In these troubled times, reading can be a balm and comfort . Escaping into a favorite story is one way to get temporary relief from the stress and anxiety we are all dealing with at the moment. But not everyone approves of “escapist” reading. Since today is also Tolkien Reading Day, I want to share what J.R.R. Tolkien himself had to say about fantasy literature and reading to escape.
Fantasy fans are often derided as childish because their preference for imaginary worlds is seen as unrealistic. Avoiding reality is considered immature behavior: adults face up to the real world. Only infants would be so weak as to try to escape from it. This attitude towards fantastic literature has been going on for a long time. In his 1938 essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien himself took on his critics and the misconception that escaping into a book is bad.
Tolkien argues that the term escape is misused. Escape in the real world sense (as in escaping from a terrible situation) is only bad when it fails. However, critics act as if an escape into literature is worse the more successful the literature is in providing that very escape, which an inversion of our usual understanding of the term.
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.On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien goes on to argue that the critics have chosen the wrong word. When they derisively refer to escape, they really mean desertion. They assume those escaping into fantasy literature are deserting the real world and turning their back on life, when in fact they are just taking a breather.
Good fantasy literature not only provides escape, but also recovery, which Tolkien describes as well. The brilliance of good fantasy helps us to see our world in a new and clearer light. We return from our mental journey better prepared to deal with the very life we have been accused of avoiding.
I have barely scratched the surface of Tolkien’s arguments in his essay, but I completely agree with his arguments. Fantasy should not be limited to children. It has important functions in helping all of us through life.
Real life has gotten bewildering and frightening, and I need all the help I can get in dealing with it. So today, in honor of the professor, I will take a few minutes to escape into one of his stories. I know I can count on him to help me recover from the confusion I’m feeling and to see the world in a new and better way.
Do you read to escape? What will you be reading for Tolkien Reading Day?