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:
- We naturally tend to have our attention fixed on the world around us
- This leads us, over time, to stop paying attention to what surrounds us in the world
- We get too familiar with everything, and “acquire” them like collectors who don’t really examine and appreciate what they’re collecting
- 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.