Escapism Is A Good Thing

On the recommendation of The Casual Stroll to Mordor folks, I’ve begun to listen through the backlog of The Tolkien Professor, a college professor named Dr. Corey Olson who recorded several lectures from his course on Tolkien and his works.  (As a side note, I really appreciate that the professor doesn’t ignore or gloss over Tolkien’s Christianity, especially considering how integral it is to his worldview and writings.)  It’s really accessible, intriguing stuff, and the first episode had me hooked when he started talking about story, creation and escapism — especially as I think of how it connects to MMOs (and, of course, LOTRO).  Here are a few choice quotes:

“It does not have to be real in order for us to invest in it.”

“In [fantasy] stories, the separation from the real world is one of the things that draws us to these worlds.  They’re not about possibility, what could really happen, but desirability, if they awaken our desires, they succeed.  Stories of this kind excite our faculties of awe and wonder.”

“Is all this really healthy, for the writer or the audience?  Isn’t it all escapist at the best, or at worst, leading to actually losing touch with reality?  As for the author, Tolkien insists that the desire to be the subcreator of an imagined world is perfectly healthy… the desire to subcreate as a desire is part of who we are as human beings.”

“What use is it to spend one’s time in an imaginary fantasy world either as an author or a reader?  Shouldn’t we be dealing with the real world?  In addressing this question, Tolkien openly challenges the modernist and post-modernist assumptions about the world.  I would add that Tolkien’s ideas about this and the dominant 20th century philosophies is a big reason why his works are still not taken seriously by literary scholars today.  English professors as a group tend to rule Tolkien out  of the literary canon without blinking, largely because fantasy stories about elves and dragons obviously cannot be serious literature.  Near the heart of this assumption lies this idea of escapism — it’s not “serious literature” because it does not deal with the real world and therefore is viewed with disdain.

Sound familiar when it comes to MMORPGs?

“Tolkien notes that any observation about escapism is usually made in a tone of scorn, but he points out that no such tone is attached to the word ‘escape’ in normal life.  Normally, escaping is a good thing, even a heroic thing.  So what’s the reason for this scorn?  It boils down to how we view the real world.  Is the real world really all there is?”

He goes on to talk about how Tolkien says that if there is a greater world beyond this one, then engaging in fantasy stories helps to free our imaginations, to see past the “shadow” of this mundane world to a better one.

“Fantasy frees our minds from the bondage of drudgery and corruption.”

“Tolkien argues further that fantasy doesn’t undermine our relationship with the natural world; to the contrary, the glimpses that it provides cleanse and heals that relationship.  He suggests that this may become necessary, that our understanding of reality may become diseased without it.  Fantasy doesn’t distort the world, it helps us regain a clear view of the world.”

Olson wraps up by outlining Tolkien’s argument and chain of reasoning:

  1. We naturally tend to have our attention fixed on the world around us
  2. This leads us, over time, to stop paying attention to what surrounds us in the world
  3. We get too familiar with everything, and “acquire” them like collectors who don’t really examine and appreciate what they’re collecting
  4. Works of fantasy, since they’re so different from our own world, cause us to see everything around us fresh and making them strange, by “freeing them from the drab blur of familiarity”.

Ultimately, he argues that by engaging in fantasy and healthy escapism, we become less desensitized to our own world and start seeing it again and appreciating it again.

Anyway, this really appealed to me, because I often challenge myself (and am challenged by others) to defend why playing games and MMORPGs is in any way a good thing, and not a waste of time.  The above quotes help to define what I’ve believed for a while, that in engaging in a story in an active way, you become a co-author as well as a reader, and you can bring something positive of that back to your daily life.

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17 thoughts on “Escapism Is A Good Thing

  1. I will have to check this gentleman out as well. these are fabulous crystalizations of thoughts that I imagine all of us have had when we defend our passion for fantasty.

  2. Super. Some ammunition.

    My flat mate and myself have running debates on fantasy and ‘escapism’. He is a post-modern modernist (my words, not his) graphic designer, in that he is very much art for art’s sake yet the means and output of his work looks and feels very modernist – it’s an irony trip.

    I would put myself in the same boat as a musician (melody, harmony and pop sensibilities wreathed in avant-garde noise presented in a very shambolic post-modernist fashion) which is why these debates get quite intense: we’re arguing opposing points from the same lectern.

    He thinks Tolkien writes fantastical, escapist trash whereas I am very much along the lines of the quotes in your post.

    I can never get my head around the fact that he considers himself a creative, produces deeply ironic and witty work often bordering on surreal and hates the concept of fantasy.

    I blame pulp produced on the back of Tolkien’s inspired work. Some people will never read Lord of the Rings and further lore because it regards Elves and Dragons – most modern depictions of such are embarrassing to say the least.

    We’re in the same band he’s very fond of my lyric. It’s confusing.

    Language – inspired by Tolkien
    Imagery – inspired by Tolkien
    Content – more often than not directly regarding passages by Tolkien.

    Perhaps it’s ’cause I don’t explicitly mention anything ‘Lord of the Ringsy’ and take a subtle angle: but it goes to show that even the most anti-escapists really dig fantasy as long as the association with trolls and wizards aren’t present.

