Tolkien’s Place In Escapist Literature

Back when I was still in university (I graduated in 2020), the English department ran a limited-time literature study on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. Obviously, as a long-time fantasy reader, I had to get in on that class! While I can’t say that Tolkien has ever been a particular inspiration for my writing, it was rare at my relatively small institution to run any classes that were out of the norm, and so something related to fantasy was definitely a treat to partake in.

Because of this class, I actually ended up reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, which I still had not read at that point despite watching the movies countless times. The books are long, and while they are classics, they just don’t hold up to the same standard of modern storytelling. But they are still amazing books that served as the foundation for many fantasy writers, and I’m glad that I did finally read them because of this class!

Recently, I was looking through my old essays and I came upon one titled “Tolkien’s Place In Escapist Literature” which I wrote as a general examination of why Tolkien and George R.R. Martin’s low fantasy series were so immensely popular, even while fantasy literature as a whole has been largely dismissed by literature elitists for decades if not longer. The essay isn’t a work of art by any means, but I found it to be poignant even after all this time because fantasy is still generally looked down upon by the masses for being “unrealistic” or “escapist” and “not art.”

However, the tide seems to be changing, if just a little bit, because of the popularity of Game of Thrones, and now an ever-expanding body of fantasy television and bestselling books. Just recently, I watched The Rings of Power on Prime… it seems that Tolkien’s works haven’t “escaped” us just yet.

Hope you enjoy!

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Tolkien’s Place in Escapist Literature

 

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings indulges in the escapist nature of the fantasy genre in that the novel’s setting is Middle-Earth, a fictional world. However, the primary criticism of the fantasy genre is its subversion of reality through the existence of magic, which is used sparingly in The Lord of the Rings. The minimal use of magic in this series works in favour against the stigma for the fantasy genre, as many authors take inspiration from Tolkien’s works and build worlds such as that in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. In these worlds, magic exists and is minimally used, and both series are still extremely popular to the public. Though Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is part of the subversive fantasy genre, the subtle use of magic and the intensity of the worldbuilding has provided the base for other fantasy series, which together have served to fight against the stigma toward the escapist nature of the fantasy genre.

Negative criticism of the fantasy genre primarily exists because of its subversive nature, most notably the existence of magic. However we look at it, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings is a part of the escapist fantasy genre because of the fictional setting of Middle-Earth, fantastical races such as elves, and the existence of magic. Nonetheless, author Richard Purtill rejects the idea that “for some critics, this [world where “magic works”] means that Tolkien’s works cannot be real literature, cannot be taken seriously… and as a manifestation of an “escapist”, “unrealistic” view of life” (Purtill 142) which is a damaging view of a genre that has the unique ability to parallel and critique reality while remaining ‘disconnected’ from the realness of our world. Thus, the escapist nature of the fantasy genre need not be considered bad. In fact, writer Rosemary Jackson argues in her novel Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion that “The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’,” (Jackson 4) which can be seen in how many fantastical worlds, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, take issues from the real world and reinvent them on the page. This ability to take culturally relevant ideas, hardships, and failings and present them in fascinating and unrealistic yet relatable settings is a likely contributor to the fantasy genre’s growing popularity over the last decade.

The fantasy genre has indeed shown a significant increase in popularity over the last decade. In 2008, the genre ranked #10 at 16.7% of over 18,000 participants in a study by statista.com of popular genres of literature in the United States (statista.com).  In 2015 they did a similar poll, though with only about 2,200 subjects, in which fantasy ranked #7 with a 24% readership (statista.com). Though these polls are likely to be somewhat bias based on several factors, it can be said that, despite the significantly lower subjects in the 2015 poll, that fantasy has had a jump in overall readership. With that statistic in mind, it still may be difficult to pinpoint the precise, most significant reasons that fantasy’s readership has grown. However, previously mentioned, a likely contributor to fantasy’s growing popularity is that more people have realized that “Fantasy does not escape reality but exposes, subverts, and creates it,” (Daniel Baker, 445) and that it assists their understanding of the issues we face as a society. At the same time, it is impossible to deny that Tolkien has had an enormous impact on the fantasy genre since the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954, though he was criticized for “…[realizing] a vision of a world beyond (or behind) the mechanized, war-torn reality he knew” (Baker 439) and it could be said that many of Tolkien’s descendants within the genre aimed to take a more realistic representation of reality, while remaining heavily influence by his work. However, before going into more detail on how Tolkien’s descendants have changed previously popular stigma against the fantasy genre, it is important to understand how, specifically, magic and the worldbuilding in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has influenced modern fantasy.

