Escape vs. Escapism
If you're about my age or a bit older, you might remember Melanie from "Candles in the Rain," especially if you were around any peace demonstrations. If you're a little younger, you might know "I've Got a Brand New Pair of Rollerskates." Somewhere during that time, she wrote and recorded, "Look What They've Done to My Song," which I think just about anyone who's poured heart and soul into a creative work and then put it out for public display can identify with. When the song starts running through my head, the verse my mind lands on the most is:
Wish I could find a good book
to live in.
Wish I could find a good book.
If I could find a real good book,
I'd never have to come out and look
at what they've done to my song.
I don't know if it's a coincidence that Melanie and The Lord of the Rings hit home in America at about the same time. I have absolutely no evidence that she was thinking of LotR when she wrote that verse. In fact I'd be surprised if she was; after all, she does say that she wishes she could find a good book to live in.
One of the misconceptions I've run across in evangelical Christian interpretations of Tolkien is that "escape" is equivalent to "escapism," which is not the way Tolkien saw things. He gives an explanation of the difference in his essay "On Fairy-stories," which should be required reading for everyone who reads his fiction (IMHO).
The accusation of "escapism" leveled at fantasy was something Tolkien fought even before he'd written LotR. "On Fairy-stories" was originally written in 1938-1939, and added to and republished in 1947; its first publication happened about the same time he was beginning to write LotR (as he mentions in his Introduction to the essay in Tree and Leaf and The Tolkien Reader) and World War II was starting. At the time of its second publication, World War II was over but Tolkien was still years away from finishing LotR. I find two basic arguments about escape in that essay: that escape is not necessarily a bad thing (for example, to a prisoner), and that fantasy's role is not to take us away from reality but deeper into it. If you combine those two arguments, you might say that the purpose of fantasy is to free us from being imprisoned by the surface elements of life so that we can catch glimpses of what lies beneath them. Not all fantasy fulfills that purpose, certainly, but I believe Tolkien's does. Or maybe I should say that Tolkien's can; it's still up to the individual reader to allow that to happen.
I want to avoid the trap of saying that in order to use Tolkien's writing as escape (rather than escapism), a reader has to studiously mine below the surface or pull apart the rocks. I haven't been able to come up with a completely positive parallel for what I'm trying to say here, so this comparison is very limited, but I'd look at it somewhat like an underground deposit of uranium. Some people are likely to come along searching for uranium, discover the deposit, mine it and use it in power plants; they know what they're looking for, recognize it when they find it, and have a specific plan for putting it to use. But there are also likely to be people living above the deposit who never know it's there, but who are still affected by it. They know there's "something" that has affected them, and even realize that it's related to where they live, but they can't define it. They may or may not learn about it when other people start digging up the uranium or when they themselves begin using electricity from the new power plant. But that knowledge isn't necessary for them to experience the effects.
Tolkien, after all, was creating mythology and writing fantasy in which the deeper elements were absorbed into the story. Myth by definition involves areas of human existence that can't entirely be explained in words, any more than the people digging up the uranium can completely control its radiation (although they might like to think they can). As with any infinitely-knowable mystery, the shelves of books that have been written - and will be written - on Tolkien's subcreation can never say it all; a reader who doesn't consciously "interpret" what he or she is reading may be more deeply affected than anyone else.
All well and good, some Christian readers might say, if these people aren't already Christians. If Tolkien's fiction leads them to keep their eyes open for that "something deeper," or, even better, leads them to wonder, "Am I a prisoner? Of what?" it's done an important bit of pre-evangelization. If this allows the Holy Spirit to get her foot in the door, I trust that I or someone else will be there when the person's ready for some more specific conversation. Whether or not he consciously meant it to be, Tolkien's writing is so marvelously subversive in talking about faith that I believe it's important to avoid ruining his hard work by making it explicit too quickly. From my own (admittedly extremely limited) experience, people who come to Christ through Tolkien's work tend to be people who need some time to understand things gradually through images and stories - perhaps moreso than people who become Christian by a more direct route. Tolkien is a patient, gentle teacher. The Catholic mindset is helpful in this, because it sees our relationship with God as an ongoing process that constantly deepens and grows. A seed that's planted in someone's heart today will break out into the sunlight in the Holy Spirit's time, very possibly helped along by something or someone else in the person's life. The person God used to originally plant the seed may very well never know the result.
But for a Christian reader of Tolkien, shouldn't the idea of escape be a moot point? If someone has accepted Jesus as Lord, hasn't that person already been freed?
Christian visitors to Middle-earth can easily start their reflection from the Christian viewpoint and go from there. They might relate to Tolkien's argument that fantasy's role is not to take us away from reality but deeper into it, more than they do to the idea of the escape of a prisoner. But Catholicism would say that even believers can find themselves gradually recaptured by the surface elements of life and need a reminder of what lies beneath them in order to find the courage to break the chains we've allowed to take hold of us again. From an even more specifically Catholic perspective, until faith in Christ breaks our heaviest chains we may not even realize that we're held back by more subtle ones. John of the Cross uses the image of a bird trying to take flight with its leg tied to a post. Certainly, a chain would hold it back. But so would a string, or even a thread. In order to be completely free, the bird needs to break that final thread that is keeping it from soaring. The lifelong process of deepening our life with God gradually snips away at what's holding us back from perfect love, until we're released from that final thread. The imprisonment we find ourselves in at one age may be different from the one we experience later, one of the many reasons that Tolkien's work can speak differently to me this year than it did last year - or will next year.
I've used a painting by René Magritte (right) that I think makes a similar statement. I suppose there could be various ways to "stack" the images in the painting, but I've always seen it as the dove opening a space that allows the further reality to shine through the bleak "real world" that otherwise obscures it (based on Magritte's other work, I believe this is the way he meant it to be looked at). In Tolkien's words, "I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again." If we apply this same painting to the previous essay, we might say that this is how enchantment and sacrament break through into our lives, reminding us of the sunlight that's always there, even when we're not seeing it.