They Found Loveliness Everywhere ~ Thoughts on Fiction, Real Life, and Escapism

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.

Author: sarahseele

A Christian, cat owner, college kid, and writer. Fond of stories. Fond of rain.

20 thoughts on “They Found Loveliness Everywhere ~ Thoughts on Fiction, Real Life, and Escapism”

  1. I love this. I love all of this.

    I have never heard that story about Henry James reading Treasure Island, but I LOVE it. Because it’s so true…anyone who knows little boys knows that they are always pretending, and will happily tell you about what they’ve been doing, just as if it was real. 🙂

    (Yes, Tolkien the hobbit! Have you ever heard the quote where he says “I am indeed a hobbit in all but size”? That’s one of my favorite of his quotes.) (And also, him comparing escapism snobs to Nazis. ❤ I'm a fan. Honestly, he and Lewis share this habit of comparing things that seem benign to things that are…not…and making an extremely valid point. Like, Lewis comparing Vegetarianism to Marxism. I love that, a lot.)

    "There's nothing cowardly, shameful, or weak about finding some solace in a book" <<Yes. Because you're so right, even though life isn't a prison in the full meaning of the world…it's not our home. And honestly, the best books not only allow us to find solace in them from the world, they also give us a glimpse of the Good that comes with our true home (Heaven, if that wasn't obvious. XD). I feel like Tolkien says something like somewhere in the essay? But alas, I don't have it memorized, so I can't quite remember.

    And that, in a way, leads into your point about also entering into real life: because even if books do offer us an escape, when we come back, we will be more attuned to the beauty of real life!

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    1. Yes! That’s what I love the most about RLS’s answer, how hilariously true it is.

      I HAVE heard that quote, actually! Came across the letter in which he wrote it years ago, researching for a paper. How he likes good food, simple jokes, etc? Pretty great. 😆) (Oh, excellent point! They do both do that and it’s so insightful! Because…it’s the same root. And one may grow into a mighty tree while the other only grows into a scraggly bush, but their fruit is equally poisonous. Weird metaphor but moving on. I actually…either haven’t read that or don’t remember it, but now I’m so curious as to why Lewis is comparing Vegetarianism and Marxism 😂)

      Yes, well put! Tolkien does talk about fairy-tales having a function of Consolation, and also his whole thing about eucatastrophe and stories hardening back to the Great Eucatastrophe…which is kind of related but I don’t think he really talks about fairy tales’ relationship with heaven? Except to note that Heaven, Hell, and Fairyland are three different places not to be confused with each other (interesting, that), but there /is/ an indirect connection, like you said, and it’s pretty cool.

      For real! I’m very grateful for good books, because without them I actually don’t think I’d appreciate Real Life nearly as much as I do.

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      1. I kept meaning to respond to this, if only to tell you where the Vegetarianism-Marxism quote is from, but I kept forgetting! Sorry about that. 🙂

        You seem to have written the most fun papers! First one that required a quote from “On Fairy-Stories” and now one where you had to read Tolkien’s Letters! (Just out of curiosity…what are you studying? I mean, I assume those papers were for college?) (I like your weird metaphor. Just saying. And that Vegetarianism-Marxism quote is from The Weight of Glory, from the essay called “Why I Am Not A Pacifist”, which should possibly give you a good idea of why he’s comparing the two. XD Incidentally, I think the essay is well worth reading, if only for that bit.)

        I just…love thinking about how humanity’s love of story and eucatastrophe were put in our hearts by God to prepare us for the Great Eucatastrophe. So cool!

        True word!

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      2. Actually, I think both those papers were for the AP Lang class I took in high school! I’m a STEM girl so I haven’t actually written many papers in college (fine by me), though I did take this awesome “Comp 2” (actually Election History) class where I wrote a paper on the election of 1864 of which I am still inordinately proud…Anyway! Why I am Not a Pacifist! I remember loving that essay but apparently I remember much less about the actual content than I thought I did! XD This is a timely reminder to get around to that Weight of Glory reread…because I do badly want to reread it. A print copy. With pencil ready to scribble notes everywhere.

        I KNOW. It’s SO cool. I’m over here like…inwardly flailing over how cool God is. XD

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  2. GORGEOUS.

    I love EVERYTHING about this post so much. I have a copy of On Fairy Stories sitting on my shelf, and am ashamed to say, I haven’t read it yet. *hangs head* I have read many quotes from it, and definitely intend to read it… soon!

    But this: “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.”

    Just… wow. Yes. Exactly. I’m right there with you and Tolkien about “escapism” I think it’s good. Healthy even. I’ve always thought that the way that fantasy can lift our eyes up and beyond and out of this world goes hand in hand with Lewis’ quote: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

    But THIS world is also beautiful. And this world and this moment is the one that God has placed each of us in, purposefully and for a reason. We should not be so focused on the joys of fiction that we neglect to live.

