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.
– J.R.R Tolkien, A Tolkien Miscellany, 131.
Good fantasy does not cause us to act as deserters of reality but as acceptors of it. If we forget that fantasy, good and high fantasy, can act as a medium of truth we can easily “confound the escape of a prisoner with the flight of the deserter,” (A Tolkien Miscellany, 131). We tend to view children who read fairy-story as deserters, don’t we? They are not owning up to the facts of this “dog-eat-dog,” painful, secondhand smoke-filled world. They are wishing for a world that could never be. They spend their time daydreaming of impossibilities and untruths. To be sure, fantasy involves fiction. But fiction does not mean absolute untruth. In fact, for Tolkien, the opposite is the case. We all are like a man trapped in a prison cell. We look around at the dampness of our cell, the cold and wet, and can easily conclude that our confinement is all that exists. Fantasy frees up the mind and creates a longing and desire that allows the man to transcend the confines of his cell and escape to a higher, deeper Reality that lies above and beneath it all. We cannot discredit the dreams of an imprisoned man, because the world outside has not ceased to exist because of his confines. We cannot tell him that his stone cell is all there is, because an entire world of life and rest waits just on the other side of it. In the sub-creation of Fantasy, we are given this ability to get out.
I can remember slipping into the large wardrobe that my family owned growing up. I would push past the coats, one after the other, weaving in and out, to try to escape. I longed to feel pine needles and suddenly encounter the crunch of snow beneath my feet, but my anticipation was lost when my hands hit the smooth back of the box of wood. I was denied. We truly long to get out, and in wanting to get out we desperately desire to get in.
We all need to wander through a wardrobe into a land where earth, sky, and sea are unencumbered and un-mastered by text messaging, cars, steel, and asphalt. In response to a clerk at Oxford exclaiming the realities of mass production, traffic and the delight of being near such “real life”, Tolkien says, “The notion that motor cars are more ‘alive’ than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more ‘real’ than, say, horses is pathetically absurd,” (132). Such a technologically saturated world like ours is concerned mostly with immediacy, impatience, vanity, and domination. We are fooled into thinking that the universe operates according to these principles. We need a moment to walk amongst things that smell ancient. We need a moment to sit under the shade of things that are not concerned with immediacy or novelty but with mystery and maturity. We need to be shaken out of our stupor to be reminded of truth.
For Tolkien, however, escape goes deeper. He tells us “there are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death,” (134). Here we find a connection between recovery and escape. Fantasy aims to recover our sense of the truths of the universe we live in and thus provide a means of escape into deeper truth, into the truth that we shall be fed and given water, we shall be rich in the kingdom of God, we shall be free from sorrow and pain, and shall be vindicated at the last. We must be free to journey through tales where good conquers evil and right outdoes wrong. We need tales where beauty is alive and untainted, where the air is pure and clean, where perseverance is rewarded and darkness undone. To get it out is to escape from the cell of cold, dark, and isolation and to enter into the realm of warmth, light, and community. We truly long to be warmed by the light that comes from the countenance of Jesus and to experience true, godly community where we are known and loved, accepted and counted worthy.
Here, Tolkien’s fellow sojourner, C.S Lewis, aids us. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis describes the longing and desire we all have to be welcomed into glory by God. We long to be accepted, acknowledged, and loved. We long for our home where everything is more than o.k and where all things are put right at last. Lewis says, “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of a door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache,” (The Weight of Glory, 42). In this planet we perceive this truth from a distance and escape to it in brief moments, but “all of the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in,” (43).
Of course, a central truth of Christianity lies in the fact that our God has not simply called us out of our cell, He entered our cell, was tried as a prisoner on behalf of His people, died a sinner’s death, and was resurrected, and because of His triumph, He can offer us escape. Even in the midst of our situation here and now, he walks with us. He is present with us and lives within us. Sometimes, however, we need to be given glimpses of truth that transcend our existence, truth that goes beyond the walls of our experience. To escape and flee is fundamentally a Christian principle. Ironically, the first principle of human escape and flight was in the Garden, and it didn’t bring life, it brought death. In the current situation, however, we, as slaves to sin and enemies to God, are both freed from our bonds to sin (Gal. 5:1) and welcomed back in as sons and daughters of God in Christ (Rom. 8). Our present circumstances, though, tempt us to deny these things. Fantasy is about escape. It is about the escape of one who is imprisoned in a cell, tempted to believe that all that exists is dampness and isolation, but there is, indeed, warmth and community to be found by those who would flee. Fantasy and fairy-story are about getting out with the ultimate aim of really getting in.