    I’ve mentioned that orcs and goblins aside, the moral, social and philosophical content is incredible especially when coloured with heavily romanticised language that is a pleasure to read regardless of the content. He said that might be the case but he’ll never enjoy it because it’s fantasy.

    He’s not read it! I wouldn’t believe anyone if they read Concerning Hobbits and said they weren’t charmed.

    I’ve not used the ‘living in the real world develops a disassociation and diminishes appreciation of the real world’ angle. I’ll have that one up my sleeve for next time. If it doesn’t work ILL CAST SPELZ ON HIS!!!1

    GAH!

  3. I listened to the first three sessions of his course yesterday, and I have to say he’s one of the best professors I’ve heard as far as being accessible and non-snore-inducing. Even though I haven’t read all the material he was discussing, the podcasts were definitely still interesting. I hope to catch a few more today. :)

  4. Brilliant, thanks for sharing!

    That sounds like a lot of the reason children engage in fantasy play as well. Even though pretending to be a knight of the round table has little practical application, it helps the child experience aspects of life she hasn’t yet experienced and helps to bring the real world into a sharper focus. It serves to define reality rather than distort it.

    I know CSTM has been singing The Proffesors praises for some time now, but quotes like these motivate me to download the podcasts and check them out.

  5. Love the Tolkien Professor, good to see he’s getting an audience.

    The whole escapism and time wasting thing is a real pet peeve of mine. Especially when I’m getting grilled about wasting time from someone who watches several hours of TV nightly, or spends an entire weekend watching college and pro football games.

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  7. Wow, great post. It was really interesting to see the argument for escapism laid out this way.

    Do you think the same thing could be applied to MMO burnout? I’m thinking overexposure to one fantasy world (like playing WoW for hours on end every day) would also cause that world to become the “drab blur of familiarity” which the professor talks about.

    Maybe this is why so many of us hop from game to game.

  8. I heard a Carl Sagan quote yesterday that also illustrates the importance of imagination, albeit from a scientist’s viewpoint. I can’t find it cited anywhere, but it was something along the lines of:

    “If this world is all you ever think about, you’re going to be limited to things of this world.”

  9. For me, this is a tough thing, because while I agree with the intellectual defenses of escapism presented here, I also have to acknowledge escapism, fantasy, and mmo’s as numbing, even addictive forces in my own life.

    It is alarming to me, for example, that lately I’m going to parks in the Seattle springtime and I see the blossoms…and my first thought is, “that’s so beautiful, it looks like the trees in LOTRO…hmm, I want to get home and run through the fields in LOTRO.” Yet I’m in the middle of a beautiful real-life field!

    This has happened multiple times in the last month, and I realize that it’s not just about enjoying a harmless fantasy setting…it’s about numbing myself from the pain and responsibilities that make me feel like a failure. Often, it’s better to be in a world where nothing is expected of me, and I can feel a constant sense of achievement as I level up.

    I love fantasy and sci-fi. I love, love, love games! But I can’t hide, I can’t rationalize away the fact that there is a dark side to all my childish hobbies. I am not escaping TOO something, I’m escaping FROM some real stuff that I’m too scared to deal with.

    And I know that I’m not alone…I’m a casual gamer, just a few hours a week. I can’t even imagine the personal demons some power levelers must be running from.

  10. Actually come to think of it, Richard Bartle writes a great argument for MMOs, explaining the progression of a persons psyche through a game as a reflection of Campbell’s Hero Myth.

    Compelling reading and it’s my stand-by for discussing the “worth” of MMOs.

  11. Wonderful article Syp!

    The modern literary establishment has always despised Tolkien. Here’s a great article that explains why:

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/carson/carson10.html

    Tolkien recognized as a devout Christian that God who formed the universe also created man in his own image. So in a way a love for creation is part of our DNA. No species can conceive and create like the human species. There is something uniquely special about us.

    Tolkien also realized the existence of realms far more timeless and spiritual then our own material and temporal world here on Earth. So escaping into works of fantasy can prepare us for our eventual transition and transcendence into those realms.

    I’ve always believed that MMOs and virtual worlds provide escapism for people. I’ve been criticized by some for believing that. However, as long as it’s done in moderation I think there’s nothing wrong with it.

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  13. I think in many ways Tolkien is not talking about what we see as escapism. He sees it as a comparative experience through suspension of disbelief, while for modern people escapism has to do with dissatisfaction in our lives. His points are great but people use him to justify their insecurities and dangerous habits.

    Jeremy’s distinction of escaping “to” rather than “from” is very apt. You are immersed in other worlds in order to perceive them as analogous and metaphorical. The mystical makes you see the normal in new perspective. it’s easier to gain new perspective on the problem of identity if you use robots or enchantments. They provide abstracts to place real issues against.

    When you are merely going into another world because you are dissatisfied with the real one, that’s breeding some rather bad habits. You start resenting a lot that cannot be changed instead of seeking to understand it and grow.

  14. I’m listening to the first episode.
    I can’t tell if he’s quoting Tolkien with the bit about Man being fallen and corrupted by sin or if that’s actually his own opinion.
    If it’s Tolkien’s, I hope he does a better job of separating his quotations from the prof. speaking.
    If it’s the prof’s idea…
    Hmm..

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