Who Are the People Most Opposed to Escapism? Jailors!

J. R. R. Tolkien? Arthur C. Clarke? C. S. Lewis? China Miéville? Michael Moorcock? Neil Gaiman

Dear Quote Investigator: Today, the genres of science fiction and fantasy are ascendant in popular culture. But detractors have long complained that works in these domains are escapist, and critics have asserted that the literary values displayed are sharply circumscribed. The shrewdest riposte I have heard to these notions is:

Who are the people most opposed to escapism? Jailors!

Would you please explore the origin of this remark?

Quote Investigator: The exact concise formulation given above was written by the well-known science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, but he credited the fantasy writer C. S. Lewis who was best-known for creating the world of Narnia. Indeed, a similar remark was made by Lewis, but he credited the prominent fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien who was best-known for crafting the legendarium of the Middle-earth.

In 1938 Tolkien delivered a lecture about works of fantasy to an audience at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He extended his talk to produce an essay titled “On Fairy-Stories” which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1947. The essay was reprinted in a 1965 collection called “Tree and Leaf”. Tolkien championed the value of literature deemed escapist:[ref] 1965 (Copyright 1964), Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, Start Page 3, Quote Page 60, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all.

Tolkien’s remarks were thematically related to the quotation, and he mentioned jailers, but there was no strongly matching statement within the essay. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

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.

C. S. Lewis discussed “escape” in an essay titled “On Science Fiction” which appeared in a 1966 collection. Lewis argued that some adherents of vehement political beliefs were hostile to exercises of the imagination because they wished to “keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict”:[ref] 2002 (1966 Copyright), Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C. S. Lewis, Essay: On Science Fiction, Start Page 59, Quote Page 67, A Harvest Book: Harcourt Inc., New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

So, Lewis ascribed a closely matching version of the saying to Tolkien, but the remark was not written; instead, Lewis heard it during a conversation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1969 a version of the saying was attributed to Lewis in a work aimed at neophyte authors titled “The Writing of Novels” by Christopher Derrick:[ref] 1969, The Writing of Novels by Christopher Derrick, Chapter 11: Judgment and Fate, Quote Page 190, Published by The Writer, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“Literary experience,” says C. S. Lewis, “heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality”: it enables us to escape from the prison of self, “it admits us to experiences not our own,” it enlarges life. It offers us an escape; and as Lewis once pointed out, ‘escapism’ is only a dirty word to those who are, by instinct, jailers.

In 1999 Arthur C. Clarke published an essay “Aspects of Science Fiction” that included an exact match to the questioner’s quotation which Clarke stated he had heard directly from Lewis:[ref] 1999, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: Collected Essays 1934-1998 by Arthur C. Clarke, Edited by Ian T. Macauley, Essay: Aspects of Science Fiction, Start Page 398, Quote Page 405, (Bibliographic note on page 544 states that the essay was previously unpublished in English), Published by St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Nothing could be more ridiculous, therefore, than the accusation sometimes made against science fiction that it is merely escapist. That charge can indeed be made against much fantasy—but so what? There are times (this century has provided a more than ample supply) when some form of escape is essential, and any art form that supplies it is not to be despised. And as C. S. Lewis (creator of both superb science fiction and fantasy) once remarked to me: “Who are the people most opposed to escapism? Jailors!”

In 2002 the science fiction writer China Miéville presented a critical assessment of the saying in an article about Tolkien published in “Socialist Review”. Miéville ascribed the criticism to fellow SF author Michael Moorcock:[ref] Website: Socialist Review in London, Article title: Tolkien – Middle Earth Meets Middle England, Article author: China Miéville, Date on website: January 2002, Website description: “Socialist Review is a monthly magazine covering current events, theory and history, books and arts reviews from a revolutionary socialist perspective”, (Accessed socialistreview.org.uk on December 29, 2015) link [/ref]

Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was ‘consolation’. In other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.

In 2013 top fantasy author Neil Gaiman delivered a lecture at the Barbican in London that was published in “The Guardian”:[ref] 2013 October 15, The Guardian, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming by Neil Gaiman, (Edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on October 14, 2013 at the Barbican in London), United Kingdom. (Accessed at theguardian.com on June 29, 2013) link[/ref]

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control…

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Gaiman revised the attribution in his comment when he published it in the 2016 collection “The View from the Cheap Seats”:[ref] 2016, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman, Section: Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013, Start Page 5, Quote Page 9, Published by William Morrow: Imprint of HarperCollins. (Amazon Look Inside)[/ref]

As C.S. Lewis reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

In conclusion, QI believes that J. R. R. Tolkien can be credited with the words C. S. Lewis attributed to him in the 1966 essay although the information was indirect. Both Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke helped to popularize the saying.

Image Notes: This image was derived from an image created by Bonnybbx at Pixabay. The picture has been cropped, modified, resized, and retouched.

(Special thanks to Maurus Vitor who pointed to the remarks by Neil Gaiman.)

Update History: On June 29, 2016 the 2013 and 2016 citations for Neil Gaiman were added.

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