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In Defense of Escapism

Greetings–Quickbeam here…

I live in Los Angeles, and there are often days when I am afraid to turn on the TV. I ask myself, "Dare I turn this thing on? Do I really want to hear it?" With all the recent coverage of Buford Furrow shooting children at a Jewish Community Center; thousands of people in violent protest against and even assaulting Truong Van Tran for putting up his poster of Ho Chi Minh; and various other soundbites of bombings, murder, and greed, who can blame me? Every weekday at 6 o’clock I get a ringside seat to view humanity at its worst. Despite journalists’ attempts to make these happenings more immediate and sensational, I often feel numb and remote, wondering at the enormity of it all. Keeping abreast of current events is one thing, but drowning in media poison is quite another. Sometimes I just can’t stomach it.

The opening scenes of Gary Ross’ underrated Pleasantville masterfully portray my sentiment. Remember when Tobey Maguire’s character wants to spend his weekend watching a marathon of his favorite 50’s show? A show where life was cleaner, simpler, and certain virtues (or failings) of the human beast were a little more, well, black and white? Some call it nostalgic, I call it therapeutic.

The motivation to "get away from it all" sounds trite, but it’s quite real I assure you, and there are myriad ways to do so. Some are saner than others. My friend Chris goes bowling every Thursday night in Studio City. My brother often goes sportsfishing and brings home the occasional 40-pound mahi-mahi. The other, more unfortunate methods of escapism I won’t discuss here, let’s leave that to a more suitable forum like NPR. As for myself, I choose to dive into the pages of a literary classic.

For me, the appeal of a good book (or play, movie, etc.) is the joy of leaving the "real world" behind to visit another. I have read and reread the works of J.R.R. Tolkien since I was just a sprout. The first book I ever consumed cover- to-cover (and I don’t mean those Hop on Pop books I shredded as a baby) was The Hobbit. I walked through that magical doorway to Middle-earth and was astounded at how familiar, real and beautiful it seemed. I was, in a word, enraptured. I soaked it up like a thirsty sponge, and tore through The Lord of the Rings and later The Silmarillion in quick succession… by that time I was 12 years old. In another year I read them all again. Sound familiar?

Going back to reread these works is just as rewarding. Ask any fan and they’ll tell you straight up: "It’s like visiting an old friend." Indeed, I indulge myself another reading of Tolkien’s creation every few years because it’s a more welcome place to be than here. Those hobbits and elves are people I want to spend time with–I want to sit by their fires and listen to their songs. As the alarming speed of today’s telecommunications brings the world’s brutality right into my living room, the comforts of the Shire are more inviting than ever. Haven’t you ever wanted to throw a brick at your TV or computer, run outside your front door to find Bilbo sitting there in the garden, smiling while he offers you a beautiful poppy-seed cake and a seat at his table?

I have, many times.

Tolkien’s writing is by turns powerful and highly romantic, true, but there is something in the work that beckons me back, continually appeals no matter how many times I read it. Actually, it’s a particular set of things ABSENT that I find so wonderful: a world with no obscenities, guns, or sex. Seriously, it makes all the difference to the modern reader’s experience.

Consider the gradual coarsening of our American society over the past decade. Once was a time you couldn’t say the word "pregnant" on television. Now we have South Park, music videos with endless streams of profanity bleeped out, and now a V-chip to help lazy parents block unwanted programs. Hey, I’m certainly no angel; I’ve been known to cuss like a sailor when my ire is aroused, but sometimes, you must admit… sometimes it’s a relief to be in the company of more genteel conversationalists.

Obviously, the languages Tolkien created for the peoples of Arda were a profound labor of love to him, evident with every page you turn. Can you imagine the devastating effect of adding strident foul language to his characters? Not even the Uruk-hai in their worst moments were given expletives to reveal their anger. That would have been a debasement to the whole construct, destroying the unique tone of his narrative as more of "our reality" crept onto the pages. It was wisely avoided, unlike Jack Chalker’s River of the Dancing Gods series, where profanities are wantonly tossed about. No, Tolkien’s efforts were more certain, and his dedication to a pure idiom of writing is a gift to the genre.

And don’t get me started on guns! This is a HUGE hot-button for people, and I respectfully don’t want to start any controversy about gun control, the 2nd Amendment, or any such things. It’s not about that. I just feel that (a) it’s a problem, and (b) it has become too complex to be comfortably resolved in my lifetime; and when that overwhelming, hopeless feeling comes over me my escapist urge kicks into overdrive. Faced with my own personal fears and the politically stagnant landscape, I crave a world with no guns at all. It’s unrealistic, I know, but that’s my natural, organic response.

Again, I find solace in a fictional account of other dangers, though they be fantastical and drawn only from imagination. I am so grateful for the "medieval" setting of Middle-earth, where modern weaponry never rears its ugly head.

Of course nothing, absolutely nothing, makes our lives more complicated than sexual relationships. It’s a story old as time; just ask Romeo & Juliet–heck, go further back and ask Adam & Eve. This has been the subject of countless Woody Allen films, so I won’t put too fine a point on it. I know that there’s obviously sex in Middle-earth (Samwise had how many children?), but it’s never outright mentioned, thank God.

And yes, I realize there are many romantic conflicts that Tolkien drew out in the course of his histories, especially between Elves and mortal Men. I can’t overlook those. I’m talking about leaving behind your mundane problems of sex and dating whenever you pick up that book. When you’re not thinking about love-making, you’re able to tackle more important things. In Middle-earth the more old-fashioned issues of loyalty, courage, steadfastness, and integrity are at the fore. Much more invigorating than sulking about, wondering if she’s going to return your call after the first date.

In closing, to associate with another place and time, to involve yourself in another reality is a basic human need in my eyes. The world-weary mind finds respite within Tolkien’s world, finds joy in the victory of his heroes, especially the heroes found in unexpected places. The world of 1999 can often be overwhelming. Just like eating and shelter, I need to escape to Middle-earth every once in a while. And I won’t apologize for how much that makes me sound like a geek.

Much too hasty,


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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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