The Lord of the Rings and Escapism

Note: This is a paper I did for a British literature class. The paper covers escapism found in modern fantasy literature and using The Lord of the Rings as my primary example. I think it’s one of my best papers so far.

In an academic setting, if you ever mention Twilight, or Harry Potter, or Star Wars, alongside The Faerie Queen, A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or even Frankenstein you will quickly be excused from the conversation. This often creates conflict between fans and academics. For instance, The Lord of the Rings has often been both praised and rejected by the literary world. This bias is often attributed to “escapism,” considered an inferior reason to read literature. It would be better to read in order to better perceive reality, to understand, to learn…wouldn’t it? Though “escapist” literature has often been frowned upon in the academic community, a close study of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings reveals that escapism is part of human nature and therefore can enhance our reality, instead of covering it up.

No piece of literature has ever been subject to greater controversy than The Lord of the Rings. In a book on Tolkien’s writing style by Steve Walker he points out that, “The highbrow London Guardian assigned The Rings to the lowest level of literary hell, calling it ‘by any reckoning one of the worst books ever written.’ Yet in the same year of that unmitigated negation, a poll of no less than 25,000 English readers by the BBC and Waterstone booksellers declared Tolkien’s epic the best book of the century” (Walker 1). The reason behind this controversy is unclear, but it is likely due to escapism. Yi-fu Tuan of Johns Hopkins University explains that, “’Escapism’ has a somewhat negative meaning in our society and perhaps in all societies. It suggests an inability to face facts – the real world. We speak of escapist literature, for instance, and we tend to judge as escapist places such as mega-shopping malls, fancy resorts, theme parks, or even picture-perfect suburbs. They all lack – in a single word – weight.” (Tuan 5) Some would argue that the fact that a text is popular makes it worthy of study. For instance, Walker asks,“What if the variety of reaction to Tolkien’s prose were indication of the richness of his art? If varied response is any kind of key to complexity, Tolkien’s art is kaleidoscopic” (Walker 3). Indeed the question of whether or not fantasy deserves study is a valid one. Deborah O’Keefe asks in her book, “Why, just now, do so many readers find it thrilling to follow Dorothy into the Emerald City of Oz (1900), Bilbo Baggins into his hobbit hole (1937), and Harry Potter into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (1997)? Today, fantasy is an enormously popular category, not a neglected stepgenre shivering in the shadows” (O’Keefe 12). This is certainly true: fantasy, particularly Tolkien’s fantasy, has become too big to ignore. The biggest problem is that many choose to ignore it because of escapism. If it were possible to eliminate escapism as an obstacle, it would open up a savory buffet of possibilities in literary criticism.

However, escapism does not necessarily deserve the criticism it has received. In an essay written by Tolkien he openly admits 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” (“Stories” 79) Since The Lord of the Rings is a “fairy-story” as Tolkien puts it, we see that Tolkien is openly admitting that his work contains escapism. Not only does he acknowledge it’s presence but refers to it as “one of the main functions” of his works. He also acknowledges the “scorn or pity” often attributed to escapism, but shrugs off the criticism as unrelated. He doesn’t appear to believe that “Escape” itself belittles the story in any way. In fact he argues that it is an essential part of fantasy or “fairy-stories.” This becomes very important as we look at Tolkien’s work in The Lord of the Rings. The fact that he considers escapism to be an essential part of the story means that we can look critically at what he makes escapism do in it.

