Skip to content

The Ethics of Escape

Is the escapism of fantasy literature harmful? As always, Charles Coulombe has the answer.


"Get your head out of that book!" "Come back to reality!" "You can't solve the world's problems by ignoring them!" "Just what good is fantasy, anyway?" If you are a lover of fantasy literature, or of its kindred genres of science fiction and/or horror, this is a criticism which you may well have heard over the course of your life. It is an easy one to make. Those of us who from time to time seek sanctuary from the press of every-day life in the confines of our own minds---often in the company of talented writers---are often accused of being escapists, of being unrealistic. For those of us whose ordinary lives are perhaps a tad humdrum, it is declared that we attempt to escape boredom via heroic tales; those whose lives are in fact chaotic or overly agitated receive similar criticism for seeking an interior realm of tranquillity. In either case, those who make such criticisms are of the opinion that we ought to take whatever our lot in life might be and live with it on its own terms. If we do not, they charge, then we are somehow false to our society, to our fellow man, and to ourselves.

"Escapist" fans, it must be admitted, tend to look to the past, the future, or far away places for something they find lacking in the here and now.

The obvious reply to this charge is that of the great Tolkien: "it is easy to debunk escapism; but notice that the ones who do so are usually the gaolers!" Certainly, no one is interested in literature of the three genres who is completely pleased with the current status quo---whether personal or public. "Escapist" fans, it must be admitted, tend to look to the past, the future, or far away places for something they find lacking in the here and now. They are not content. As with Tolkien, those who agree with them find themselves, in a very real sense, "imprisoned"---in a world, in situations, over which they have no control. Is it a crime, in such a predicament, to seek to escape?

Moreover, it must be denied that the gaolers are correct in presuming either that that which they manage is the best of all possible situations, or that they who seek to escape it do so with no further thought than mental self-gratification.

I am fortunate enough to possess a complete set of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, issued in 1910-1911, copyrighted by "the Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge," and "Dedicated by permission to His Majesty George the Fifth, King of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, and to William Howard Taft, President of the United States of America." This set has been a great boon to me in my work as a writer, to no small degree because its articles on literary, historical, folk-loric, and religious topics (the areas in which I write) tend to be better researched and more detailed than those of the present edition (which I also use for everything since 1911!). But it has a higher value than that.

More even than its continuing value as a reference work, this encyclopaedia is a window on a vanished world more evocative than a Merchant and Ivory film. In article after article, the hopes and dreams of the dominant circles in the Anglo-Saxon world before the slaughters of the two World Wars are revealed. In the preface, we are informed that the present edition has been much influenced by the sociology of Herbert Spencer. This Englishman was the foremost promoter of the Manchester School and Social Darwinism in America, of whose philosophy Andrew Carnegie wrote in his autobiography, "Light came as in a flood and all was clear." Professor Clinton Rossiter put it in his Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion, "The greatest of American laissez-faire conservatives was an English Liberal." Something to consider when comparing American and English (or European) political labels. In a nutshell, Spencer was the spokesman for what we call in the States the "Gilded Age."

The dictates of Social Darwinism are exemplified throughout the 1911 Britannica, but never so clearly, perhaps, as in the article on "Civilisation." Written by one Henry Smith Williams, formerly lecturer in the Hartford School of Sociology, it offers some opinions worth considering as those of the dominant mindset of the era. Dr. Williams sketches out the history of Civilisation as an inevitable story of progress, with mankind moving up through nine carefully defined different steps. The last of these, "The Upper Period of Civilisation" is nearing, he suggests, its termination. Along these lines he offers some rather intriguing observations:

Today the thesis that all men are one brotherhood needs no defence. The most primitive aborigines are regarded merely as brethren who, through some defect or neglect of opportunity, have lagged behind in the race. Similarly the defective and criminal classes that make up so significant a part of even our highest present-day civilisations, are no longer regarded with anger or contempt, as beings who are suffering just punishment for wilful transgressions, but are considered as pitiful victims of hereditary and environmental influences they could neither choose nor control.

