Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I never fully understood the label of "escapist" till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, 'What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?' and gave the obvious answer: jailers.
--C.S. Lewis,"On Science Fiction" (1955)


  1. Leave it to Tolkien to put his finger on it exactly. When I was a lad, in the early eighties, the D&D hysteria reached the doors of my school. Under parental and local religious protest (I hate to point fingers but it was spear-headed by the Baptist Church), we were forced to shut the D&D Club down. I well remember the final reason the principal gave for closing us; in his estimation, club activities in a public school should help "train young people to be useful members of society." He did not see how D&D did that. I've never forgotten that, and often reflected that his answer sounds a bit like what one might expect a warden to say. At any rate, I have spent the rest of my life--as a professional academic--teaching the opposite doctrine (that we should be expanding minds rather than narrowing them) as a result of that.

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  3. very interesting quotation.

    in the past, my problem with escapism was that it's a misnomer-- it doesn't facilitate a real escape. when the movie/book/game is over, nothing's changed.

    but this quotation gives me reason to rethink that view.

  4. The always politically-minded Michael Moorcock complained, in his essay on fantasy and sf, that jailers LOVE escapism.
    Do they? Probably, I'd say.
    How many of us do live under the effect of weapons of mass distraction?

  5. Escapism frees your mind and allows you to endure the unendurable. Hence its uses. I disagree about jailers, though. My guess would be, spiritual oppressors and champions of conformity and uniformity, jailers in spiritual sense. As far as corrections officers, they tend to spend too much time cooped in with their charges and thus are prone reading Westerns or Sci-Fi or escaping into DVDs as much if not more, than anyone else.

  6. Gigaboy, are you referring to "Starship Stormtroopers" or another essay?

  7. China Mieville - unsurpisingly to those who know anything about his work and opinions on fantasy - refutes this via the Moorcock quote alluded to above:

    "Again, this comes out of Tolkien. In 'On Fairy Tales' he says, '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 fantasy writer Terry Pratchett puts it very simply: 'Jailers don't like escapism.' The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism--what they don't like is escape.

    "The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can't escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren't about the real world they therefore 'escape' is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That's why some fantasies (like Swift's Gulliver's Travels) are so directly allegorical--but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can't help but reverberate around the reader's awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.

    "Take a book like Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It's set in a fantasy world, and it involves discussions of racism, industrial conflict, sexual passion and so on. Does it really make any sense to say that the book is inherently, because of its genre form more escapist than what Iain Banks calls 'Hampstead novels', about the internal bickerings of middle class families who seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts? Just because those books pretend to be about 'the real world' doesn't mean they reverberate in it with more integrity.

    "Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the 'escape' that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it's precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it's not nearly fantastic enough. It's escapist, but it can't escape."

    You can read the rest at:

    I've always found Mieville's analyses of Tolkien fairly plausible (when he's not being sensational, at least).


  8. Unsurprisingly, I don't have a lot of regard for Mieville, particularly when it comes to Tolkien. Like Moorcock before him, I think he deliberately misunderstands him in order to over-emphasize his own contributions to the genre.

  9. People might be chained to their social reality, but they still escape into their personal dream worlds, however rooted in their culture. Most of those worlds are dreadfully boring to anyone, but the dreamer, since their own escape, like a suit of fine plate armor, is suited to their own personal needs, and no one else's. That's why it takes talent and ability to make escape stories, which would be interesting to others.

    LOTR would not be escapist literature for me, sine the real world is so much more fascinating, and the inherent coservatism of Tolkien limits his imagination. The only truly fantastic character in LOTR was Tom Bombadillo. To me, Voyage to Arcturus was far more fantastic, adventure stories of HG Wells biordering on terrible were scarier than Lovecraft. Many people take the bucolic setting of LOTR to be the fantasy element and it is not. One Prof told me long time ago, that he did not consider Bradbury and Ellison to be Sci-Fi authiors and they were not on his syllabus. Why not, I asked, and he told me: One writes soemthing sentimental, and dresses it up as scince fiction, the other writes something vaguely terrible, and dresses it up as Sci-Fi. By the same token, LOTR takes the Great War and dresses it up as fantasy, but fantasy it isn't really, for the realism of its political intrigue.

