If we would take frequent respite from the transient world of becoming, we should read more books. In reading, we convene mind to mind with our fellow subcreators and walk through a world that calls universals to mind and plants images of them on our subconscious.
We live in an era of escape. The political landscape is full of false discourse and tribalism; the metropolitan landscape is full of smog and stark, utilitarian architecture. Extended families are fighting on Facebook and the monotony of the cubicled nine-to-five leaves a residual hunger pang for adventure. It is no wonder that in a daily existence often devoid of beauty, goodness, or truth, we often end our days collapsed on the couch, scrolling through Netflix for an escape.
Escape tends to get a bad rap. Folks often associate escape—especially escape from daily life—with a sort of lazy cowardice that refuses to accept reality. But just as public approval does not necessarily denote virtue, neither does public ridicule necessarily denote vice.
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R Tolkien defends a certain type of escape, posing the reader with the question: “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.”
“Now,” you may be thinking, “that’s all well and good for the man who awakes in prison. But normal, daily life isn’t a prison sentence. Don’t be so dramatic.” To this Tolkien responds with what is perhaps a startling sentiment: “The electric street-lamp may indeed be ignored, simply because it is so insignificant and transient. Fairy-stories, at any rate, have many more permanent and fundamental things to talk about. . . 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.” Tolkien anticipates the objection but grants it no force.
In Tolkien’s view, the modern man is indeed trapped in a prison, surrounded by that which is insignificant and transient. He desires to escape because he desires more reality—a desire that is both natural and healthy. It is not delusion but realism that causes him to run.
“Hold on,” you, the careful and critical reader might be thinking. “How could a fairy tale possibly be more real than a street-lamp? You’re speaking nonsense.” To the taste of the contemporary critic, Tolkien’s ontology is foreign and bizarre—in an age of assumed materialism, ontological systems that place the metaphysical above the physical seem perhaps upside down.
Tolkien, however, cares very little about what the contemporary critic might think. His arguments resound with the voice of Narnia’s Professor Kirke—a character created by his dear friend C.S. Lewis: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato; bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
To understand why fairy tales might be more real than electric street lamps, one needs to understand a rough sketch of Plato’s ontology. Now, take what I’m about to say with a bowl of salt—“a rough sketch of Plato’s ontology” is a ridiculous phrase one can only really write in a blog—as I attempt to provide this sketch. If you’re already familiar with Plato, skip down a few paragraphs.
For Plato, all things fall into one of the two following categories: being and becoming. Things that fall into the first category—or the things that “are” (let’s call them the Forms)—are those sorts of things that do not admit change. They are eternal, unchanging, and are only what they are. The number Four, the color Red, and the virtue Justice all fall into this category. Four, as an idea, is eternal and unchanging. When a person counts objects, whether the counting occurs a thousand years ago or ten thousand years from now, two and two together will make four. Languages will change, but the idea of Four will always be such that you can come to it by combination of two Twos. It will always be and it can only be itself—math doesn’t work if Four can also express Three while still being Four. This way also goes Red and Justice.
Everything else, for Plato, falls into the category of becoming. These objects—those which are coming to be—do not possess eternality like the Forms, neither are they unchanging or wholly themselves. The silver, metallic, electric lamp standing next to my desk is not an eternal object. I can easily imagine the future wherein it does not exist. But it certainly seems to exist now. This, according to Plato, is because it images the Forms in which it participates, and in doing so has something like existence. It exhibits Silver, Metallic, Electric, and Lamp, but is not itself those things. It is one of many lamps fashioned after the idea of Lamp but will one day cease to be a lamp at all. How then, could it be more important than the idea of Lamp? If I lose this lamp, I can buy another. But if we lose track of Lamp, how could more lamps be made?
Therein, for Plato, lies the tyranny of the physical world. It arrests our attention and convinces us of its reality, while itself being a mere shadow that passes away. The Ideas reflected by our world are real and true and immortal, but the physical world itself will pass away. To abandon that which Is for that which is coming to be but never is—this is the demand of a world that scorns “escape” in favor of “reality.” But its reality is lesser, so an escape from it is into something more real.
For Tolkien, the world of fairy tales is an appropriate escape from the tyranny of the physical world.
Its fantasy is difficult to mistake for Reality, but it is crafted with Reality ever in mind. The author’s imagination creates the fairy tale world through consideration of and interaction with the Forms—its existence in the author’s mind being an image of those Forms.
This world then finds existence in the mind of the reader as he constructs an image of those Forms brought about by the words of the tale. The words on the page are not themselves Faerieland—they are mere ink on paper. But these words, when read, call the reader to create an image of Reality through his own imagination, thus bringing him into closer contact with that which Is.
Our desire for escape is sensible and right. We desire a world more real than our own, and fairy stories provide a way for us to find it. It is troublesome, however, that we tend to seek this escape primarily through visual media.
To interact with another world through film is an inherently different project than to interact with it through literature. Tolkien makes a note of this. He says: “The radical distinction between all art that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular.” A film distances the viewer from the realm of the Forms just like the physical world does. It provides the viewer with captivating images of particular things—those which are coming to be—that distract the viewer from the universal things—those that are.
Thus, watching a film to escape the world of particulars tragically entrenches the viewer further in that same world. Rather than an escape, Netflix thus becomes a further instrument of imprisonment.
Ultimately, if we would take frequent respite from the transient world of becoming, we should read more books. In reading, we convene mind to mind with our fellow subcreators and walk through a world that calls universals to mind and plants images of them on our subconscious. The effort required to read a novel and imagine the scene it portrays puts us into contact with universal ideas and asks us to image them within our own minds, flexing our creativity and connection with the Forms. If we desire—and we certainly should—an escape from the temporal world, put down the remote and pick up a fairy story.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (February 2019).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s note: The featured image is an illustration for “The Tale of the Moose Hop and the Little Princess Cotton Grass” (1913) by John Bauer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.