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.