The two primary sources of influence in modern fantasy from The Lord of the Rings are the minimal existence of magic and the extent of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, both influencing in both the positive and the negative. Firstly, we have magic, which is present in The Lord of the Rings, however, is not frequently relied on by the characters to progress on their quest. At a glance, this may seem counter-intuitive as the wizard Gandalf the Grey, and eventually of the White, is a prominent character throughout the entire series. However, despite his significant power, there are very few instances where he uses his magic to sway the outcome of the story. Arguably the most important use of his magic is in the middle of The Two Towers, when he breaks Wormtongue and Saruman’s hold on Théoden when he “…lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky” (TT, III, xi, 671), and clears a path in the darkness for Théoden to reawaken into himself. The importance in this lies in how Théoden then proceeds to lead Rohan’s eventual aid in the downfall of Isengard and defence of Minas Tirith. Beyond this show of magic, Gandalf’s role as a wizard is mainly as an advisor to the many civilizations of Middle-Earth and as a companion within the Company and not for his regular use of magic. Meanwhile, the presence of the Ring provides a more likely opportunity for magic to circumvent the Company’s quest to destroy the Ring when its power “…“tempts” Frodo into using [the ring] in circumstances that might reveal its presence or give away its location to its original maker” (Richard Purtill 139), thus providing ample opportunity for the magic which aids Frodo and the Company to be counteracted. Similarly, with Saruman, the Elves, and other magical beings, we are shown very little of their current impact on Middle-Earth with magic. Rather, we learn the consequences of this magic later, if there is any at all, and Frodo and the Company act around these events without expecting Gandalf or anyone’s magic to intervene. This is much like how most people in the real world aim to do their best to act around events out of their control.  An example of this would be the creation of the Elven rings of power, which are sources of magic throughout The Lord of the Rings, yet the Ring is not utilized for its power and instead we spend the story viewing its effects on others, such as Frodo’s resistance to the Ring’s power, and the way that the ring corrupted them and their desire for power so deeply that “…they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it… and the ring draws them” (FOR, I, xi, 248). The Ring’s influence over these individuals, though rooted in the magic of Middle-Earth, can be read as a “…projection of merely human fears and desires transforming the world through subjective perception,” (Rosemary 24) rather than an attempt as escapism through the existence of magic within the fantasy genre. Ultimately, while magic is a powerful force in the world of Middle-Earth, it is not the be-all, end-all because we are shown that the protagonists are more than capable of achieving most anything without magic to aid them. Secondly, we have the expansive world of Middle-Earth that goes so in-depth that Tolkien created the Orcs from scratch, as well as several languages specifically for the races that inhabit it. Looking specifically at sagas succeeding the Lord of the Rings which course over several long novels, many authors took inspiration to build expansive worlds of their own. However, it is the “…medieval, honor-bound, deathless, Middle-Earth” (Baker, 439) that is perceived as negative. Here, it has shown, is where many modern fantasy authors, significantly G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, have taken fantasy’s capacity to reflect reality and create an imaginary world which manages real issues rather than a stagnant battle of Good versus Evil.

G.R.R. Martin’s expansive world is like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth in that it is just as well-crafted with as much attention to detail, and his series A Song of Ice and Fire has significantly influenced the declining stigma against the fantasy genre. In an interview where G.R.R. Martin was asked about how his series was influenced by The Lord of the Rings, he stated that he “…admires Tolkien… but that ultimately the battle between Good and Evil is weighed within the individual human heart… when I look at the world, I see most real living breathing human beings are grey” (GRRM, goodreads.com) and the rising popularity of A Song and Ice and Fire can attribute to the growing readership in fantasy G.R.R. Martin has accurately portrayed in his series that reality is not black and white. In addition, A Song of Ice and Fire, like The Lord of the Rings, makes minimal use of magic throughout the series, though it exists and is displayed at several points throughout the series, mostly through the divine and therefore out of reach of the average person. Therefore, this grey portrayal of humanity, along with his minimal use of magic, is a more accurate representation of all the issues we face today as a society and this ideal resonates with many fantasy readers today.

The fantasy genre, though subversive and escapist, is not inherently wrong because it can provide an alternate view of reality in that it disconnects us from what we deem ‘real.’ The genre’s ability to reflect reality this way, with Tolkien’s guidance through the creation of The Lord of the Rings, has created a generation of fantasy authors, most notably G.R.R. Martin and his series A Song of Ice and Fire which have moved away from Tolkien’s representation of Good versus Evil in Middle-Earth. Instead, they have created accurate representations of the greyness of our society and that not everything is black and white, and in this, have built a larger readership and in tune lessened the stigma toward the fantasy genre.

Works Cited

Baker, Daniel. “Why We Need Dragons: The Progressive Potential of Fantasy.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (2012): 439-459.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen & Co, 1981.

Martin, George R.R. goodreads.com. n.d. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/556384-i-admire-tolkien-greatly-his-books-had-enormous-influence-on. 22 March 2018.

Purtill, Richard. Myth, Morality, and Religion. San Fransisco: Harper and Row, 1984.

statista. statista.com. 20 July 2015. 22 March 2018. <https://www.statista.com/statistics/201404/types-of-books-that-american-adults-read/>.

—. statista.com. 2008. 22 March 2018. <https://www.statista.com/statistics/195575/us-adult-preference-of-book-genres-2008/>.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: HarperCollins, 1954.

—. The Two Towers. London: HarperCollins, 1955.

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I hope you liked this brief essay! If I was to go back and change anything now, I would expand on my analysis of George R.R. Martin’s works and further engage in a comparison of the two body of works, possibly comparing them to other popular “not escapist” pieces of literature. But alas, that’s a project I simply don’t have time to do. Thanks for reading!

—Erynn

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