Hope Beyond the Walls of the World: Tolkien on Escapism and Eucatastrophe

The term escapism is often spoken of in distaste in the modern western world, especially among those who are considered to be among the more highly educated. Even modern fantasy writers believe themselves to have outgrown the idea, instead preferring to relate their stories more closely to what they perceive to be reality where the ‘good are not always rewarded and the bad not always punished’. [1] These authors are battling against an archetype that has existed in fantasy for nearly a millennium, specifically the happy ending and the worldview it represents, which they believe to be divorced from reality. Postmodern author Ellen Hopkins writes, ‘[h]appy endings only happen in books, some books’. [2] The idea of the happy ending has grown with time and has changed from a story ending in the happily ever aftercliché to full maturity, namely the eucatastrophe or the ‘sudden joyous turn’. [3] One author in particular coined the phrase and has become the preeminent figure within this discussion: J. R. R. Tolkien.

With the writing of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien blatantly collided with the entrenched modernistic worldview that had thoroughly rejected heroes and happy endings with the advent of World Wars I and II. Twenty years later, the modernistic view morphed into postmodernism, but the objection of the age was still the same; Tolkien’s fairy tales and the idea of eucatastrophe were ‘infantile’. [4] Authors like China Miéville and Michael Moorcock, seen as harbingers of the postmodern age of fantasy, thoroughly reject the idea of the happy ending and consider it ‘mollycoddling the reader’. [5] In the ultimate sense, they see Tolkien’s idea of the sudden joyous turn not only as bad writing but as morally impermissible, forcing his religious views upon the reader and indoctrinating them into a false reality. [6]

The question then stands above all others in this debate, is escapism via fantastic eucatastrophe morally erroneous?

Tolkien responded twenty years prior to these objections with a resounding no in his essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, where he argues that escapism is healthy and necessary as long as the reader is not abandoning his or her responsibilities but is receiving it in order to better his or her own outlook on reality and on the condition that it points to the ultimate reality.

One of the main efforts Tolkien undertakes with ‘On Fairy-stories’is to clarify what escapism means within the context of his writing and in fantasy as a whole:

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. [7]

Within the text, Tolkien is very concerned with how readers interact with the story they are reading and stresses that there are two distinct types of escapism. The type that is often misunderstood as being the only type of escapism is the flight of the deserter. Tolkien writes that fantasy can ‘be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came’. [8] The reader that participates in this sort of escapism uses the story as a means of ignoring his responsibilities in life, preferring to disappear into a fantasy world rather than go to work or take care of his family. This kind of escapism is a very real problem and is a mechanism used by the human vice of having, as Wendell Berry described, the ‘overriding ambition to escape work’. [9] This kind of reader has the sort of affection for the narrative that a drug addict has for heroin or a gambling addict for slot machines. They ‘use’ the story, as C. S. Lewis would say, and make it into the opiate they need to numb themselves and avoid the conflicts within their lives. [10]

The second type of escapism is the escape of the prisoner, this sort being ‘one of the main functions of fairy-stories’ according to Tolkien. [11] Instead of acting as a numbing opiate, this second type of escapism is more akin to a shot of caffeine to the lethargic soul of mankind:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!

Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!

spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor! [12]

When readers ‘receive’ the speech of Theoden before the battle of Pelennor in Tolkien’s Return of the King, as do the soldiers who stand before him, it is hardly likely that they would feel compelled to hide in their bed from their personal hardships. [13]  It would be more reasonable to assume that the battle cry of the Rohirrim would be echoed by that of the readers as they face the darkness around them and seek to escape from life’s prisons.

This then brings about Tolkien’s second condition when defending escape through eucatastrophe, that readers improve their view of reality by it. Tolkien argues that fantasy serves the purpose of aiding the reader in ‘[r]ecovery … regaining a clear view … seeing things apart from ourselves’. [14] He believes that fantasy gives readers a fresh look upon the world around them, and that without these stories people tend to lock away all the beauty they have seen in the world. They then take possession of this beauty and are thus only interested in keeping it in their hoard, never looking upon it again. [15] The human mind is keen to catalogue all of its experiences, categorizing and archiving so as not to over-encumber itself when experiencing the day-to-day activities that one does. Fantasy serves the function of unlocking and reopening these catalogued experiences as if they were something entirely new, stimulating the human soul to avoid cynicism and pessimism. While many postmodern writers of today see Tolkien as a ‘re-mythologizer’, [16] menacingly recreating all the myths they have painstakingly dismantled over the past three decades, Lewis viewed re-mythologization in a very different light:

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. [17]

Lewis agreed with Tolkien in that good fantasy (which is mythological in nature) can only enhance the readers’ view of their everyday world, perpetually making a new experience out of a mundane activity. Though Moorcock, Miéville, and many other postmodern authors attack this idea, believing it leads to false expectations, Lewis defends Tolkien further in the same essay, writing that the reader ‘does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted’. [18] What was once a boring empty pasture to readers is now a fantastic grassy hill where they are nearly certain Hobbits must have lived. What was once a dusty drab wardrobe now could, at any moment, become a portal to a far-off world. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘[fairy tales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water’. [19]

A sub-function of fantasy’s reinvigoration of the reader’s view of the world is to arm said reader against the very evils personified within the stories. Heroes within the texts of a narrative do not simply serve as wish fulfillment but instead as inspiration to heroism in action. The Greeks and Romans did not listen to tales of the gods for entertainment but to kindle the fire of courageousness within themselves. As Justin Martyr, speaking upon the tales of the gods of Rome, wrote, ‘This only shall be said, that they are written for the advantage and encouragement of youthful scholars; for all reckon it an honourable thing to imitate the gods’. [20] In the quote from Return of the King mentioned earlier, Tolkien fills the reader with the same sort of inspiration and courage that the soldiers within the story receive. Though he, the same as Lewis, wished for his stories to be received instead of merely used, it is a helpful distinction to state that one should indeed use something they have received at the appropriate time such as a sword in defense of one’s home or an expensive dish when providing dinner for a king.

