What Tolkien REALLY Said
"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. 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. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
"Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it."[Escape in: On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien.]
Is Tolkien saying here that the world being a prison, only a mean old meanie of a jailor would scorn escape, or is he saying rather that the metaphor is itself invalid, a piece of bad faith rhetoric designed to slander the fantastic by representing it as desertion, as craven cowardly abrogation of any and all responsibility to resist? I’m inclined to think that it’s the latter.
Stripped of context, Tolkien’s “prison” quote is all too often used in a defence of head-in-the-sand ostrichism, in an oblivious reiteration of the very conflation he challenges, by those for whom fantasy is and must remain their consolatory haven. Yes, it is a retreat from reality, a deserter’s flight, so the argument goes, but Tolkien says that’s OK, so there! My escapism is legitimate, and if you question it, you must be a wicked would-be jailor. The conflation is adopted precisely to erase any question of responsibility, validate all desertion as by definition escape, which is not Tolkien’s point at all.
Worse, where fantasy all too often fails as any sort of haven for the queers, PoCs, women, poor, etc. that it erases and abjects, replicating and propagating the very injustices they/we might actually quite like a respite from, the defence of fantasy as consolatory haven slides easily into an insistence that the sort of political challenges they/we might make in real life do not belong in such a space: such a haven is no place for these Social Justice Warriors to come belligerently in with their axes to grind, the defender of ostrichism says; their agendas are not just tangential to the true purpose of fantasy but outright opposed to it, ruining the harmless fun with their carping and whining. With their Disgust, Anger, Condemnation and Revolt, one might say.
The keyword in that quote, I would suggest, is resistance, and where Tolkien sets his notion of Escape as bedfellow to Disgust, Anger, Condemnation and Revolt, opposing these to a complacent acquiescence he paints as treachery, it can be of no small import that he applies the terms quisling and Reich to the latter. As censorious rhetoric goes, one can hardly imagine a more damning indictment from him, and it is levelled squarely at those who do not just excuse their self-interested acquiescence but glorify it.
Taken in context then, that quote is no glib justification of fantasy as some sacred space of Escape that the erased and abjected have no right to sully with their political agendas. Far from it. If we are to see fantasy as a domain in which chains are to be broken, prison-walls brought down, this is not to say it exists to pander to those who, in the face of cruel inequities, would sustain their own contentment with its panaceas. It is to say that the Escape going on here is a mode of hostile engagement with such inequities, no self-serving ostrichism but a direct application of one’s effort to those problems, an attempt to undo the imprisoning strictures, and one that goes hand-in-hand with the passions aroused in outraged recognition of them—Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.
Do not think for a second then that Tolkien’s “prison” quote is a wall you can throw up to defend the genre as some haven from the upstart insurgents out to ruin your harmless fun with their petty grudges over a lifetime of perceived prejudices, as a refuge from their “agendas.” That wall only makes you the jailor, a quisling in the struggle who would not have the erased and abjected released from the strictures that keep them hidden away, out of sight and out of mind, or locked in the stocks of stereotyping, chained into servitude as symbols. When you cast their/our Disgust, Anger, Condemnation and Revolt as an assault on your consolatory haven, you are everything Tolkien dismisses, operating exactly as he describes, spurred to the basest excuses for and glorifications of inequity by the notion that “the land you loved is doomed.”
Tolkien is siding with the resistance here, baby, not defending some sanctum of oblivious contentment where that resistance is to be deemed intrusion, imposition, an imprisoning encumbrance of concern(s) that the upstarts have no right to lay on you. When he talks of Escape, he is not offering validation for your umbrage at those carping critics who find themselves, on entering your castle in the sky, as imprisoned there as in reality, if not more so.