Wednesday, June 30, 2010


J. R. R. Tolkien stated that critics of escapism confuse the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. His claim was that no one would scorn a prisoner for trying to get out and go home. He was talking specifically about fairy-stories, but I like his terminology and I think it beneficial to consider these terms in light of any form of fiction.

Two Types of Escapism

Escape of the Prisoner

The prisoner we’re talking about here is the reader, so we must consider what prison he has found himself in. There are many kinds of prisons, but none is as depressing as everyday life. A man gets up in the morning, eats breakfast, kisses his wife goodbye, goes to work, returns home, kisses his wife, eats supper and goes to bed. Another prison is the unhappy marriage. It goes something like the first prison, but he doesn’t kiss his wife and he may know she’s spending part of the day with another man. We understand a man wanting to escape that prison. We can write stories that keep that man trapped in his prison or we can try to let him escape and go home.

If we keep him locked away, our story is about a family with problems. Though the family may resolve those issues by the end of the book, they deal with them throughout the book. On the other hand, if we let him go home, our story takes on a different tone. Recall the story contained in the movie The Incredibles. We see a family that is trapped in a prison. An opportunity comes along for the head of the house to return to the old life (home) and he takes that opportunity. It gets him in trouble, so the whole family rush in to help, freeing them all from the figurative prison and allowing them to go home. That is the essence of well written escapism. While our readers aren’t superheroes, family problems is not what they want. What they want is a family situation in which the family works together, so home for The Incredibles is very close to home for our readers.

Flight of the Deserter

When we think of a deserter we aren’t thinking of a prisoner but a soldier who has left his post. Imagine if you will that our character is facing problems at home like what we looked at above. This time, instead of taking a job that allows him to be a hero to his wife and brings the family together we simply do away with the problem. We rewrite the story so that he doesn’t have family problems. His wife is adorning. His children are well behaved. Someone shows up to tell him they need his help and he goes to save the day. It’s everything we imagine we would like to be able to do. What a boring story it is.

This is an example of the flight of a deserter because it ignores the fact that people face real problems. In this type of story we’re deserting some of the basic truths of what we know to be human.

The Case for Escapism

While we can’t make much of a case for the Flight of a Deserter, it isn’t hard to argue for writing stories that allow for the Escape of the Prisoner. After a hard day at work, a reader isn’t likely to read hard to read stories. I greatly enjoyed Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman family series, for example, but it was the kind of stories that required me to be mentally prepared to read them. I had a hard time picking them up to read when my brain was tired. Contrast that with a book like Holes. While the characters face problems, it takes place in a world that allows us to escape. We have to dig a bunch of holes, but that’s not so bad.

Implementing Escapism

Every story begins with a problem, but the question of whether our story allows the reader to escape or not it determined by how we handle that problem. If we handle the problem in an ordinary way it is probably not going to allow our reader to escape. Some very good stories can be written this way, allowing the protagonist to learn something that allows him to handle the problem in the end, but the main part of the story is a struggle against a problem our reader would like to escape. In order to give our reader a means of escape, we want to take the less direct route.

Searching for Mom takes something of an escapist approach. Facing a prison of growing up without a mother, Sara takes matters into her own hands and does what many children in that situation might like to do but are unlikely to do, she set out to find one. Had I taken a more direct approach, the story would have focused more on Sara’s problems in not having a mother and she would have pestered her Dad to look for a wife. With him being unsure that he wanted to do that, thing wouldn’t have gone smoothly.

So I think one of the things we need to ask ourselves is if our reader happened to be in the same situation as our protagonist what he would like to do but probably won’t be able to do, either because he doesn’t know how or because of restrains he puts on himself. We may have some constraints of our own that prevent us from turning our character into a godlike creature, but allowing our character to do something that many people would like to do but can’t allows our readers to imagine what might happen if they did it. Doing these things will create problems for the character, but it’s freeing for the reader.