Were Dr. Williams writing today, of course, he would use less pompous diction and be a bit more Politically Correct. But he would have no need to substantially alter his convictions for a contemporary audience. Further on, however, he launches into a description of a kindred development which has great implications for fantasists:

The essence of the new view is this: to recognise the universality and the invariability of natural law; stated otherwise, to understand that the word "supernatural" involves a contradiction of terms and has in fact no meaning. Whoever has grasped the full impact of this truth is privileged to sweep mental horizons wider by far than ever opened to the view of any thinker of an earlier epoch. He is privileged to forecast, as the sure heritage of the future, a civilisation freed from the last ghost of superstition---an Age of Reason in which mankind shall at last find refuge from the hosts of occult and invisible powers, the fearsome galaxies of deities and demons, which have haunted him thus far at every stage of his long journey through savagery, barbarism and civilisation.

Indeed! And with the banishment of the supernatural (the very stock-in-trade of our three genres, whether or not one believes in everything that goes under that term) goes every scrap of refuge dwellers in the new "Age of Reason" Dr. Williams praises might have from its unrelenting optimism, its insistence on rational explanations. From this attitude comes the Brittanica's verdicts on various fantasy writers of the period. Time and again we read that they were "morbid" or "sickly;" when sheer force of talent, as in Hoffman, for example, compels the author of the article to admit the writer's real genius, then inevitably his greatness lies not in his subject matter, but in his style of execution: with Hoffman, this shows a praiseworthy realism, whereas the gruesome subject matter of his work represents a "descent from the high ideals of the Romantics"---forgetting that the macabre and the bizarre interests of so many of the Romantics were precisely an "escape" from the Rationalism of the 18th century---which Rationalism's basic inhumanity was revealed as much in the Revolutions it inspired as in the Voltairean "benevolent despots" whom they overthrew.

But let us return to Dr. Williams. Putting on his prophet hat, the good doctor goes on to explain away the advanced weaponry which the growth of the technology he extols has made possible:

Formidable as these weapons now seem, however, the developments of the not very distant future will probably make them quite obsolete; and sooner or later, as science develops yet more deadly implements of destruction, the time must come when communal intelligence will rebel at the suicidal folly of the international attitude that characterised, for example, the opening decade of the 20th century.

Must it come indeed? In any case, Dr. Williams assures us that patriotism must inevitably give way to humanitarianism, which will banish all the evils and barbarisms of the past. And just what will be the result of that humanitarianism? Mark well:

Equally obvious must it appear to the cosmopolite of some generation of the future that quality rather than mere numbers must determine the efficiency of any given community. Race suicide will then cease to be a bugbear; and it will no longer be considered rational to keep up the census at the cost of propagating low orders of intelligence, to feed the ranks of paupers, defectives, and criminals. On the contrary it will be thought fitting that man should become the conscious arbiter of his own racial destiny to the extent of applying whatever laws of heredity he knows or may acquire in the interest of his own species, as he has long applied them in the case of domesticated animals. The survival and procreation of the unfit will then cease to be a menace to the progress of civilisation.

Our first great dystopia, Brave New World, extrapolated these same principles, and came up with both fantasy and horror on its hook. Huxley "escaped," but did so with a purpose. "Escapist" literature not being worth one's time, however, his warning was ignored.

Ah, the joys of smugness! It did not occur to the good doctor that the very mindset he espoused was in itself a threat to the "progress of civilisation." He did not predict the horror of the trenches which the governments of Europe, inspired by the principles he espoused, flung a generation of youth into, just four years after he pontificated. Our first great dystopia, Brave New World, extrapolated these same principles, and came up with both fantasy and horror on its hook. Huxley "escaped," but did so with a purpose. "Escapist" literature not being worth one's time, however, his warning was ignored. Eugenics were practised with a vengeance in the Third Reich, and in China to-day. Yet modern despotism cannot be called to account by the world-view incarnated in Dr. Williams, because, having denied the irrational and, as it were, unseen nature of man, it has reduced him to an economic unit, an animal whose masters may use him as they are able and as they choose.