The word ‘escape’ can be somewhat misleading in its presumed meaning, but when properly defined, it encourages the idea that escapism enhances our reality rather than detracting from it. Perhaps the best definition is the one that O’Keefe gives in her book, “Reading fantasy is not so much an escape from something as a liberation into something, into openness and possibility and coherence. All fiction blatantly or subtle conveys its author’s values, but with fantasy everything is hypothetical, subject to examination.” (O’Keefe 11) Were escapism an escape from something then perhaps the critics would be correct in their negative assessment, however, there is not necessarily any problem in escaping into something. The intent here would be to gain something through the escape, instead of hiding themselves from the real world. Escape is a positive word, and it would be more accurate to call it Enterism instead of Escapism. In fact, Tolkien states that the word Escape does not hold any negative meaning in our society at all, apart from the literary definition. He says, “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.” (“Stories” 79)

Before moving on any further, it is necessary to address the fact that it is human nature to hypothesize, to imagine, to dream of the unreal. When we look at animals, for example, one will observe that they do not have this same capacity. When a dog growls, he is not growling at what happened yesterday, nor is he growling at what will happen tomorrow. Animals are always concerned with the present. Humans on the other hand have the capacity to think about the future, the past, or even the hypothetical. This gives us a direct advantage when we need to plan or prepare, something a dog couldn’t do. “Only humans may withdraw, eyes shut, to ponder the nature of a threat rather than confront it directly, muscles tense, eyes open;” (Tuan 5). In short, “Escapism…is human – and inescapable” (Tuan xvi).

The escapist elements in The Lord of the Rings bear a remarkable resemblance to human myth, which is one of the reasons why escapism enhances our reality. Melissa Thomas in The English Journal states that, “Where there is spoken language, there will always be myth of some sort. Telling tall tales is as much a part of us as is jumping at the sound of thunder. In essence, what used to be myth has become fantasy.” (Thomas 63) Myth and fantasy are inseparably connected. As Thomas states, one has become the other. But what does this do to the reader? John C. Hunter in the Journal of Modern Literature points to The Lord of the Rings popularity, “as a sign that it gives its readers access to something that contemporary culture usually represses.” (Hunter 130) which he later identifies as myth (Hunter 130). This repressed “something” is described in the article as an “essential spiritual experience, and many readers of Tolkien’s work have felt that the novel partly restores or substitutes for them.” (Hunter 143) So it is the mythic elements of the text that are, at least partially, responsible for the escapist experience in reading it. The fact that myth has always existed, as seen in texts like The Iliad, and Beowulf, proves that this has always been part of human nature to create such mythical elements. Today we would not necessarily refer to literature as myth, but modern fantasy has all of the basic elements that belong in a mythical epic. Fantasy can therefore provide that “spiritual” escape that we need as humans, an escape that was previously found through myth.

The Lord of the Rings is full of symbolism and artistic choices that designate it a myth rather than a possible history. First, is Tolkien’s stylistic approach to storytelling, which he does in such a way that it leaves much to the imagination. Not everything is explained in perfect historical detail; instead it is often left open to interpretation. Steve Walker puts it this way, “Tolkien not only creates realistic fantasy, he stimulates us to create our own: he encourage us to participate in his subcreation.“Tolkien’s fiction focuses its penetrating vision by intricate application of a simple rhetorical process: reader participation…Readers are invited to familiarize themselves into this fantastic sphere, then to reach through its naturalness to the preternatural.” (Walker 7) This participation that we achieve upon reading Tolkien may be part of the “spiritual experience” Hunter refers to. In the same way that myth encourages participation from its believers (thereby drawing them to the preternatural), fantasy requires the same participation in its creation.

A good example of this reader participation can be seen in The Return of the King when King Theoden is described as “a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the Battle of the Valar when the world was young.” (Tolkien, “Rings” 871) No where in the entirety of The Lord of the Rings is Orome the Great ever explained. And the Battle of the Valar is another story never told in Rings. And yet the reader is able to internalize these statements and use them to enhance the reality of the mythos surrounding Rings. It gives the text a sense of a past, of deities, and creation which in turn adds to the character of Theoden, making him appear greater than an ordinary man. The reader may be unaware of the story behind Orome or the Valar, but by reading these statements, the reader is forced to use his/her imagination, to participate. There is a deep level of spiritualism embedded in this mythological telling of the story, both in the participatory subcreation and the references to gods and creation. Thus we see that through myth The Lord of the Rings is able to fill that hole that we all seem to need filled, according to Hunter. By filling that hole we are essentially escaping, not in a way that takes us away from reality, but by restoring an essential part of our life.

