Would J. R. R. Tolkien, if he were alive today, be a fan of prairie romance? The question is appropriate because of what he wrote in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” regarding escapism. Most speculative writers are familiar with his analogy about prisoners escaping to go home versus deserters escaping their commitments. We conclude, then, that Tolkien approved escape. But escape from what?
One thing he seemingly felt needed escape was the clutter and chaos man created with his technological advances — “mechanical traffic” and “robot factories.” In this regard, fantasies were not the exclusive means of escape. Rather, historical fiction, including romance set in an earlier time, would work equally well.
Tolkien’s chief complaint against the advances of his day seemed to center on the idea that these changes, “here to stay,” were part of the “real world,” subjugating things of a more simple time as less real.
For my part, I cannot convince myself that the roof of Bletchley station is more “real” than the clouds. And as an artefact I find it less inspiring than the legendary dome of heaven . . . And if we leave aside for a moment “fantasy,” I do not think that the reader or the maker of fairy-stories need even be ashamed of the “escape” of archaism: of preferring not dragons but horses, castles, sailing-ships, bows and arrows; not only elves, but knights and kings and priests. For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say “inexorable,” products.
“The rawness and ugliness of modern European life”—that real life whose contact we should welcome —“is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment.” The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real. [From “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 21]
Here is where we can see a glimpse into Tolkien’s thoughts about romance. Interestingly, he viewed science fiction as the “most escapist form of all literature,” but in creating a world different from the one we know, they leave untouched the causes for the problems.
To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists hardly reach farther than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is indeed an age of “improved means to deteriorated ends.” It is part of the essential malady of such days — producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery — that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied.
This marriage of evil and ugliness meant that an ogre would be incapable of creating something that remained as ugly as he and yet had a good or self-less purpose. (Clearly, Tolkien had not met Shrek!) That the fear of the beautiful fay had faded and worst, that “goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty.”
Enter escapist fiction.
This, however, is the modern and special (or accidental) “escapist” aspect of fairy-stories, which they share with romances, and other stories out of or about the past. [emphasis added]
Can we conclude, then, that Tolkien would be a fan of prairie romances? Perhaps in so far as they went, but he didn’t believe the problems of life began and ended with technology.
There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death. And even when men are not facing hard things such as these, there are ancient limitations from which fairy-stories offer a sort of escape, and old ambitions and desires (touching the very roots of fantasy) to which they offer a kind of satisfaction and consolation.
It is the idea of “consolation” that seems central to Tolkien’s beliefs about fairy stories, something less often discussed than his thoughts on sub-creation and escape. I’ll take a look at that aspect next time, but for now, I suggest that Tolkien wouldn’t hate prairie romances, perhaps not even Amish fiction. I think he’d understand them but think they aren’t sufficient. Their escape doesn’t go far enough and they offer little else.
I wonder. Have today’s speculative authors become snobbish in our attitudes toward romance — particularly “bonnet books” — when in fact we should take a page from Tolkien’s book and adapt a more objective view, crediting them for what, in fact, they actually accomplish?