C. S. Lewis was fond of saying that the only people opposed to escapes were jailers. In his classic essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien made the same point at greater length:
“Why should a man be scorned if, when 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 … the Escape of the Prisoner with the flight of the Deserter.”
Lewis and Tolkien, both best remembered for their works of fantasy, were each responding to the charge of writing escapist literature. But, what counts as escapism is a matter of perspective. From what is the escape? Lewis and Tolkien constructed their fantasy to offer an escape into the deepest reality. Is it possible that the structures and pace of our world chain us up in a kind of Platonic cave of ignorance, detached from what is true, good, and beautiful? If so, then escape is the very thing we should be hell-bent on achieving.
In “The Weight of Glory” Lewis evocatively describes the alluring and haunting appeal of beauty, but he is quick to remind us that beauty is not found in the moments, experiences, and objects that captivate us and fill us with wonder.
“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
The odd thing about beauty is that it is so often mixed with longing. Instead of leaving us satisfied, profound experiences of beauty can instead create a deep ache in our hearts. These encounters with beauty that momentarily overwhelm us are glimpses of life beyond the walls of the prison. But they are just that, glimpses. In Lewis’ view, and that of many others before him, beauty itself flows from God’s being through the created order. What we perceive then is a profound signal of God’s being beyond the created order and our taste of beauty beckons us to the source.
Lewis went on to observe that, “Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” And thus his efforts to remind us through the beauty of his art, that there is more; that the deep longing we feel for something we have never yet experienced is not a cruel trick played by impersonal cosmic forces, but the “truest index of our real situation.”
So perhaps art, literature, poetry, and films that offer us an escape from the ordinary and mundane are not so much pulling us out of the world, but rather helping us to see the world and our place in it more truly, more fully.