Not all of Tolkien’s world is left up to reader interpretation. Some of what makes The Lord of the Rings so believable is the attention to detail that Tolkien has achieved within his made-up world. Walker points out that “The fantastic creatures of Middle-earth are real because Tolkien turns every aspect of his taut tale to that purpose. The very names of Middle-earth fantasies ring true by means of built-in linguistic credibility factors” (Walker 22-23). For instance, within Tolkien’s world are multiple languages developed by the author in order to make the different cultures seem more real as if they had developed naturally. What this does is create a much more believable world so it then becomes easier for the reader to escape into that world. This presents a difficult challenge for writers of fantasy, creating a world that seems real, while at the same time being completely different. It requires much more thought and effort into making the story consistent within it’s own rules. However, when done right, it generates that environment which can influence the reader to escape with greater ease into the world of fantasy, which in turn better allows the reader to see reality with a new perspective.

By using escapism Tolkien allows us to see the world differently. One of the primary arguments against escapism is that the “unreal” could encourage a negative view of the world. For instance, Tuan says in his book, “Culture is driven by imagination and is a product of imagination. We humans are pleased and proud to have it. But imagination can lead us astray – into fantasy, the unreal, and the grotesque.” (Tuan xiv-xv) This may be true of escapism, which is why complete and total immersion in fantasy is not to be encouraged. However, if it is true that escapism can lead to “the grotesque,” then it stands to reason that the opposite is true as well, assuming different approaches are taken. O’Keefe suggests that, “fantasy can expand the mind and the heart, suggesting unusual choice and perspectives.” (O’Keefe 9) These “unusual choices and perspectives” are richly demonstrated in The Lord of the Rings. For instance, consider the choice that Frodo faces when he decides to leave the Shire because of the evil that would eventually be brought there by the Ring. Nobody in real life would ever be faced with this situation, however this does not mean they cannot learn from it. The proposal of such an “unusual” choice calls for speculation. What would any of us do in the same situation? Is Frodo’s reaction believable? What does it tell us about Frodo’s morals? By witnessing Frodo’s sacrifice, we learn from him. Perhaps we will never posses an evil ring, but we can get a glimpse of what one is capable of: sacrificing to save others, as Frodo does. Tuan compares this to viewing the world through light or dark lenses, seeing it for better or for worse (Tuan xv). In the case of Frodo, his choice and personal sacrifice is an excellent escapist example (meaning not real) that could allow us to see the world through brighter lenses. Perhaps it would cause the reader to recognize the good in others, or to serve others with the same self-sacrifice that Frodo does. The end result is not really important though, what matters is that escapism in this case is reaching into the “real” world and enhancing it, by altering the reader’s perspectives. Walker says it this way, “Most works of fiction encourage us to see things we have not seen. Some few provide insight into how others see. Rare are those, like the faerie tales of J. R. R. Tolkien, that alter our way of seeing.” (Walker 40) Thus, we can see that the escapism present in Tolkien’s fantasy is altering and enhancing our reality.

Perhaps the biggest way that escapism enhances reality is through the realistic portrayal of the unrealistic. For instance, Frodo’s journey is completely unrealistic. No one will ever possess a ring that will destroy the world if worn by its master, that ring will never try to seduce the bearer into using its power, and no one will ever have to trudge across a barren wasteland in order to destroy it in the only place it can be destroyed. This is fantasy. But let’s look at a number of hypothetical endings. Suppose Frodo had been able to destroy the ring from the start using ordinary fire – no one would be interested in the book, because it would lack opposition. People expect evil to resist, and the greater the evil – the greater the resistance. This is real. Suppose Frodo had been able to carry the ring to Mordor without ever feeling its effect or succumbing to its will. Once again it would not appear realistic because people expect evil to rub off on those who associate with it. This too is real. Why then do we not scoff at the aspects of The Lord of the Rings that are plainly not real? Why do we not feel cheated when the Ring is finally destroyed? The answer is because we are able to see unrealistic situations through realistic eyes. Even though the world is not real, we do not begrudge it this fact. Instead our imaginations are able to wander. Walker says this about Tolkien’s ability to make the world seem real, “His artistic perspective eclipses the making with the glimpsing – made worlds are here veritably glimpsed worlds; art at its best incarnates unseen reality…we come to accept his world less as a clever figmentation and more and more as a vision of a larger reality in which the world we thought we knew represents only an aspect of the total truth” (Walker 25). This draws us back to the idea that escapism can enhance our sense of reality. As Walker points out, we are able to get a glimpse of a “larger reality” that we would normally be unable to glimpse, thus enhancing our reality.

