A man imprisoned will find his condition unpleasant, but he will take delight in planning his escape.
-Dennis B. Quinn, Iris in Exile: A Synoptic History of Wonder
Just a few days ago, I was trying to explain to a co-worker why I enjoyed Tolkien’s writing so much, and other fantasy writers as well. He was skeptical, asking one of the typical questions, “Isn’t that stuff just escapist?”
The answer? Why yes, it is escapist. And that can be a good thing!
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. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. 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 jailers 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, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
So why does escapism get such a bad rap? I think we all know people that escape the world, more or less, and then STAY away. Like an autistic child setting up 5000 dominoes, we pour our thoughts and energy into our Magic: The Gathering deck, watching back-to-back seasons of Lost, the Harry Potter reading marathon, and even shooting billiards and tequila with the boys on a Friday night. The catch is if you’ve got to come BACK, and be the better for it. Tolkien calls this “recovery”.
We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the willfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium . . . . We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like ancient shepherds, sheep, dogs, and horses-and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
Chesterton had the same ideas about fantasy as well. Being gone to a secondary place (not necessarily a “fantastic” one even) made you realize how magical the real world actually was. Our world is full of dragons and devils, but fairy stories can remind us that it is also full of heroes and gods. Or even God. When you stay gone, you become a selfish wonk, or a sloth, or a drunkard.
So escape! (and come back).