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The importance of escapism (or: why obsess over Tolkien’s work)

Amanda Hocking once wrote, “I like to obsess over things that don’t matter because it’s more fun than obsessing over things that do.” I think there’s a germ of incredible truth to this statement[1].

I’m the sort of person who likes to analyze things. To question them. To find answers. This tendency can be exhausting when the problems are complex, the answers few and far between, and the consequences dire. Many armchair theorists have opinions on climate change, vaccination, mask mandates, social policy…I’m wearing myself out just forming this list. I too have opinions on these matters. And here at the end of 2021 I am so incredibly tired of talking about these things.

Tolkien’s Legendarium, meanwhile, is a ship in a bottle. Despite its breadth and complexity, the entire world is presented to us. Many gnaw at the edges — how many questions over the years have been asked about Tom Bombadil, or how magic works? — but that is the whole point. The vast majority of the world is entirely knowable, and the borders are small and reasonably well-defined. This ratio is perfect. It gives readers enough mystery to obsess over while still feeling as though the world itself is at our fingertips.

But the most important aspect is that, ultimately, the Legendarium Does Not Matter.

Obviously it matters to me, and to many of us here, but unlike the important topics of our modern world, there is no urgency and there are no consequences. Rather than feeling like a lone voice shouting into the void of a largely uncaring world, ineffective at bringing about any real change, inside the cozy confines of the Legendarium all is familiar, all is right. I will happily debate whether Orcs have souls or speculate about the Blue Wizards or prove yet again that Tom Bombadil is not Eru because none of those answers actually matter, and no matter how good a job I do at making my case the same question will come up again next month.

Tolkien himself mused on this topic (and did so much more eloquently than I) in his essay “On Fairy-stories.” He wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories….Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic…. 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?

J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”

Tolkien has created for us a playground. A safe place to make believe. I personally enjoy my time here all the more because I know that nothing done here has consequences.

[1] Don’t bother to look up who Amanda Hocking is. When the Twilight books and movies were coming out, she cashed in on that bandwagon by self-publishing a truly startling amount of vampire-romance fiction. I read her name in an article about her surprising success, and pulled out that quote because I thought it profound. I admit I was momentarily tempted to attribute the quote to someone more notable and respectable, such as Ben Franklin or Mark Twain (both of those luminaries have become the target of numerous misattributions before now, to be sure), but of course I decided to retain the correct byline.


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