Escapism enhances reality again through the use of luck in The Lord of the Rings. First of all, Yi-Fu Tuan points out that it is in human nature to expect something greater beyond our own world, “Geographers study the earth as human habitat or home. Interestingly, they discover that the earth is never quite the home humans want it to be; hence the dreams of flying and of a paradise located elsewhere that are common to many cultures.” (Tuan 7) This would explain a lot of the escapist literature that has gained popularity, because people expect a greater force to somehow govern their lives. This leads us to another critique of escapist literature: too much luck. Often there will be a lot of coincidence in a story that people will say that it appears unrealistic. This may or may not be true, but it is also true – according to Tuan – that human beings have a natural expectation of divine intervention, at least at some basic level. This becomes evident in The Lord of the Rings, many times. Doesn’t it seem lucky that just as Frodo was about to put on the Ring in a black rider’s presence a party of Elves intervene (Tolkien, “Rings” 92), or that when Frodo is stabbed by the black rider he is found by one of the most powerful Elves in Rivendell (Tolkien, “Rings” 225), or that Gollum in Mount Doom just happens to stumble over the precipice thus destroying the Ring (Tolkien, “Rings” 982). And that’s not to mention how lucky Bilbo was to find the Ring in the first place. Referring to Bilbo’s finding of the Ring, Gandalf says that “There was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” (Tolkien, “Rings” ) This is a powerful reference to human expectation of the supernatural. In this case it is the expectation of a deity or power of some kind that causes these coincidences to happen. This power is not clearly defined, but it is present. In the same way humans have a loosely defined expectation of deity, paradise, etc. In this way, escapism is a reflection of the real world. Additionally, by accenting this “luck” in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien uses this escapist element to enhance our own reality, or rather our expectations of reality.

Escapism can do many things. It can take us into another place giving us a different perspective of the world. It can reiterate with greater emphasis, certain aspects that are in our nature, such as our expectations of something greater beyond this world. It can even fill a spiritual whole that has always been filled over the years by myth and fantasy. However, in every case reality is not discarded, instead it is used. Real ideas and real situations are combined with escapism to enhance our own perceptions of the world that we live in. Melissa Thomas comments in her article that, “More recent fantasy, while retaining that echo of re-fleeting ideals, is experiencing a dramatic change… Authors are taking on global issues on a more human scale: hunger, pain, loss, confusion, simple human fallibility, and triumph. Their characters, while remaining fictional, experience very human emotions.” (Thomas 62) By using escapism and fantasy, authors are able to tackle many of these issues that they might otherwise be unable to do, and still maintain the desired effect on the reader. By using escapism and fantasy, authors are able to get into the minds of the readers in a way unlike any other. Escapism does not detract from reality, it is a bridge used to enhance it.

Works Cited

Walker, Steve. The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-Earth’s Magical Style. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Tuan, Yi-fu. Escapism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. Print.
O’Keefe, Deborah. Readers in Wonderland: the Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction : from Dorothy to Harry Potter. New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.
Thomas, Melissa. “Teaching Fantasy: Overcoming the Stigma of Fluff.” The English Journal 92.5 (2003): 60-64. Print.
Hunter, John C. “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Critical Mythology and “The Lord of the Rings”” Journal of Modern Literature 29.2 (2006): 129-47. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 2001. 33-99. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Print.

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