The Value of Fictional “Escape”

To continue with the “classics” theme I started last week, I want to talk about the idea of fictional “escape,” and the question of whether or not fiction should be “escapist”/whether or not we ought to read “to escape.” Tolkien covered this well in “On Fairy Stories,” which I’ll quote and which I highly recommend reading in full, but I want to look at a few key points to consider in this discussion for those of you who just want to focus on fictional “escape” and don’t want to read a whole 40-page essay on fairy stories (as excellent as that essay may be).

The Judgment on “Escape”

The primary judgment leveled at the idea of “escaping” into fiction is that escapism disregards the real world; it’s a means of ignoring the goings-on of the real world and an excuse not to engage with “real world” considerations. Certainly, this sort of “escape” is problematic and the judgment of it is valid. If you’re reading, playing video games, watching movies, etc. at the expense of the responsibilities and relationships around you, that’s an unfruitful use of time and something that should be addressed.

However, this sort of “escape” (or “desertion,” as Tolkien puts it) is an abuse of something that can, alternatively, be used properly and with wisdom. There is nothing wrong with taking a “vacation” from the “real world,” so long as all that you’ve been entrusted with in that real world comes first. Rewarding yourself for accomplishing all of the tasks on your to-do list by playing a video game or reading a novel is not inherently problematic, nor is a properly-prioritized desire to explore fantastical worlds beyond our own. In fact, I think that desire is good, and that’s what I want to cover in my next point.

Escape into Greater Truth

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthy pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Fiction offers us a taste of satisfaction for the desire toward something amazing and fantastical, something beyond what we can physically see and experience in this world. While it cannot fully satisfy that desire–the only ultimate fulfillment we find for that desire is in the “true country,” as Lewis goes on to put it, for which we were made–it does give us a taste of what may be and it is a constant reminder of that desire. C.S. Lewis continues on to say,

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.

Fiction, properly used and understood, stokes this desire and encourages us to press on toward the true beauty and wonder of God’s creation–both visible and invisible. Exploring the wonderful worlds of fiction should not be a desertion of reality, but a press toward a greater understanding of reality. We should bring that wonder back with us when we return to the “real world.”

But I promised to quote “On Fairy Stories,” so let’s look at how Tolkien put it.

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.

“On Fairy Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Truly good fiction should reflect the reality of God’s design in ways that we miss in the “real world,” or present those realities in ways that make us think on them anew. Reading fiction should not be an escape from what is real, but an escape into something even more real than the “reality” that we see in the everyday. Fiction reminds us that the mundane and everyday tasks we accomplish have a purpose larger than ourselves, that heroism is still valuable, that the world is more than material, and that God is in the business of accomplishing more than we can possibly think or imagine. Fiction pushes us to imagine, to think on the fantastical, and to bring those values back into the “real world” that we inhabit and the way we interact therein.

Knowing Where We’re Escaping To

This definition of true escape brings with it an inherent responsibility to know where it is that we’re running to. Not all fiction is created equal. If we are “escaping” into books void of real truth and beauty, then our escape is a desertion of reality instead of an escape into the greater truth of reality as God created it. Are we directing our “escape” toward lands of truth and beauty as God designed it, or lands built on the corruption of that truth and beauty–worlds devoid of hope and light, or that point our eyes toward false safety?

This is not to say that we cannot glean truth from even poorer-quality media–truth is impossible to fully escape in the telling of stories–but we should be striving to fill our minds with “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely.” We should put thought into our escape plan to ensure that we arrive where we want to be. Much more of our time should be spent on fiction that returns on the investment than on fiction that provides little lasting value.

“Escape” through fiction is not an inherent problem, but a means by which we grasp hold of the invisible truth and beauty in our world (and the visible, sometimes, too). Fiction does what “real life” isn’t always able to do and “sneaks past the watchful dragons” that keep us from embracing truth in a purely intellectual way, instead giving us a means by which we can connect with it on an emotional level through story. (Quote paraphrased from Lewis’s essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.”) So let’s escape to places of wisdom, virtue, and hope.

What are your favorite places of fictional “escape”?

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