Nor has this view subsided amongst those who dominate in government, learning, or media. Neither World War has taught them anything; nor did the fall of Communism. Communism and Capitalism were at one in looking at man in strictly rational and economic terms---thus it is not surprising that the end of one dictatorship has paved the way for nascent mini-despotisms, as well as ethnic cleansing, economic chaos, and so on. Theodore Roszak described the society this world-view has created rather well back in 1969 in his perceptive The Making of a Counter Culture: the mature product of technological progress and the scientific ethos, the technocracy easily eludes all traditional political categories. Indeed, it is a characteristic of the technocracy to render itself ideologically invisible. Its assumptions about reality and its values become as unobtrusively persuasive as the air we breathe. While daily political argument continues within and between the capitalist and collectivist societies of the world, the technocracy increases and consolidates its power in both as a trans-political phenomenon following the dictates of industrial efficiency, rationality, and necessity (p. 8).

Just as the Romantics rebelled and "escaped" from the Enlightenment and the ensuing Revolutions; as the "Decadents" and "Symbolists" did the same from the Gilded Age produced by the Industrial Revolutions, so too did the Counter-Culture of the 1960s which Roszak describes attempt escape from the Technocracy. It is no great wonder that Tolkien and fantasy in general became wildly popular at that point. Escape betokens freedom, liberation; and that which comes from fantasy literature is a poor relation (but none the less a legitimate relation) to that derived from mystical exaltation. As Valentin Tomberg reminds us:

For vagabonds, gypsies, and nomads [freedom] is the possibility of roaming and moving about without walls and fences; for a resident farmer it is self-government or rule of his own house, household and fields; for the enlightened humanist it is knowing what he does and doing what he knows---autonomy of consciousness and self-responsibility; for the seeker after God it is the fulfilment of his free vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (Covenant of the Heart, p. 13)

But freedom may be abused, as prisoners in a gaol may sometimes riot and kill their fellow-inmates. One cannot help but wonder if the dark and bloody gods of Nationalism which have animated the Balkans once again were called forth by the fact that, forced to live in a dreary present, without any "escape," the young folk who are the instruments of ethnic cleansing there might have been less willing tools had they been permitted wider access to the nobler side of their heritage in peacetime. Man must dream; if not dreams of light, they will be dreams of darkness.

Being devoted to the literature of escape does not preclude a deep and abiding interest in reality; quite the contrary. It allows one to meditate on hypothetical questions in a constructive way.

The point to be made is that the "escape into fantasy" so often condemned by so-called "right-thinking people," is not without a real utility in solving problems in the here-and-now, especially the political here and now. Being devoted to the literature of escape does not preclude a deep and abiding interest in reality; quite the contrary. It allows one to meditate, as Huxley did with the ideals of Dr. Williams, on hypothetical questions in a constructive way. Not that fantasists are unanimous in their political or religious views---far from it. Yet they do have a commonality of perspective which transcends mere party labels---even as do the Technocrats. Tolkien was a Catholic, Royalist, Tory (as indeed, am I myself); but the chapter of The Return of the King called "The Scouring of the Shire" would be very pleasing indeed to any self-respecting Green or Anarchist. William Morris was considered a radical in his time, George Wyndham a reactionary; yet their taste in literature mirrored the fact that their politics contained a great deal of mutuality. Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc were in quite opposite camps when it came to the Empire---but as one when it came to England herself, as a comparison of the one's Puck of Pook's Hill with the other's Four Men will show clearly. Not for nothing did our old friend Herbert Spencer call the nascent Labour Party "the New Toryism," and would no doubt have made the same accusation against not just R. H. Tawney, but Tolkien and Henry Massingham as well. I have myself found much more in common in terms of basic values with other lovers of fantasy whose party labels are supposedly opposed to mine than either of us do with those who share those labels---but are committed believers in the truth of the gaol in which we live.

