How to Read Tolkien: For Enjoyment, Escape or Edification?
                                                 Or perhaps, all of the above?

                                                                             N. Lund/11.10.05

Fiction, especially fantasy, is sometimes criticized as mindless “escape.”  Tolkien rejected that criticism: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?,” he countered.  Tolkien maintained a very high view of fantasy.  He believed that “escape,” rightly understood, was one of its highest objectives—not as a meaningless escape from reality but as a unique entrance into reality.

We live in a materialistic age which denies the reality of heaven and hell, of sin and moral responsibility.  Lewis and Tolkien were highly successful in capturing and describing those lost realities in fiction.  Both writers described life as a cosmic battle between good and evil, in which the smallest character has a critical part to play, with enduring and perhaps eternal consequences.  Both writers believed that fiction should not be a meaningless escape from reality.   They wrote the kind of books in which the reader identifies with the moral and spiritual struggles of the characters.  The heroic decisions of humble, lovable characters, encourage us in our own struggles in our own world.

Enjoyment (pleasure) and edification (learning) are not ultimately exclusive.  However, the relationship between the two is not always clear.  Can you analyze something and still enjoy it?  The answer depends on the timing.  It’s difficult to do both at the same time.  Most people probably can’t enjoy a symphony, a painting, a novel, or any great work of art at the same time as they are analyzing its structure, its influences, or its means of expression.  The two endeavors are usually distinct.  Why is that?


Analysis of any work of art requires detachment and criticism.  Enjoyment requires involvement and surrender.  As C.S. Lewis explains:

           The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender.  Look.   Listen.  Receive.
             Get yourself out of the way.  (There is no good asking first whether the work before you
             deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)
             An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge U., 1961).

Enjoyment, and the surrender which Lewis describes, is essential to the reading of fiction.  That rule applies to Tolkien, too.  Few readers would be willing to wade through the 1200 pages of The Lord of the Rings without taking some pleasure in the task.  When it comes to fantasy, a sense of “escape” is also essential to the enjoyment.  In fact, Tolkien argued that “escape” is one of the four key elements in the genre of fantasy.

In an essay entitled, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien identified four key elements in fantasy.  The essay was originally a lecture given at the
University of St. Andrews in 1938.  It has since been published in a book entitled, Tree and Leaf (London: Unwin, 1964) and in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine, 1966).  Tolkien made some revealing comments about a current writing project , his “sequel” to The Hobbit which would become The Lord of the Rings.  He asserted that he considered it to be a “specifically Christian venture.”  He explained his perspective in the following four main points:

 (1) Fantasy- for Tolkien, a chief characteristic of this literary genre is “desirability” and the “awakening of desire.”  The appeal of the imaginary world is a “strangeness and wonder” which catches the reader at a deep personal level.  It breaks the evil enchantment of materialism and egocentrism.  The story involves one’s heart, as well as one’s mind.   When Tolkien's
Two Towers was first published, Lewis expressed this effect.  He praised the book and said: "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart... good beyond hope."   

(2) Recovery- for Tolkien, as for Lewis, great literature leads the reader to rediscover precious truths which have been lost.  Tolkien said that successful fantasy will “clean our windows” and help us to “see things as we are (or were) meant to see them.”  This type of literature is profound because it deals with what is most profound.  Fantasy deals with the “permanent things” such as the meaning of life, not trivial or transient concerns like new technologies or entertainments.

(3) Escape- as cited above, Tolkien affirmed the therapeutic value of imaginary “escape” in fantasy.  He asserted: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”  The stories of Lewis and Tolkien remind us of the truth that no one is an island.  All of us are connected in a much bigger story of which God is the Author.   They also remind us that this world isn’t our final home.  We’re on a quest for something which is eternal and good.  As Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world… I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find until after death… I must make it the main object of my life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”  

(4) Consolation- Tolkien asserted that fairy tales (fantasy) depend upon “consolation,” which he defined as “the happy ending.”  Tolkien and Lewis coined their own term for this: “eucatastrophe” (literally, the “happy disaster” or “happy sudden turn”).  Tolkien stated that the greatest eucatastrophe, and the model for all eucatastrophes, was the resurrection of Christ from the dead.   It is the moment of joyful surprise at unexpected deliverance from evil.  In attempting to explain this critical element in fantasy, Tolkien then employed the New Testament term “evangelium,” which means “the Gospel.”  Tolkien asserted: “in the 'eucatastrophe' we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater--it may be a far-off gleam or echo or evangelium in the real world.”  He concluded: “The Christian may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.  So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”

From these points it is evident that Tolkien’s dislike for allegory did not mean a wholesale rejection of symbolic truth or creative analogy.   The focus of his dislike was the reduction of everything to symbol.  He objected to the kind of literature in which every character and incident has a hidden meaning and represents something else.   Tolkien did not extend his dislike to the broader analogies and themes of a sacred worldview, to moral lessons or to universal truths.

In How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler distinguishes levels of reading.  His most basic distinction is that between reading for “information” and reading for “understanding.”  The difference between the two is the difference between knowing “what is said” and knowing “why it is said.”  It is the fundamental difference between knowing what a book is about and knowing what it means. 

The limitations of reading for enjoyment alone are revealed whenever one asks (or is asked) the question: “What does it mean?”  Those who read without engaging the author and pursuing his intentions will not be able to answer that question.  When the Chronicles of Narnia first appeared many Christians rejected the series as “demonic” because of the references to wizards and magic, much as some have rejected the Harry Potter series.  Only by analyzing the worldview behind an author’s work can a reader discern the values and evaluate its worth.