories.” Like the mythological Narcissus* who desired his own reflection in a pool of water more than reality, the delusive fantasizer (whether he is the squirrelly Niggle or the overzealous role-player) focuses his thoughts on the phantasmal secondary reality instead of the primary reality. Since Narcissus could no longer reconcile and temper his fantasy with reality, he perishes. What then is the fate of the extreme escapist? Perhaps this is where the escapist becomes Denethor, the choleric turned melancholic deserter.

    Andrew Manns

  3. *I have borrowed this illustration of Narcissus’ state from Marsilio Ficino’s De Amore

  4. I think it would help you in your dilemma to make distinction between fantasy and utopianism. The suburban sub-division as you describe it is the latter, an artificial paradise which is designed in part to deny and exclude the rest of the world. It is a stasis or rather an attempt to maintain an idyllic stasis. Fantasy or fairy-stories, as Tolkien would have it, is the opposite of stasis. Its whole purpose rests on narrative and conflict. Furthermore it is not about constructing an ideal and perfect world. Valinor in its perfect splendor is merely a part of Tolkien’s fantasy, not the fantasy itself. Instead it is the inclusion, the incorporation, and confrontation with the dark side of Middle Earth that makes the fantasy come alive.

    Another key aspect of a fairy-story, or fantasy, is it temporariness. All stories have an end, while an idyllic paradise is not supposed to. So, perhaps “vacation” is a better word than “escape” in the context of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.” In a sense we can all be considered prisoners of primary reality. We live in a world with certain rules and constants that (so far) we cannot change such as aging, gravity, or the truth that some things are out of our control. Our imaginations allow us to transcend this for a time, or take a vacation. To continue the prison metaphor, fantasy is like yard-time when you can get out of your cell and look at the sky from every now-and-then so you don’t go crazy (at least that was the idea).

    There is nothing wrong with dreaming and hoping for a more desirable world, but vacations are temporary. We are supposed to come back, and hopefully in a better mind to carry on with everyday life. But, to reject the world that is to escape to a world imagined crosses a line. This is not the fault of fantasy, but ourselves. If fantasy is an imagined world with both joy and terror, beauty and horror, then a full escape to a place with only one and not the other is more like delusion.

    -Jason A Banks

  5. You say "The questions that follow in my mind are: 1) What is the prison that they are trying to escape from? And 2) Why is it that the wealthy are allowed the opportunity to try to escape from this prison, while much of the rest of the global society is afforded no such opportunity?"

    In response to the first, the prison is, quite simply, the real world, a.k.a. the primary reality. It is a prison in that it has restrictions on what can happen which our minds do not have. Say it's impossible for magic to exist in the real world (I think we would all agree that that is probably the case); yet we can easily *imagine* magic. It's impossible to travel faster than the speed of light, but it's easy to *imagine* traveling faster than the speed of light. It's true that the universe may allow things which our minds cannot conceive of; but, of course, we can't know that, can we? So for our purposes, the limits and boundaries of the real world are wholly enclosed within the boundaries of the set of imagined worlds.

    You may ask, of course, what relevance have the things accessible only to the imagination, when they are as just said not part of the real world. Their relevance is just that, though: they are accessible to the imagination, and our minds are what let us interact with the real world. So anything that is accessible to our minds is relevant to the real world, in however large or small a way.

    As I believe I said in class, these imagined ideas can be even more trenchant than those based entirely on the real world, as they allow us to approach real-world issues with fresh perspectives. Imagine a road; this road is the real world. Now, there's an important thing you must find on this road (this represents some essential truth), but it is a long way along, and the road is piled high with dirt. You can walk slowly down the road, shoveling the dirt to make a path, until you finally get to the important thing. Alternatively, you could jump off the road, run down to where the important thing is buried, and dig right there. Now, sometimes the side of the road will be steep or rocky or a sheer cliff, and digging along the road will be the best path after all. But it's best to keep your options open, and leave the road/real world for a while when you need to.

    To your second question, I would simply say: Being poor is an awful thing. Those who are rich should help those who are poor, but those who are not poor themselves should not feel guilty about not being poor (and having the opportunities appertaining thereto). The only blame would attach to those who make themselves rich by making others poor; surely, if poverty is so terrible, it is not worthy of censure to keep oneself out of it!

    --Luke Bretscher

  6. Dear JMB,

    I enjoyed your post. I think you’re right to reflect on the dangers of Escape. In my view, Tolkien himself suggests this peril in “The Smith of Wooton Major,” where journeys to Faery are fraught with risk. And I share your conviction that we should investigate the problematic nature of Escape in specific terms: How and why might Escape go wrong?

    You give one example when you write, “I…use fantasy stories not as motivation to deal with the world around me, but in order to define the standards of beauty by which my primary reality should be judged, and thus to be all the more dissatisfied with it, and to feign this world in favor of the fantasy that I have so loved.”

    Is there a necessary connection, though, between dissatisfaction with this world and an unproductive disengagement from it? My instinct is that dissatisfaction might be quite productive, if mobilized in the right way. It seems to me that we have more than a few reasons to be appropriately dissatisfied with our Primary Reality.

    In what ways might Escape—even one that creates dissatisfaction—inspire us to reengage with our Primary Reality and thus improve it? I think that Donald Rumsfeld points to a possible answer. (I promise I’m being serious.) In a press conference before the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld distinguished between what he called “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” The first category—“known knowns”—describes the knowledge we know we have. For example, I know that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, and I know I know this. The second category—“known unknowns”—describes the things we know we don’t know. For instance, I don’t know what kind of car Professor Fulton Brown drives, but I know I don’t know this. The third category—“unknown unknowns”—describes the things we don’t even know we don’t know.