  10. Yeah, James, I'm gonna have to respectfully disagree with you on this on. I think Moorcock's take on Tolkein rings rather true for me. I just find Tolkien's writing to be somewhat poor: he obviously loved his middle earth and obviously spent a great deal of time creating what may just be the first ever sandbox campaign setting but I just wish he'd spent more time on the craft of writing.

    Back to the topic - here's Moorcock from the end of the article which I linked above and which I encourage you to read because it is well written and cogently argued:

    ' Ideally fiction should offer us escape and force us, at least, to ask questions; it should provide a release from anxiety but give us some insight into the causes of anxiety. Lin Carter... uses an argument familiar to those who are used to reading apologies from that kind of sf or thriller buff who feels compelled to justify his philistinism: "The charge of 'escapist reading,'" says Carter, "is most often levelled against fantasy and science fiction by those who have forgotten or overlooked the simple fact that virtually all reading - all music and poetry and art and drama and philosophy for that matter - is a temporary escape from what is around us." Like so many of his colleagues in the professional sf world, Carter expresses distaste for fiction which is not predominantly escapist by charging it with being "depressing" or "negative" if it does not provide him with the moral and psychological comforts he seems to need. An unorthodox view, such as that of Tolkien's contemporary David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus), is regarded as a negative view. This, of course, is the response of those deeply and often unconsciously wedded to their cultural presumptions, who regard examination of them as an attack. '

  11. There's a rather famous book about the social issues being raised here, for anyone who feels like making a career of it. The author's been faulted on his history, but the philosophical point - that society seeks to shackle the individual imagination to "useful," society-reproducing ends - seems like it would ring true for a lot of posters here. Tolkien said "jailers," but he might have said "social engineers" or "educators" or "sovereigns," had he been more attentive to what other parts of the academy were doing in the 60s.

    Regarding Tolkien, the argument from social conditioning is complicated a bit by the amount of his reading that goes into his writing - reading from times and cultures at least somewhat different from that of early 20th c England. The idea of the (im)possibility of escape from one's culture is a popular one, but what would it mean anyway and was it necessarily Tolkien's aim? I frankly doubt it: a book is a communicative act, and I think one of his aims in communicating was to bring his dusty, liguistically-obscure readings to a modern audience, not to release that audience's butterfly soul from the iron cage of industrialized society.

  12. @AWJ: I think it was in "Wizardry and Wild Romance" if I'm not mistaken.

    @JamesM: By reading your blog I can say I have a greater love of Moorcock's books than you, yet I think that you're spot on regarding over-emphasizing his own merits.
    The man has a huge opinion of himself.

    @Brooze: I've heard the "LOTR as WWI" argument before and even read a book recently on that regard.
    I'm not buying it. However I don't regard LOTR -although I don't like it- as escapism.

    In the end I'd say that Moorcock is biased by its own anarcho-comunist/atheist views and blinded by them in its analysis of LOTR. He's calling Tolkien escapist in a negative way because LOTR "exudes" of Tolkien spiritual views that Moorcock doesn't share and can do anything but tag as escapist.

    In all this what's my point...?
    Simply be aware of what you're reading, and no, I wouldn't say escapism is a good thing in and of itself.
    best regards

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  14. amendment: I really meant to say, above, that saying "jailers" was nice and clear, and was obviously intended metaphorically.

    Note also this is Lewis talking, not Tolkien, and his intentions in writing seem quite different: I think he might have considered he was offering hope of a kind of escape, with a particular spiritual sort of destination to escape to/engage from.

