Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien supposed that literal magic pulled us into stories. He also supposed that detractors of fantasy were clearly confused, on some points. In his roughly 70-year-old lecture On Faerie Stories, Tolkien makes a distinction between the Escape of the Prisoner and the Flight of the Deserter.
He laments an Oxford clerk who welcomed the “real life” invited by roaring of factories and mass-production. For one, Tolkien supposed the term “real life” a bit odd. “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. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of the escapist!”
To say nothing of the gasses, machine-guns, and other variegated weapons of mass-production.
As much as escape is chided by the champions of industry, there are a few kinds of escape worth our consideration. In the first, we appreciate older times, “…when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands,” as opposed to the present, where it’s more common to, “…feel disgust with man-made things.” He has no problem, at all, if we want to fly from, “the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine.”
But also the, “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice...”
Or more ancient limitations, which sit at the heart of fantasy. “…the desire to visit, free as a fish, the deep sea; or the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird…” Tolkien calls such desires the root of our love of such escapes. Wishing to connect to life, to people and their stories, to understand the living things in the forests and oceans: these aren’t lesser desires. We want to converse with every other living thing – but will probably laugh at the guy claiming to speak “bird.” Fantasy is the answer. Tolkien calls that desire to conference with all things “as ancient as the Fall.” All these escapes have deeper, older meanings that we can lose touch with, especially where culture is reduced to repetitive jingles and complex branding initiatives.
“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.”
Fantasy allows us one more escape, “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” Which he supposes the hallmark of the genuine escapist, or “fugitive spirit.” In this we can come closest to giving a reader, or viewer, or player, a taste of something utterly powerful, beyond even a story: eucatastrophe. That beautiful feeling when all is truly lost, and yet our heroes find the “turn” in despite. Where we pull through, and survive. Escaping like that moves us. We bring it into the other parts of our lives, and persevere, despite the cold marches of “real life.”