    I contend that, in part, the right kind of Escape might expose “unknown unknowns”—that is, it might illuminate gaps in our knowledge about which we were ignorant. It does this by expanding our field of possibilities. As a somewhat trivial example, I had never considered the possibility of a green sun before Tolkien mentioned one. More meaningfully, in fantasy we might glimpse social arrangements that are better than the ones we currently inhabit—but to which we might otherwise be blind—such as, say, more robust conceptions of justice, or more harmonious relationships with the natural world.

    Perhaps one function of Escape, then, is to create dissatisfaction—maybe dissatisfaction with human certainty in general. It shows us that there are plenty of things we don’t even know we don’t know, like that many of the things we think have been and always will be one way might be done differently.


  7. It's a difficult task to weigh reality against fantasy. Taking away the burdens of the present is so appealing, but there are dangers in that. When I read your post, I immediately thought of the story of Oisin and Niahm. In the story, Oisin is stolen away by a beautiful fairy who visits him in Ireland. She takes him away to Tir na nOg, a land of the undying and beautiful, where he is shown paradise and promise. However, he decides to return home and seek his family after what he thinks is three years. Niahm warns him not to get off his horse, or else the years of his departure will come all at once and he will die. He's actually been gone 300 years. Point being, I think of Tolkien as producing this magical opportunity, where a reader is whisked away on a journey that is believed to be a short excursion, but actually is a lifetime. If you disembark from that journey and return to the world, it's like dying. In some ways, fantasy (in all its many forms) can be more compelling that reality. But, eventually I think we'll all feel like Oisin and risk death to return home.


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  10. Your mention of Celebration, FL, and other such societies is very interesting! I had never thought about combining the ideas of escapism with constructed communities before. However, it could be argued that places like Celebration are quite the opposite of escapism - they are are attempts to actually change the world for the better (whatever that means; better in the eyes of the architects, at least), far from running away from the problems of the world, they are meeting them head on by trying to implement the changes they actually want to see. I am reminded of kibbutzim, which are small Israeli farming communes, where groups of people agree to work in the field, or doing laundry, or cooking, in exchange for free housing, food, clothing, and transportation. Each kibbutz has its own set of rules, and each kibbutz is the result of a certain group of people's idea of how to improve life, how to make it better. We humans have been searching for more perfect societies for centuries, take Utopia as an example. I think the presence of these communities is an argument against escapism.


  11. When reading fantasy, especially epics like the Lord of the Rings, it becomes difficult to not wish that you were there instead of our primary reality. Indeed you say it can be dissatisfying to turn back and realize that our own world is one in which trees have been cut down to make ways for paved highways and great grasslands have been razed in order to provide corn for everyone. However, I would like to believe that after reading the Lord of the Rings or the story of Niggle and the tree I have a greater appreciation for the (few) trees that are left. Each leaf is indeed different and yet goes together well with the whole. When I can actually escape to go canoeing and camping for days without seeing civilization I rejoice in the peace and quiet offered me there. However, there are always things that I miss about going home that makes the ending of the journey not so bad. I like to imagine some of the same things are true with Samwise in the story. Because he went on a long adventure, most of which was dangerous, he will be able to greater appreciate the Shire more than he would have otherwise.
    Brian W.

  12. I really enjoyed the way you said that you use fantasy "not as motivation to deal with the world around me, but in order to define the standards of beauty by which my primary reality should be judged" because I've often tried to explain what fascinates me so much about fantasy and I think you really put it well. I'll admit though that escapism still resonates for me and perhaps that's because I do often feel trapped by the confines of primary reality. There are just certain things in this life we will never be able to do and never be able to see because the laws of nature as we know them do not allow it. The human imagination allows for all of these things to happen/exist etc & because we know what we are missing as a result of writers sharing such wonders, I find this really tragic. I will always continue to read as an escape because at least the degree of creation attributed to fantasy writers gives me an outlet to relieve the stress of that tragedy of natural law.


  13. JMB, I really enjoyed your post, great job! I was likewise struck by Tolkien’s belief in escapism and how he thought fantasy stories employ it. In your post, you are right, I think, to caution us, however, against the dangers of “over escapism” and you cite as examples of this tendency “Leaf by Niggle” and many readers’ reactions to LOTR. You show that an over-infatuation and immersion into the secondary reality of a fantasy story leads to dissatisfaction with our primary reality since we become unaccustomed to the parameters of primary reality, making it difficult for us to adjust when we “come back” from the secondary reality. I agree completely with you that there needs to be a crafted ratio between the two because an over-emphasis on one or the other will lead to problems such as disillusion. I’m not sure, however, if the ratio should be an equal balance. I feel that there should be a tip in the scale in favor of the secondary reality and I think that Tolkien would prescribe a similar policy. Since that he put so much time and effort into creating his legendarium, it can be assumed that Tolkien placed a great deal of importance in the imagination. I think that as long as we keep our feet grounded in the primary reality, any wanderings in the secondary reality will always help us grow.

  14. To some of us the primary reality is toxic.....soul destroying and some will do anything to escape it....for me I long for fantasy and like a drug of dependence I can not get in this reality is too evil, people have lost all sense of community and their reality, their drug, is consumerism.... I would rather my addiction to theirs any day...... I know this post was made years ago but I have only just found being was not meant for this life.. sounds crazy, but...I am not