Tolkien has an essay, On Fairy-Stories, in which he talks about, shockingly enough, fairy-stories. By which he doesn’t mean strictly stories that feature the Fair Folk, but rather stories in general that involve the Realm of Faerie – a secondary world where the art medium known as Enchantment exists and can be experienced.
If you’ve read this excellent essay, you doubtless know that Tolkien devotes a good bit of it to the topic of escapism. Fantasy is second only to science fiction, he says, in escapism value – which seems true to me – and is hence looked down on (along with the people who love it) by a bunch of snobs in high places who only value Real Literature (whatever that is).
I’m reminded first of the story (I don’t know if it’s true or not) of Henry James reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island and some other book about a little boy living a normal life, where he afterwards acknowledged that Treasure Island was exciting and by far the better-written of the two books but that, nevertheless, he was forced to conclude that the other book was a better book, because little boys don’t actually fall in with bloodthirsty pirates, sail to the Caribbean, and find buried treasure.
To which Robert Louis Stevenson retorted (more or less) that Henry James must not have met any little boys, or ever been one, if that was what he thought.
But more to the point, I’m also reminded of how eye-twitchingly irritated it used to make me when people, blathering on about the power of stories, put down escapism. They (“they” being my somewhat nebulous memories of various articles on the Internet) went far beyond the common-sense position that you must be careful not to immerse yourself in fiction to the point of avoiding dealing with real life and its problems. To them, the very word “escape” had a scent that made you wrinkle your nose. To them, it was essential that the surprising power stories have besides transporting us out of our here and now (powers of new perspective, clearer sight, awakened empathy, thematic exploration, and so on) be the only power stories exercised on them; for they, in their enlightenment, were above such shameful pleasures as reading for escape. (I’m sorry that I sound so bitter, but I am bitter.)
Here is what Tolkien has to say about this attitude:
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: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic–
(I here interrupt to remark that Tolkien and Colonel Crittendon appear to have been kindred spirits. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
In real life it is difficult to blame [escape], unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds.
(For real though. The more “escapist” something is, the less claim it has to be considered Real Literature or even spoken of with a serious measure of respect.)
Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than gaolers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way, the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error–
(“Not always by sincere error” – I do love Tolkien. He’s just like a hobbit, mild and mannerly but with a habit of poking right at the uncomfortable truth of the matter, with passive-aggressive disregard for whom he offends in the process.)
–the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery.
(He’s comparing literature-critic escapism snobs to Nazis, you guys. And he actually has a really good point even if it’s mildly hilarious. I do love Tolkien.)
… Not long ago – incredible though it may seem – I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he “welcomed” the proximity of mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive manual traffic, because it brought his university into “contact with real life.” 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). I fear he did not.
(I fear so too.)
In any case the expression “real life” in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!
Okay, so I’ve been quoting Tolkien longer than I meant to (I so much enjoy how he phrases things), and he goes on to talk about the more profound forms of escapism that fairy-stories offer; but for my purpose here this is enough. The crux of the matter is: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than gaolers and prison-walls?”
For me (and Tolkien), that’s a rhetorical question. (If you have an actual answer, I don’t really know what to say?) Because my point here is, life may not be precisely a prison for most people, but on the other hand it isn’t a stay at a luxury resort for most of us either. There’s nothing cowardly, shameful, or weak about finding some solace in a book that transports you briefly to another realm.
In short: escapism? Totally valid reason to read. I don’t want to hear anyone saying differently, or I will sic Tolkien on them. (And like I said, Tolkien is basically a hobbit. Do not underestimate the hobbits.)
THAT SAID, I have been thinking recently about the other side of the coin. Mostly quotes like “Reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” and when people (especially kids) joke about how they pretty much live in a fictional world, all their best friends and crushes are in books, they have no life outside of fiction, they don’t like the real world nearly so well as the worlds they find in books, and so on.
Actually, it’s mostly the last one that bugs me.
It almost…concerns me.
It’s not really something I relate to – perhaps I ought to make that clear. I love stories; making them up is my favorite thing to do; I spent countless hours as a little kid curled up in corners with books. But at the same time, I think the real world is also beautiful. I have real-world ambitions and real-world friends. I also spent countless hours as a little kid playing outside with the neighbor kids, helping Dad in the garden, photographing birds (seriously, hours – I was a little bit obsessed with birds), and doing things. Real-life things. And one of the most valuable things books have done for me is show me the utter beauty in certain ordinary and real-world things.
Escapism is valid, but, as Tolkien said, let us not confuse the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Let us not turn our backs on this world entirely. Let us not use fiction to ignore the problems we face in it, or to live vicariously in place of really living. The real world is still there, and it’s still important. We don’t get to lavish all our love on fictional characters and have no charity left over for the real people in our lives. We don’t get to dream of adventures and never take risks in pursuit of lofty goals ourselves.
Fiction isn’t supposed to be a replacement for reality, and I think perhaps (I’m trying not to be a know-it-all since I’m personally pretty enamored already of the real world, but I really do think) we sometimes need to be careful about that.
As for what relationship fiction is supposed to have to reality…
Well, take L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle.
Despite being a book I have wildly mixed feelings about, I read it avidly, almost greedily, because the writing is beautiful. I wrote down a lot of my favorite descriptions, but here’s my very, very favorite one:
They went for long tramps through the exquisite reticence of winter woods and the silver jungles of frosted trees, and found loveliness everywhere.
It’s my favorite, mainly, because of the utter perfection of that phrase, “exquisite reticence” (have you ever heard a more perfect description of what the woods are like in winter, early in the morning when the frost is thick, or maybe when there’s ice or a dusting of snow?), but the part I’m concerned with at the moment is “and found loveliness everywhere.”
That’s quite a good phrase.
It’s easy enough to get desensitized to beauty. To walk through it every day when you go out to feed the chickens, drive past it on your way to school, glance over it when the setting sun is pooling goldly in your window – and just never think.
But there’s a scene in Red Sails to Capri (a book I read a long time ago) where a character paints a flight of steps that the main character hates because they’re ugly – but in the guy’s painting, they aren’t ugly, they’re full of beautiful colors, and the painter tells him he didn’t make up those colors: he saw them in the steps. Why that struck me so strongly I don’t know, but I’ve never forgotten it.
There is loveliness everywhere. And the best kind of fiction is the kind that helps us find it.
Such are my thoughts, and I’m curious to hear yours. What do you think about escapism, finding loveliness everywhere, and the purpose of fiction in general? And have you read “On Fairy-Stories”? Because I really can’t recommend it enough.