  15. Giga Boy, I don't put a judgement value on escapism, I don't consider the exercise of the imagination to be good, bad or problematic. For yours truly, it's a great trip, if it works, LOTR is too dense and abstract, too unromantic to do the trick for ME. BTW, wasn't the War of the Ring/The Battle of Mordor, a pretty big, dare I say... GREAT war for the Middle Earth that involved all the local kingdoms? No resemblance to that other trenchfoot affair that embroiled all of the European continent...

  16. The Lord of the Rings fails spectacularly as a Great War allegory. It is indeed, the story of a war, and Tolkien did indeed fight in the Great War, but I'd like to see you try and come up with any other links between them. I know I can't think of any that are significant.

    Tolkien is also, perhaps of any writer I'm aware of, the most polished and deliberate in his writing craft. This contribution as one of the first "sandbox campaign authors" is, I'd say, quite false; Middle-earth isn't a sandbox setting, it's a setting that has a very specific story to be told that's intrinsic to the setting. How is that sandbox-like? In addition, Tolkien's very careful word choice is actually rather amazing to see. His deliberate use of "old" words that, even now, are often difficult to find in dictionaries, and his deliberate avoidance of Latin-based words as much as possible. The rather remarkable chapter "The Council of Elrond" where for a good forty pages, there's nothing but dialogue and back-story exposition, a complete authorial no-no that he manages to make work. Look at how he carefully and deliberately reflects personality in the speaking voice and dialogue of the characters in that chapter.

    No, I really have to disagree with that entire premise you stated there, Chris T. Tolkien most certainly did not create a "sandbox campaign" and his is the most deliberately and skillfully crafted work of the English language that I can think of off-hand.

  17. Regarding Tolkien as a writer;

    I get the fact that Tolkien is not for all tastes, but it rankles me a bit when I hear the assertion that he was a poor writer. What people fail to understand is that Tolkien was attempting to write LotR in a particular style, reviving a pre-industrial literary form. Most ancient literature was written, of course, in verse, something Tolkien at times tried his hand at, but LotR reads very much like a medieval piece (Le Morte d'Arthur springs to mind). The Silmarillion, my personal favorite, reads very like the Mabinogion or even an English translation of something like the Indian Mahabharata. Granted I am biased--my field is traditional epic literature--but Tolkien did an admirable job of reviving the style. Of his works, only The Hobbit, I think, was meant to be in a modern form.

  18. I'd like to see you try and come up with any other links between them.I don't really want to get into this one because it's an endless merry-go-round and I've been around it enough times already. And it's thoroughly OT. But here we go.

    Of course, there's what he said about cordially disliking allegory and preferring "applicability," noting in passing that a great many people had found LoTR "applicable" to a great many situations.

    Then there's the lack of matchup between the prosecution of the war that ends the 3rd age and that of WWI: one might say that the heroic defense of Helm's Deep and the decisive rushing clash of armies in Gondor were the wished-for war that WWI refused to be, but I think one would be speculating without much support there. WWI was notable partly for decisively killing cavalry warfare, so there might be a note of period-informed nostalgia in the Rohirrim, and it seems unlikely that JRRT's WWI experiences had no effect on his imagination, which perhaps we see in the marshes of the dead and the dreary march across the Emyn Muil and Mordor, but not really in the battle scenes.

    Now, I will concede that the placement of Mordor, the association with the Haradhrim and the depiction of orcs in general bring to mind a sort of Orientalist Turcophobia, the Turks, Huns and Mongols being the archetypal enemies of "the west"/Christendom, and that "Hun" was a term applied in England to the German enemy of WWI and WWII, so there just might be a certain mirroring of popular or propagandist imagination that might appeal to a medievalist in all this construction. But I'd offer, as a counter, that all works of fiction are bricolages of the world we know - that's what gives them referential power - and that in JRRT's pursuit of the myth and folklore of the Germanic peoples, there's no special reason he should eschew this particular bit of mythologizing.

    As to his being a bad writer, though, I can't really support that. He didn't have greatest facility for writing, and I understand he had no master structure in mind when he set out, but when you compare him with the only fantasy author ever to outsell him, his handling of the language is rich, varied and fluid.