That gaol, I submit, is made up of one part secularised Calvinism, one part Enlightenment Rationalism, and one part Technology (considered in its function not as means but as end). Certainly its first easily agreed upon manifestation in England was Puritanism, continuing as the Whig opposition to the Stuarts. Regardless of one's opinions regarding the specifics of the Stuart programme, one has a hard time denying the truth of the remarks of King Oberon in Poul Anderson's fantasy novel, A Midsummer Tempest, in which the Fairy monarch explains to Prince Rupert why he and his subjects have chosen to ally with King Charles I in his struggle with Cromwell:

"The Christian faith, whatever else it changed, made small discord within that harmony," Oberon went on. "As long as no one worshipped us as gods---a star-cold honour we have never sought---the priests did not deny our right to be, and let the people dwell at peace with us and with the land. Meanwhile, their bells rang sweet." "They did but change the names---" Puck muttered, "the names---the names." Both Rupert and Oberon frowned at him, and the king continued hastily: "When Henry Eighth cast off the rule of Rome, to us 'twas naught but mortal politics. The Church of England did not persecute us, nor care to end the Old Ways in the folk. But then---" "The Puritans arose," said Rupert, for Oberon faltered at the uttering. "They did." The king lifted a fist. No matter his height and handsomeness, it looked strangely frail, almost translucent to moonbeams and encroaching shadows. "That wintry creed where only hell knows warmth; where rites which interceded once for man with Mystery, and comforted, are quelled; where he is set against the living world, for he is now forbidden to revere it in custom, feast, or staying of his hand; where open merriment's condemned as vice and harmless foolery as foolishness; where love of man and woman is obscene---that's Faerie's and Old England's foe and woe!" ... Meanwhile, Rupert said, to those twain who were like swirls and currents in the moonlight that poured around him: "Your Majesties are not of human blood. What have theologies to do with you?" Oberon drew his cloak tight, as if a wind had arisen---in the white wet stillness of the night---from which its gauze could shield. He spoke nearly too low to be heard: "A creed which bears no love for Mother Earth, but rather sees her as an enemy which it is righteous to make booty of, to rape, to wound, to gouge, to gut, to flay, then bury under pavement, slag, and trash, and call machines to howl around the grave...that creed will bring that doom." ... Elven swift, his resolve returned. He straightened and declared aloud: "The Royal cause defends the Old Ways, knowing it or not. Whatever be the faults---the arrogance of King and bishops, squalid greeds of nobles, lump-stodginess of yeomanry and burghers, and gross or petty tyrannies these breed---still, such are found in every human clime; and you'd at least preserve what keeps your kind from turning to a pox upon the globe, and would not scour the Faerie realm from off it."

In Anderson's England, the Puritans already possess tools---like railroads---which their ideological descendants would invent and exploit. But rather than crushing the Cavaliers at Naseby, the Roundheads are themselves defeated at Glastonbury Tor, through the intervention of Faerie. 

Such an identification of issues which affect us to-day and of the specific historical figures who, for better or worse, exemplified them, is far from irrelevant. Nor is Anderson's particular identification in this case historically incorrect, as the evidence from that period shows clearly. Consider, for example, Bishop Richard Corbet's work; although he died in 1635, several years before the outbreak of the Civil War, he understood well the psychological and cultural issues involved (as opposed to the political and economic ones), as we may see from his Fairies' Farewell. Therein he laments the growth of Puritanism in England in terms which Anderson's Oberon would well have understood:

Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies' lost comman!
They did but change Priests' babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Charlemagne ever since
For love of your demains.

He then goes on to define the religious and political struggles which had agitated England for the previous centuries in terms of the competing factions' attitudes toward Faerie ( and that realms supposed attitudes toward them):

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs which yet remain,
Where footed in Queen Mary's days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.
By which we know the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were "Ave Marys,"
Their dances were Procession.
But alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.

The Puritans loathed the old folk-lore of England, and all its tales and Romances; in this they echoed Geneva, where Calvin had outlawed the Romances of Chivalry, particularly Amadis. At Glastonbury they cut down the Glastonbury Thorn which, so we are told, was St. Joseph of Arimathea's staff taken to root (though fortunately cuttings were preserved and its descendants grow there yet---blooming at Christmas, the first bloom of which is still taken to the Queen). Without doubt, had they been able to, they would have dug up the Holy Grail (if indeed it is buried there with St. Joseph beneath the Chalice Well, which well's red-tinctured waters are supposed to indicate), and smashed it as they did St. Edward's Crown. At least they were able to outlaw the making and eating of mince-pies, for fear that Christmas might be celebrated with them!