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    1. 😊😊

      Oh, it really is such a fun essay (as you doubtless know, having read quotes), because Tolkien talks about so many different things, and even the stuff he doesn’t spend much time on he says some really interesting stuff about! It’s kind of too much to take it all in in one reading, which makes it all the more enjoyable to reread. But yes, it’s amazing (and not too long)!

      Okay, I automatically read “it’s good. Healthy even” in Flynn Rider’s voice and it was the best thing. XD But YES to that Lewis quote, and to how fantasy does not satisfy, but rather encourages, and keeps us from losing sight of, that all-important desire for another world – AND YET God has placed us here, now, for a reason. “We should not be so focused on the joys of fiction that we forget how to live.” That. It should be the other way around! The joys of fiction should remind us to live our real lives dutifully and joyfully and hopefully and…yeah. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve read On Fairy Stories, but I’m sure we have it somewhere still.
    I like a little escapism– Treasure Island is fantastic. So is Tin Tin. So is My Side of the Mountain. I also get some escapism in real-life stories. I pretend that I’m a rancher while reading Grass Beyond the Mountains, or that I’m a Yorkshire vet while reading All Creatures Great and Small.
    And then, when I have my own adventure– like raising a rambunctious baby goat in the house, I can enjoy it all the more knowing that I get to live in this wonderful story for real.

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    1. I really like rereading it and getting to appreciate sections I didn’t as much before, because I can never keep the whole thing in my head at one time, Tolkien flutters so much from topic to topic.

      Oh yes. Escapism is highly enjoyable, and I always halfway think I’m a vet when I read James Herriot too! And a rancher/cowhand when I read The Home Ranch and the other Ralph Moody books. And a small-time New England farmer when I read One Man’s Meat. I always keep my eye peeled for Grass Beyond the Mountains too. One of these days I’ll actually find it!

      I love your goat stories. It IS lovely when you realize you’re living a story and it’s a wonderful story.

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  4. Whoa. How is this so thought-provoking?
    I genuinely love this post.
    Have you read C.S. Lewis’s essay called “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”? (Incidentally, I discovered it while researching for my Peter Pan paper that I mentioned.) He makes a lot of great points about children’s literature in general (which I LOVED because he was calling out people who write down to children and/or write about things they don’t really care about but think children want to read about, etc. [a topic I’m not passionate about at ALL]), but the part this post made me think of was the part about fairy tales. He writes that some parents don’t want their children to read too many fairy tales because they fear it will give children unrealistic expectations of reality–to which he says, children know that real life isn’t going to be like these fairy tales. He argues that what’s actually more dangerous in terms of giving children unrealistic expectations is books that take place in the real world and supposedly depict realistic situations (like school stories). Which I found FASCINATING. I’ve never thought about it in those terms before, but it’s much easier to be fooled into believing something that isn’t so obviously different from reality. (As a homeschooler, my perception of public school came mostly from watching movies and reading books. As a kid I just trusted that they were accurate portrayals [and I thought high-schoolers looked like they were thirty because THAT’S HOW IT WAS IN THE MOVIES].)
    …Ok, so I feel like that was a huge rabbit trail and I can’t remember where I was going with it or how it relates to this post.
    Oh, I guess I’m going off the part about the less effective at providing an escape and the more “realistic” a book is, the better and more literary it’s supposed to be. When I was studying literature and writing at university, at lot of the professors seemed to look down on genres like fantasy. Must sic Tolkien and Lewis on them.
    All the Tolkien quotes in those post. How was that man such a genius.
    I was not expecting the turn at the end of this post, but I so wholeheartedly agree. As much as I joke about how book humans are easier to interact with (because…you don’t have to interact) or belt out “Reality is a lovely place / but I wouldn’t want to live there” along with Owl City…I really do love the real world. I love real humans. And being outside. And having face to face conversations.
    Thank you for this incredible post ❤

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    1. Tolkien is how. (Just saying.)

      Ooh OOH I HAVE read that essay! This summer, actually. My mom found it online or something, and apparently she said to herself, “Sarah loves children’s literature and is always ranting about what makes it good and bad and how you definitely SHOULD NOT write it and why it’s THE BEST, she would love this” and so she printed it out and gave it to me to read. And I love my mom.
      But yes. I thought that part about fairy tales intensely interesting too! Because it’s true. Children are inexperienced but not idiots – so they GET that fairy tales don’t happen and enjoy them for the STORY, whereas “realistic” stories are much more likely to foster unrealistic expectations. Like, good prevailing over evil in fairy tales mostly just imbues kids with a strong sense of the importance of the battle between Good and Evil and the conviction that Good ultimately wins (which is good if you believe this like I do, I guess not everyone does :P), whereas a “realistic” story might be more likely to create false or even damaging impressions of what that will LOOK like, for them, in their actual life. Good winning will look like them having lots of friends and getting good grades and being vindicated in the eyes of their teachers and being able to take the music lessons they REALLY wanted to even though their parents couldn’t afford it and having their very own pony. Or whatever. (Or they will think high schoolers look like thirty-year-olds. That too. 😂😂 Why do movies do that???) Not that that kind of escapism is bad either, unless it makes you dissatisfied with your life…in a bad way.
      Must sic Lewis and Tolkien on them, indeed. (Poor professors, they do not stand a chance.)
      YES I love how you don’t have to actually interact with book humans 😂 and Owl City is great and joking about this stuff is fun and totally fine but also like. Reality. Real humans. Harder, messier, but also beautiful and important.
      Thank YOU for this comment. It was much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. OK, that Crittendon joke though. It took my a second to get it and then I just burst out laughing and had to read that bit to my sisters. I appreciate it. I appreciate it immensely.

