Tolkien and Reading Security

Randon Billings Noble, writing recently for the LA Review of Books, discussed the idea of Reading Security. This, if I understand it correctly, is basically another way of phrasing the issue of escapism in literature. In other words, what happens when books, when reading, becomes an escape from the real world?

Noble says this as she sets up the problem:

“But then I read Anna North’s New York Times essay “When Novels Were Bad for You,” and wondered if, in some ways, they still are. North uses Emma Bovary and Catherine Norland, (of Northanger Abbey) as examples of readers who are swept too far away by their reading, finding their actual lives either lacking or mistakenly fraught when compared to the romances and Gothic horrors in which they lose themselves. I’m older than they are, and living in a very different time and place, but even though I can indeed distinguish between fact and fiction, I feel the same sense of thrall when I read, and I relish it. But is this “bad” in the way 18th- and 19th century critics thought?”

This is a very interesting paragraph. A standard question is raised: what happens when we realize that the lives we live barely resemble the novels we read? What happens when books become an escape, and we begin to dislike the real world? We should confine ourselves to dealing with the real world, with sophisticated problems and mature ideas, and not try to escape from it, goes the anti-escapist reasoning. Why would escapism be a desirable thing?

J.R.R. TolkienThat’s not necessarily a new question: Lewis and Tolkien dealt with it a lot. In fact, a large part of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is devoted to this very idea. And in answer to the question, “is escape bad?” Tolkien gave the same answer Noble does. The difference is in the reason for the answer. Here’s what Tolkien said:

“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.”

Tolkien here was writing from a worldview that said that there was a world beyond our own, a world beyond the prison. This world was a world that fulfilled the longing we all have, a world where jailers and prison walls were no more. This world was a home, not a jail. Tolkien says there’s nothing wrong with escapism in this sense because we are trying to escape to where we really belong.

In other words, books provide us a glimpse of this real home, and so there’s nothing wrong with escaping to it.

Noble gives the same answer as Tolkien: no, escaping to another world in a book is not necessarily wrong. But Noble has a very different reason.

“…here’s the thing – I do indeed want to divorce myself (if only temporarily) from my everyday life. I want to be in a more sophisticated world than my three-year-olds’. I want complex characters and elaborate language and mature themes…”

I want to ask the question, is a three-year-olds’ world really so unsophisticated? Or if it is, why is that a bad thing? Why would we want to escape from that? As G.K. Chesterton points out, young children are fascinated with the mundane in life–they wonder at everything around them. They don’t walk outside at night and treat the moon and the stars nonchalantly. The moon and the stars are not just there, the moon and the stars are wonderful, intricate, stunning things. It is only when we get older, according to Chesterton, that we lose the wonder inherent in these things.

If one were to combine Tolkien and Chesterton, one might say this about escapism: those who have lost an ability to wonder at the mundane, to see the reflections of another world in our own, ought to escape. There is nothing wrong with wanting to go home, but home may look less like the “sophisticated” world Noble speaks of and more like a three-year-olds’ world.

Complex characters and elaborate language aren’t necessarily bad, but they may not actually be any better than the simple beauty of a child building a sand castle on the beach. The echoes of the home Tolkien speaks of are all around us but they become a bit harder to see, according to Chesterton, when everything is about unceasing analysis and complexity.

When we take things like the world we live in, and try to act “grown up” by dealing with so-called substantial issues and real problems, I think Chesterton would tell us to stop. Before we deal with “important” issues, let’s just step back for a minute and acknowledge the fact that we are tiny creatures, sitting on a large rock, with explosions at the center, hurtling through space at 66,000 miles per hour, around a giant ball of fire.

And we want to be sophisticated. Can we just stop for a moment and wonder at the fact that we even exist?

The real world may not be so different from a three-year-olds’ world.

A world where the sun rising every morning is a wondrous thing. A world where the joy of something simple, like a trampoline, leads to constant repetition of that thing.

The “grown up” world of constant analysis, the “grown up” world where sheer joy and wonder at simple things is shunned, may not be the real world. To use Chesterton’s example, the real world may look more like the world of a child, having just discovered a slide, who says over and over, “do it again!”

Stories Are Experiences, Not Abstractions

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class”—or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story.
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.
—Flannery O’Connor