  19. I really don't see the need to justify my point about Tolkein's writing. I have read a lot of literature, not just fantasy, old and new, ancient and modern, sometimes in their original language.

    Sticking to fantasy can you seriously tell me Tolkein is better than Gene Wolfe, who is also religious and conservative but leaves JRRT for dead in any literary category you'd care to name?

    Better than Jack Vance??

    I love the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales as James calls them, who in ten pages create worlds more dense and writing more poetic than JRRT could at 200 times the length.

    That said I do like Tolkein more than CS Lewis.

    As for the sandbox campaign point I made, now who is deliberately misinterpreting whom? :-/
    Is it not a fact that his work on Middle Earth was a first and has inspired all the fantasy world-building for epic campaigns/fantasy series that followed? Please correct me if I'm wrong.

    Tolkien's aim? I frankly doubt it: a book is a communicative act, and I think one of his aims in communicating was to bring his dusty, liguistically-obscure readings to a modern audience, not to release that audience's butterfly soul from the iron cage of industrialized society.You are on the money here. But I think that metaphor would have appealed to Tolkein because much of LotR reflects his disquiet at industrialised society. For me, that he couldn't be more conscious of and/or articulate about this disqiuet means that he is merely a good writer than a great one.

  20. LOTR does not so muich mirror the WWI itself as it does the biographic experiences of Tolkien. Tolkien was originally from South Africa of the pre-apartheid colonial yore (the shire), went off to war with several of his friends, who were all of British South African Descent, all educated in the British Schoolboy tradition, and all went off as British Army Officers. All of his friends die, except Tolkien, who didn't even suffer a major injury. In essence Tolkien lost all of his friends of his youth inthe great war. Catholic theology and political conservatism aside, the story starts with a bunch of hobbit chums who set off into a great new world on the eve of a great war, AFTER the events, Frofo is changed and no longer fits in the society, the rest of eh hobbits do not change, but Frodo grows distant from them, as he was scarred by his "Ring Bearing" experiecne. Trench warfare experience, tensions of a scarred veteran in the company of non-vets? In the real world circle of Tokkien's friends gets killed, in the LOTR, Frodo merely grows distant from rthem and sails off into the "Lends of the West" aka Elven afterlife. In the real world Friends die and Tolkien lives on and in teh LOTR all the Hobbits come back, and Frodo leaves. Anoher point is that Tolkien srtrted working on his Middle Earth while still in trenches, literally, escaping into fantasy whuile his brother officers were drinking themselves silly while getting new plattoons of men to replace the ones mowed down with machine guns and visiting their friends in field hospitals dying after gas attacks. Tolkien kept working in his Middle Earth throughout his life long before the Hobbit was publihed, and if you consder that he didn't suffer from any of the returning combat veteran issues, and in fact had a stable marriage and a successful academic career, you can say that Tolkien's Middle Earth was his magic mirror, his Dorian Gray portrait, which had kept him stable and sane after the war. IMO.

  21. If you don't want to defend your claim, then you might think twice about making it, Chris T. Yes, I'd say Tolkien is miles above Gene Wolf and Jack Vance in writing capability. Easily so, in fact.

    A lot of this is subjective and taste-driven, but objectively, Tolkien did things with language that few (if any) other writers of fantasy (or any other genre) would have been capable of doing. A lot of this was his professional background. Do a little reading on Old English linguistics and then re-read Tolkien and you can see an extremely deliberate use of almost every single word.

    He may not have crafted a piece of literary work that you appreciate, but to say that he lacked craftsmanship as a writer is factually incorrect.

    In regards to the sandbox discussion; I'm not sure where you're going with that. Yeah, sure, Tolkien's world-building has been hugely influential on fantasy writers that followed him (although you are wrong in assuming he was the first; Hyboria and Barsoom, to name just two created worlds, predated him (at least in print) by decades.) I don't see what that has to do with whether or not the setting is a "sandbox" setting. You do understand, right, that it's your use of the word sandbox in particular to which I take exception? Sandbox has a very particular meaning in the RPG community, and it has more to do with the style of running the game itself than it does with the setting.

