Tolkien Reading Day: The perfect day to consider Tolkien’s argument for reading to escape.

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?

10 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Defense of Escapist Fantasy”

  1. Lovely food for thought in these mad times. I think there’s a lot of value in being able to transport yourself from the confines of your immediate situation, inhabit another reality and return with a fresh prospective. Fiction isn’t completely separate from our reality since it’s been born from it and can offer so much in the way we interact with the world around us.

    1. As an avid reader and a writer of fiction, I agree with you completely. People who think fiction, particularly fantasy, is completely unrelated to reality are wrong. Even the most fanciful stories spring from human perspective and experience. A good book offers us the gift of traveling to another time and place and living someone else’s life, which is complete magic, but that doesn’t make it unreal. We bring our thoughts back with us. We are changed, and therefore reality is changed as well.

  2. I tend to avoid purely escapist stories – I prefer books that make me think. It typically seems to be a far better use of my time to read something that will make me smarter, or a better person, or see things in a new way…

    Right now, though, I don’t have the mental energy for anything other than escapism. I’m finally getting around to reading The Name of the Wind – all my nerdy friends have been telling me to read it for years, but it could never hold my attention… until now! Now I’m glad I had it sitting on my shelf.

    1. What do you mean by purely escapist? There are genres that have no interest to me, so I don’t understand their appeal to others, and if asked, I suppose I might say that their readers are “just escaping.” But I suppose others could say the same about me when I re-read a favorite cozy mystery or children’s book for the comfort of the familiar. I would argue that I am revisiting the book because it offered me something more than escape: a character I related to, a situation that intrigued me, a setting I would love to visit. The books that I turn to again and again have something in them that feels real, which is the opposite of escaping.

      These are definitely days for keeping my reading simple. I am not up for intense literature that requires concentration. I can barely remember what day it is!

  3. I listened to a lecture by Lisa Cron (author of “Story Genius” ) today and she says of “escapist” literature, paraphrasing here, we are not escaping but consulting with a novel to better learn how to navigate our world. Pretty much what you’re saying here Kit. And what a world to navigate, which every day more resembles a dystopian tale than it did the day before.

      1. No apology necessary. These are tough times and you only spoke the truth. Kurt and I tried to watch Man in the High Castle the other night and got freaked out because of things in it that were going on right now. It was too relevant!

    1. Fiction in general gets a bad rap because people don’t realize why we are drawn to it. Lisa Cron definitely makes the case that it has real social value. And there’s always the great fable of the zebra storyteller that I now can’t remember the details of but which tells us that dreaming dreams and sharing them is one way for us to learn lessons without having to make the mistakes ourselves, that a society with good storytellers is better prepared for crisis than one without them.

  4. Just came across this post while searching for other Tolkien inspired bloggers, such a fantastic reminder – I’ve been re-falling in love with Tolkien during this lockdown – and have just been engaging with ‘On Fairy Stories’ and this precise argument :).

    1. So cool that you are on the same page! I’m finding Tolkien a very comforting read right now. It’s probably time to re-read “On Fairy-Stories” myself.

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