    This is….so good.

    I think the line between good escapism and bad escapism might be the destination. When you and Tolkien talk about escapism as a prison escape, it makes me think of Lewis’ “real” Narnia at the end of The Last Battle. The Pevensies come to realize that whatever they loved in the old Narnia, they loved because it was a reflection of the actual one. They got into a mirror, and found that the lovelier world reflected in that mirror was not only lovelier but realer–they’d been living in the reflection, not the reality. And maybe a bad escapism is when we chase stories/fiction/whatever, not because it reminds us of what is real, but because it’s easier than what’s real? When we really ARE trying to get INTO the Shallowlands, and not out of them?

    I don’t know. Cuz I’ve definitely come across a kind of escapism that bothers me. And I really like everything you say about the real world being awfully, awfully beautiful, and it makes me VERY happy that you quote Lucy Maude Montgomery, because she’s the primary author who taught me to appreciate how BEAUTIFUL and MAGICAL the outdoors (and, by extension, things in general) are.

    And Henry James, sir. I KNEW I didn’t like your writing very much. Now I see why.

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    1. Ahhhh well I am pleased that you appreciate it. Ridiculous-grin-plastered-to-my-features pleased. Jokes written for oneself are all right, but much better when shared.

      I LOVE THAT. Oh my goodness. When escapism is trying to get INTO the Shallowlands rather than looking OUT of them! Because yes, that describes it really well.
      Wasting my time by reading is something I often worry about – but the only times I actually read and end up FEELING like I wasted time is if a) I neglected my responsibilities because I was so into the book, or b) it was a not-worth-reading (ugly, miserable, false, something) sort of book. And the thing is…time spent contemplating (or searching for, or revelling in) the good, the true, or the beautiful, ISN’T time wasted. And that’s often what reading stories is. And, moreover, reading stories often brings us back to the real world primed to do more of it.
      But sometimes, I think, we read because we like the SAFETY of it. The good, the true, and the beautiful are good, true, beautiful, and glorious, but safe they are not. It requires courage and energy to pursue them the way we’re supposed to, and sometimes it’s the safety we want, rather than the clearer perspective. (i.e., we want into, rather than out of, the Shallowlands). And that’s not so good.

      L. M. Montgomery’s descriptions of nature ❤ ❤ ❤

      Haha. I haven't actually read any Henry James! From what I've heard of his stories, though, I imagine the way the anecdote paints his character is pretty accurate. (I think R. L. Stevenson and him were actually friends, a bit like Chesterton and Shaw? And R. L. Stevenson was like, "You're a way better writer than me, I wish you actually wrote about the things I want to read about though!")

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  6. Lovely post! I haven’t read Tolkien’s essay yet, but after having Samantha recommend it and now you, I think I’ll HAVE to read it. Oh, and the Tolkien quotes were beautiful. I’ve certainly read plenty of books to bring me back to a certain time period or a specific season, but I have often found that those books remind me of the real world and how wonderful it is to be living here as a real person. The conversations between fictional characters remind me of how much I love having conversations with my friends. And the scenery depicted in many books, oh how that makes me appreciate God’s Creation on this Earth. Thank you for this post. 🙂

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    1. Oh, I hope you like it! It’s so good, and packed with all sorts of interesting ideas to chew on. (Tolkien had a Way with Words. For sure.)

      Yes to all of that. ❤ Books can be magical and transport us to faraway places, but the end result of that is (if we let it be) that OUR world, here and now, is cast into relief and we perceive how IT'S a place worth living and taking joy in.

      Thank YOU for your lovely comment! 🙂

      Like

  7. Okay I’ve been wanting to say this and keep on forgetting but I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS POST. Like, sometimes people go too far into escapism and then they become depressed absent shells, and then other people treat it like a disease and bury themselves far too deeply in this life. I think you beautifully illustrated the wonders and joys of both in moderation, and I absolutely agree. Goodness this was incredible and wonderful and thank you for writing about this. I think it’s important. And you nailed it. *chef’s kiss*

    (but that last story you shared. Oh my word. That will stick with me for a long time.)

    (also why did I kind of tear up at the Montgomery quote?? I just adore her descriptions. *happy sigh*)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been trying to think what to say to this lovely comment, and…I got nothing. XD Except thank you for your kind words and I’m so glad you approve!

      (okay, but wasn’t it just…I don’t know? But so something? It has definitely stuck with me as well, and for the better!)

      (*joins your happy sigh* Nobody describes things like Montgomery – NOBODY.)

      Liked by 1 person

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