Escapism and fantasy

In 2012, I wrote a blogpost here every day. In 2013, for various reasons, I thought it better to cut down and write a blogpost only two or three times a week – with the predictable result that weeks could pass without writing one, when I was busy and nothing in particular came to mind.

For 2014, I plan to write a blogpost a day – though I’m giving myself a big exemption in July, for various reasons that I shall probably discuss in more detail nearer the time. (Anyway, in both 2012 and 2013, July was the month with fewest visitors to the blog.)

Writing a blogpost is not at all like writing a story. But I’ve written blogposts about stories – I wrote one about the end of House MD, and another about Doctor Who’s Christmas, and about the Hobbit, and I wrote four about Sherlock, and certainly plan to write more about the third season of Sherlock. Most of what I write about, here, is politics, with the odd bit of science: and what with 2014 as the Year of Indyref and 2015 a General Election year, I don’t anticipate any shortage of politics to write about.

But I shall still write about fantasy. Because when the world is grim and getting grimmer, we need to think about other things, too. Escapism is not a bad word unless you are a jailer.

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 labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery …. 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.


That is from J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories.

William Hartnell, the first Doctor, had every switch and button on the first TARDIS console labelled: because he understood that consistent use of the TARDIS controls through multiple episodes would matter to his audience. The scene in An Adventure In Time And Space where he refuses to begin the scene until the console is moving up and down – because the TARDIS is in flight, and when the TARDIS flies, the console moves – is precision in fantasy. William Hartnell said “The children will notice!” to the production crew who thought it didn’t matter.

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish…

We watch BBC Question Time and see a panel of people who are, for the most part, in a state in which they do not want to know truth and hope their audience cannot perceive it: the audience – both in the venue and on Twitter – are often the best part of the show.

You lot. You politicians.

Although many people have doubted it, for the big political story of 2014 – the independence referendum – the fact is: I do not know how I will vote. I’d like it if the Yes side could come up with some convincing positive reason why I should vote their way: so far all the arguments return to the negative “but look at how bad they are at Westminster”.

I’d like it, too, if the No side could do that: but I have really no confidence that they will because I don’t believe the politicians who need to, see their need. I’m pretty certain Nick Clegg thinks the important thing for 2015 is the survival of the LibDems: Ed Miliband thinks the important thing is winning the 2020 election: David Cameron thinks it’s winning the 2015 election (and surviving as Tory leader afterwards if Labour wins). I’m certain at least that it occurs to none of the three that their most important goal in 2014 should be making a positive case for voting No to independence: they need to make the UK look like a country Scotland should want to be part of. If Yes wins, which – while unlikely – is decidedly more probable than a Tory win in 2015, then the world of British politics is changed forever.

Politics is not a fairy story. Politics is too imprecise, too untruthful, too full of squishy imprecise and inconsistent fantasies to have a good catastrophe. One of the things I do not like about the Yes campaign is that I fear they are hoping for a happy ending.

The consolation of fairy stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly, the good catastrophe, the sudden, joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to a fairy tale); this joy, which is one of the things that fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially escapist or fugitive. In it’s fairy tale or other world setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to reoccur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, or sorrow and failure, the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies, (in the face of much evidence if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

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Filed under Blog Housekeeping, J. R. R. Tolkien

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