In response, the Stuarts determinedly embraced the old beliefs of their three kingdoms. Touching for the King's Evil they turned into an art form (for as in Middle Earth, it was believed that "The hands of a king are the hands of a healer"). Charles I apparently healed several diseases without even using the forms provided for curing scrofula; bits of his shirt dipped into his blood were held to have similar effects after his execution. His successors kept up the practise even in exile, and many a scrofula sufferer turned Jacobite after losing his disease at the hands of the "King Over the Water" in St. Germain or in Rome. James II travelled in state to the shrine of Holywell in North Wales. But above all, they consciously identified themselves with the heroic traditions of both England, Scotland, and Ireland:

Subsequently, it was to be "those who supported the Divine Right of Kings" who "upheld the historicity of Arthur;" whereas those who did not turned instead "to the laws and customs of the Anglo-Saxons." Arthur remained a figure central to Stuart propaganda. Stuart iconography celebrated the habits and beliefs of the ancient Britons. In particular, the Royal Oak, still a central symbol of the dynasty, was closely related to ideas about Celtic fertility ritual, and the King's power as an agent of renewal: "The oak, the largest and strongest tree in the North, was venerated by the Celts as a symbol of the supreme power." It was thus fitting that an oak should protect Charles II from the Cromwellian troops who wished to strip the sacred new Arthur of his status. The story confirmed the King's mystical authority, and also his close friendship with nature. Long after 1688, the Stuart dynasty was to be closely linked with images of fertility. In literature, Arthurian images of the Stuarts persisted into the nineteenth century. This "Welsh messiah, the warrior who will come to overthrow the Saxons and Normans," was an icon of the Stuarts' claim to be Kings of all Britain, both "Political Hero" and "National Messiah," in Arthurian mould. Arthur's status as a legendary huntsman ("the figure of the Wild Huntsman is sometimes identified with Arthur") was also significant. The Stuarts made much of hunting: it helped to confirm their heroic status as stewards of nature and the land. In doing this, they identified themselves not only with Arthur, but with Fionn, the legendary Gaelic warlord who was in the eighteenth century to be the subject of James Macpherson's pro-Stuart Ossian poems. Fionn, legends of whom abound in Scotland, was also, like Arthur, scheduled to wake and deliver the nation when danger threatened. In identifying with both figures, the Stuarts were able to simultaneously present themselves as Gaelic and British monarchs. This symbolism was used with peculiar adroitness in Ireland, where the Stuarts were almost never identified with Arthur, but rather with Fionn and heroes from Fionn's own time. Charles Edward was compared to Fergus, Conall, Conroy, and Angus Oge, while his grandfather became for some a symbol of Ireland herself, a Fenian hero in the making, a foreshadower of the sacrificial politics of such as Pearse: "Righ Shemus, King James, represented the faith of Erin, and so became her comrade in martyrdom." In famous eighteenth century songs like "the Blackbird," Ireland was presented as an abandoned woman, waiting for the return of her hero-King. The same symbolism was used in Scotland. "The Gaelic messianic tradition" of Fionn suggested that the Stuart King would one day return to bring light and fecundity to the land. In the Highlands of Scotland, the events of Jacobitism themselves passed into folklore, like the older stories to which they were related. More educated Jacobite sympathisers compared the Stuarts to the heroes of the Roman Republic, to Aeneas, or to the saints. But the view of them as sacred monarchs of folkloric tradition and power was one which endured among all ranks (Murray G.H. Pittock, The Invention of Scotland, pp. 4-5).

