Tolkien’s Fairy-Story Gifts: Escape


“I don’t want to analyze a story. I don’t want to find hidden meaning. I just want to escape from the real world for a bit.”

I’m guessing you’ve either heard some variation of those words or said them yourself. Books are for “escaping.” Stories are for entertainment value. A page-turner is all we want – something that will help us to “veg out,” to leave the day behind.

Authors: Mindless Entertainers, or Careful Artists?

I can’t begrudge someone entertainment. I like entertainment. I watch a few TV shows just for the mindlessness, and I watch others because they make me think. But a line often gets crossed in this type of thinking, which goes something like this: “Authors don’t have imaginative keys to their works. They’re not keeping secrets. You’re just looking for a ‘Da Vinci Code’ or something. You’re looking for some secret gnostic meaning.”

The reason I think this crosses a line is that the one who quickly dismisses, out-of-hand, that books have deeper levels of meaning, claiming that authors just writing exciting books for the profit and fun of it all, is insulting the craft of writing. Why is it the default assumption that authors don’t have imaginative keys to their work?  Why is the author, by default, put in the role of mindless entertainer, instead of careful artist?

Escape to More Permanent Things

The real “gnosticism” in this discussion is not the artist who builds a story on an imaginative key, but one who thinks that books provide some “escape” from the “real world,” and that this escape is a good thing. Tolkien wrote,

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in a 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?

For Tolkien, the pejorative use of “escapism” was married to the false belief that current trends define Real Life – the electric street lamp, for example, is nowhere near as permanent as Lightning. But most of us know more about the lamp, because it’s more relevant to our daily existence. The fairy-tale takes us to the lightning, the “more permanent thing.”

This also answers the person who thinks that escape is simply a mindless, page-turning getaway, a vacation in your own armchair. The Escape is most certainly a delight, a joy, and a “break” from the daily mundane activities of life, as well as the more prison-like aspects of our existence. But it is an Escape that puts us in contact with themes and symbols and a cohesive, magical world from which we should not return unchanged for the better.

And if this is what Escape is, why would the careful artist not deliberately choose her imaginative key, what Michael Ward calls the kappa (or secret) element?

Tolkien believed that the true escapist, or the “fugitive spirit,” will be drawn by the “oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” This “Escape from Death” is at the heart of the best books – the ones that stir our hearts, give us deeper understanding of our pain, and glimpses of joy to come.

Adapted from the post “Escape Into the Perilous Realm,” which applies these thoughts to J.K. Rowling’s books.


  1. Drew

    Why is it the default assumption that authors don’t have imaginative keys to their work? Why is the author, by default, put in the role of mindless entertainer, instead of careful artist?


    I would say that not all authors are careful. And if we bring in other forms of entertainment, like film and television, then it becomes even more clear that the goal of some creators is to simply fill the seats and/or sell advertising.

    One might suggest that the more creators of a work, the less a single imaginative vision will make it through unscathed. I have no idea what the deeper meaning might be of a Big, Loud, Dumb Summer Blockbuster of the Michael Bay variety. Escapism, certainly. But aside from that?

    My wife enjoys movies that are pure escapism, typically of the Romantic Comedy variety. I like movies that reveal layers of meaning. I recall when we went to see “Stranger than Fiction,” and she was expecting a light, Will Ferrell comedy. And she didn’t like it at all. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking “Okay, so the author is always wearing white . . . in a white room . . . always in some upper-story apartment or office . . . the symbolism there is obvious,” and I spend the movie trying to draw out meaning. (Why is she smoking all the time? Who or what is her assistant supposed to symbolize.)

    I get frustrated when attempts to pull out meaning reveal that there really isn’t any coherent meaning there. Or if there ever was something deeper in the original script, it’s been diluted by the other people working on the film.

    Therefore, it would seem logical to declare that the novel, with a single creator (and a friendly editor!) is probably the most pure vision of imaginative and meaningful escapism.

    But all this depends on the notion that all artists really do create with care. In his recent book “Digital Barbarism,” Mark Helprin notes the differences in the publishing industry in the 60s and the publishing industry today. He writes:

    “The [editors and publishers] were not that good at making money, but in the mean they were devoted to literature. The financial apparatus was subsidiary to their standards and their calling.

    . . . The first editor I visited, in the early 60s, had a fire going in the fireplace, and wrote with a fountain pen. She received me patiently and gave me an hour. I was sixteen. The last editor I visited (not my own) received me hurriedly in a tiny cubicle with a window that did not open. I had the impression that she was forced to look for books that, above all, would be able to run the gauntlet and stay on the shelves long enough to keep her alive in her job.”

    For a work of escapism that is also an “escape to more permanent things” to survive in today’s entertainment culture, it’s got to pass by many dragons, the most terrifying of which is “will this make money”?

    In recent years, I find myself turning more and more to independent musicians, and independent filmmakers to find that more pure and meaningful escapism that hasn’t been rendered impotent by the need for profit. (I’ve got no problem with capitalism; I’m a capitalist myself — but somehow Art and Money just never seem to mix very well. The rare times they do, the art seems to become something that is nearly universally celebrated, which may reflect the public’s yearning for meaningful escapism.)

    Independent film and independent music are in favor today and people go out of their way to access it. Independent publishing still seems to be in its infancy — this in spite of (or because of?) the modern tools that allow pretty much anyone to publish anything.

    I have no idea where I was going with this. Thanks for reading! : )

  2. Peter B

    Looks like Pete’s getting quite a buildup for his novel release! I couldn’t agree more.

    Funny how when age does bring wisdom, it usually leads one off the beaten path.

  3. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I heard Patrick Rothfuss say he doesn’t like the term escape because it implies permanence, but rather retreat. I liked that.

    I read to know more than anything else, but sometimes, yes, I just want catharsis and a good laugh.

  4. Peter B

    Considering his prison metaphor, I think “escape” better captured the truth he meant to communicate.

  5. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I awsn’t really saying anything about Tolkien’s use of the word escpae as I was just throwing that out there since we tend NOT to use escape the way Tolkien did as you illustrated in your post.

    Having said that, I suspect you wouldn’t have liked a lot of what Rothfuss said as he seems to resent Tolkien’s lingering influence on the fantasy genre, completely misunderstands the young adult are of books, and doesn’t think Harry Potter is particularly creative. Still he’s a nice guy. 😉

  6. sd smith

    It seems like a lot of modern fantasy writers are expressing hatred/revulsion towards Tolkien. I can see why, his world is so thoroughly Christian that it is offensive in many ways and on many levels to so many modern (and post-modern) dogmas.

    I find his world so instructive for understanding the actual Bible for some of those very reasons. Some examples: Authority is a gift, meant for good. Rules are a gift, meant for good. Submission is beautiful. Humility precedes glory. Power must be under authority to be good. The enemy twists and enslaves. Etc.

    I also love that masses of people can’t help but love the stories, to connect with them on a deep level which bypasses their humanistic, rebellion-centered ideology.

    Nice one, Prinzi. As usual.

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