QUICKBEAM'S OUT ON A LIMB:
In Defense of Escapism
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 oclock 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 cant stomach it.
The opening scenes of Gary Ross underrated Pleasantville masterfully
portray my sentiment. Remember when Tobey Maguires character wants to spend
his weekend watching a marathon of his favorite 50s 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 its
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 wont discuss here, lets
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 dont 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 theyll
tell you straight up: "Its like visiting an old friend." Indeed, I
indulge myself another reading of Tolkiens creation every few years because
its a more welcome place to be than here. Those hobbits and elves are people
I want to spend time withI want to sit by their fires and listen to their songs.
As the alarming speed of todays telecommunications brings the worlds
brutality right into my living room, the comforts of the Shire are more inviting than
ever. Havent 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.
Tolkiens 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, its 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 readers experience.
Consider the gradual coarsening of our American society over the past decade.
Once was a time you couldnt 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, Im certainly
no angel; Ive been known to cuss like a sailor when my ire is aroused, but
sometimes, you must admit
sometimes its 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
Chalkers River of the Dancing Gods series, where profanities are wantonly
tossed about. No, Tolkiens efforts were more certain, and his dedication to a
pure idiom of writing is a gift to the genre.
And dont get me started on guns! This is a HUGE hot-button for people, and I
respectfully dont want to start any controversy about gun control, the 2nd
Amendment, or any such things. Its not about that. I just feel that (a)
its 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. Its unrealistic, I know, but
thats 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. Its a story old as time; just ask Romeo & Julietheck,
go further back and ask Adam & Eve. This has been the subject of countless Woody
Allen films, so I wont put too fine a point on it. I know that theres
obviously sex in Middle-earth (Samwise had how many children?), but its 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 cant overlook
those. Im talking about leaving behind your mundane problems of sex and dating
whenever you pick up that book. When youre not thinking about love-making,
youre 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 shes 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
Tolkiens 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 wont
apologize for how much that makes me sound like a geek.
Much too hasty,