    That said, Middle-earth is poorly suited to be a "sandbox" setting. Sandbox implies that characters can interact with the setting in a very organic way, wandering about as they will. Middle-earth is not that kind of setting; it's a "plot driven" setting, which is directly opposed to a sandbox setting. The major story of the setting; the one that remakes it if you will, is the story of the Ring.

  22. Brooze the Bear, that's really interesting. In some ways JG Ballard was similar with his empty swimming pools and WWII experiences. The WWI background to LotR is the best bit in it: those famous marshes.

    But yeah, It's a soothing fairy-tale. And Tolkein would say that's exactly the point of fantasy.

    And yes, Joshua, it is subjective. Some people like the soothing familiarity of it and others may find it cloying. Some may also take issue with the need to limit fantasy to this particular effect and structure.

    My favourite bits in LotR are the scary, creepy ones. His greatest creation is Gollum. I like the theme of addiction to power and how it turns people into pitiful gremlins.. Unfortunately it's a small part of the book.

    Yes, I'd say Tolkien is miles above Gene Wolf and Jack Vance in writing capability. Easily so, in fact.Righto.

    Sandbox has a very particular meaning in the RPG community, and it has more to do with the style of running the game itself than it does with the setting.Indeed. But an essential part of the concept is world-building however detailed or not you'd like it. I was using the word as a synonym for millieu. I hope you don't mind.

    So fair enough although Howard and Burroughs didn't go into as extensive detail as Tolkein did, they anticipate him with their looser sketched out "sandboxes" for their heroes to act in which they may alter to fit a story should the need or idea arise..

  23. Middle-earth is not that kind of setting; it's a "plot driven" setting, which is directly opposed to a sandbox setting. The major story of the setting; the one that remakes it if you will, is the story of the Ring.
    Yeah I see what you're getting at: it's more of a Dragonlance thing. That's a fair distinction from what I said.

  24. Chris T,
    I think that you have hit the nail on the head with Tolkien's fantasy being a soothing escape. I have actually heard an audio recording of Tokien singing one of his Hobbit songs. It sounded exactly like a five year old splashing in the bathtub, or an adult singing a lullaby to that five year old.

  25. Re: jailers

    Tolkien grew up and lived in a time when jailers and other societal oppressors were _deeply offended_ if you didn't give them your complete attention. All the new prisons of that time in the UK were designed to make prisoners live and think and eat and breathe the state's plan for them.

    Nowadays, it's taken for granted that prisoners are allowed to have their own mental space, and that this should in no way worry the jailers. Indeed, if you don't make it too obvious, you can run criminal enterprises. You can onvert the masses to strange religions, and the warden doesn't care, so long as you don't make him extra paperwork. Indeed, making extra paperwork for the legal system is a major occupation of prisoners, and still this is accepted.

    We don't live in Tolkien's world.

  26. I think all the writers mentioned here attain greatness when they write about what fascinates and inspires them.

    Tolkien on epic Germanic myth drawn through the crucible of apolcalyptic Judeo-Christian struggle between Good & Evil.
    Mieville when he's doing monsters & montrousness & non-traditional-traditional-fantasy.
    Moorcock when he sketches baroque settings and frenetic angst-driven heroes against cosmic forces.
    Lewis' boys-own enthusiasm infused with Rudyardesque mysticism.
    Wolfe when he folds everyday assumptions onto themselves over and over and over to create something breathtakingly deep and startling and strange.
    Howard when he invokes exotic settings and characters that leap off the page with a few words of description, a roared line of dialogue, and action that explodes with raw vitality.

    Sure, they all have areas of indifference and outright weaknesses. But all of them capture a passion and a truth and when they're writing from that place, they all rise to greatness.