Author Neil Gaiman writes, in reference to Tolkien’s essay, that fantasy ‘can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape’. [21] Tolkien believed that the reader needs stories in which dark lords and evil beasts are defeated by heroes because the world in reality is inhabited by said beasts and lords, and they linger within the hearts of men. G. K. Chesterton supported this idea in Tremendous Trifles:

‘Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon’. [22]

This then leads to Tolkien’s final condition on the healthiness of escapism and eucatastrophe: does the sudden good turn point to a more ultimate reality than the one the reader is currently entrenched in?

Tolkien remarks on the idea:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat. [23]

Tolkien saw himself as less of a writer and more a ‘window washer’, clearing the dirt and grime from the readers’ souls to allow them to see the fantastic world outside of themselves.[24] Both he and Lewis believed that the human craving for fantasy was a craving to see outside of the prison walls they live in. Lewis states: ‘We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out”’. [25] The cause of the venom so many modern authors spit at Tolkien is a matter of worldview; they simply believe that there is no greater ultimate world. Michael Moorcock states that in reality ‘There is no happy ending … whereas Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces one on us – as a matter of policy’. [26] This shows that Moorcock and writers like him not only do not understand what eucatastrophe is but also mistake their own will to share their worldview for a rally against false reality. In an ironic twist of fate they, coming as rescuers, lead their readers out of their prison cells only to find themselves and all who follow them in a slightly larger cell as they slam the door shut and grind the key to dust. Those very freedom fighters become, themselves, ‘jailers’. [27]

Tolkien was very clear when he stated that eucatastrophe does not deny pain and evil but instead uses them to make the good turn feel all the better. It has evil, in spite of itself, making the good all the greater, thus being its own end. He expresses this idea via Samwise in Return of the King:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. [28]

There is a deep-seated reason why mankind as a whole has taken to the writings of Tolkien and immortalized them over those of writers like Moorcock, not because most of mankind has an affinity for ‘Juvenile Trash’, [29] as Edmund Wilson thought, but because demythologizing mankind ‘is apparently alien to the real nature of men’, and the window Tolkien provides ‘strangely warms our souls’. [30]

Tolkien famously denied allegory in any of his writings, but his worldview permeated all he wrote, just as it does for any writer who is honest with himself or herself. His conditions for healthy escapism—not abandoning one’s life, improving one’s own outlook on the world, and being pointed to the ultimate good reality—bring clarity to this worldview. Tolkien wrote with unwavering faith in the truth he saw in reality, that there is ‘hope beyond the walls of the world’.[31] He did not seek to teach readers this fact, but instead used his writings to allow them to discover it for themselves. ‘The Resurrection was the greatest “eucatastrophe” possible in the greatest Fairy Story — and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love’. [32]

 

 


[1] Kathryn Borel, ‘China Miéville’,The Believer (April 2005), http://www.believermag.com/issues/200504/?read=interview_mieville
[2] Ellen Hopkins, Burned (New York:Simon and Schuster, 2008), 420.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’, in Essays Presented to Charles Williams,ed. C. S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947), 13.
[4] Michael Moorcock, ‘Epic Pooh’, in Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (Austin: MonkeyBrain Books, 2004) 181.
[5] Alan Jacobs, The Narnian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006) 306, in reference to China Miéville’s statement in the Pan Macmillian debate on Fantasy.
[6] Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, 183.
[7] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’, 13.
[8] Ibid., 9.
[9] Wendell Berry, The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays, ed. Norman Wirzba (Berkley: Counterpoint Press, 2002), 43.
[10] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 93.
[11] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’, 13.
[12] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 123.
[13] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 93.
[14] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’, 9.
[15] Ibid., 10.
[16] Clyde S. Kilby, ‘Meaning in the Lord of the Rings’, in Shadows of Imagination, ed. Mark R. Hillegas (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 73.
[17] C. S. Lewis, ‘Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings’, in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (Harvest Books: 2002), 90.
[18] Ibid.
[19] G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Ethics of Elfland’, in Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 90.
[20] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius; Prefaced by Some Account of the Writings and Opinions of Justin trans. John Kaye. (Memphis: General Books LLC).
[21] Neil Gaiman, ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’, The Guardian, 15 October, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming.
[22] G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (Palala Press, 2015).
[23] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’, 13-14.
[24] Ibid., 9.
[25] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 138.
[26] Moorcock, Wizardry, 183.
[27] Lewis, ‘Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, 90.
[28] Tolkien, Return, 220.
[29] Edmund Wilson, ‘Oo, Those Awful Orcs!’, The National, April 14, 1956.
[30] Kilby: ‘Meaning’, 73.
[31] Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories’, 13-14.
[32] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien(New York: Mariner Books, 2000) 100.

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