We are reminded here of Eomer's question to Aragorn, "Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?" and Aragorn's reply, "A man may do both, for not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!" As we know, however, Oberon did not come to the aid of the Stuarts; neither did Arthur or Fionn rise to succour them. Yet Jacobitism, after its practical defeat, revived in the 19th century among artists and writers, dreamers and romantics. Bound up with the most ancient traditions of your islands as it has become, it has turned, like them, into a fertile source of fantasy literature, such as in Joan Aiken's series depicting a world in which they won, or the Anderson book earlier referred to. Even those non-fiction writers who dislike the Jacobite cause at least realise that directly espousing the opposite side will not attract readers. As my friend Captain James Bogle remarked with some heat after divining the anti-Stuart point of view of the author of On the Trail of the Jacobites, "If he were honest, he'd have called it Whig Victories in North Britain!" No doubt, but no one would have read it.

The same issues are with us to-day, or at least with you. Regardless of one's opinions of the activities or views of the present Prince of Wales, it will be admitted that the opposition by professionals to his views on architecture, the environment, literature, and so on centre on being "realistic;" in the resulting controversies one can smell a whiff of Jacobite, and just catch a an echo of the "the horns of Elfland faintly blowing." This appears from a revealing 21 January 1993 letter he wrote to Tom Shebbeare, director of the Prince's Trust (and quoted on pp. 493-494 of Dimbleby's new book):

For the past 15 years I have been entirely motivated by a desperate desire to put the "Great" back into Great Britain. Everything I have tried to do---all the projects, speeches, schemes, etc.---have been with this end in mind. And none of it has worked, as you can see too obviously! In order to put the "Great" back I have always felt it was vital to bring people together, and I began to realise that the one advantage my position has over anyone else's is that I can act as a catalyst to help produce a better and more balanced response to various problems. I have no "political" agenda---only a desire to see people achieve their potential; to be decently housed in a decent, civilised environment that respects the cultural and vernacular character of the nation; to see this country's real talents (especially inventiveness and engineering skills) put to best use in the best interests of the country and the world (at present they are being disgracefully wasted through lack of co-ordination and strategic thinking); to retain and value the infrastructure and cultural integrity of rural communities (where they still exist) because of the vital role they play in the very framework of the nation and the care and management of the countryside; to value and nurture the highest standards of military integrity and professionalism, as displayed by our armed forces, because of the role they play as an insurance scheme in case of disaster; and to value and retain our uniquely special broadcasting standards which are renowned throughout the world. The final point is that I want to role back some of the more ludicrous frontiers of the 60s in terms of education, architecture, art, music, and literature, not to mention agriculture! Having read this through, no wonder they want to destroy me, or get rid of me...!

Like his Stuart ancestors, he would attempt to play the role of steward of the land; his interest in hunting for example, is very reminiscent of his predecessors': "Despite protests by anti-hunting groups, the Prince of Wales takes a close interest in the sport at all levels and has defended it as an effective form of sporting conservation of wildlife and its habitat in the British countryside," as we read in the Royal Encyclopaedia. So too with what the same source tells us about the Prince's farm at Highgrove:

A particular concern on the Home Farm is environmental conservation: straw is never burned; chemical fertilisers are being reduced as much as possible; and in keeping with the Cotswolds landscape, 548 metres of dry-stone walls have been rebuilt around the land. In 1985 the decision was taken to go organic on three blocks of land as part of a general move to what has been called biologically sustainable farming linked to conservation. The step to full organic status on the whole estate is said to be on line for 1996.

Whether or not one agrees with specific things His Royal Highness has advocated, one can easily see and applaud his overall motivation; that it is rooted in the same place in the psyche from whence the Stuarts sought support; and that it receives the predictable charges from the political and economic powers-that-be of impracticability and, of course, "escapism" from the rigours of modern life. One is reminded of King Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). Called the "Romantic upon the throne," he filled his country with architectural masterpieces (and incidentally arranged for the completion of Cologne cathedral). Unlike many Prussian kings, he was extremely pacific; he opposed the rise of Bismarck and any German unity which would leave out Austria and the Habsburgs. Above all, he maintained a great dislike of politicians and industrialists, the men who created the new Germany which followed him. Predictably, our trusty 1911 encyclopaedia dismissed him with the caustic comment: "In general it may be said that Frederick William, in spite of his talents and his wide knowledge, lived in a dream-land of his own, out of touch with reality." Ah, indeed? Judging by his accomplishments, the love his people bore him, and the monuments (like Potsdam's sublime Friedenskirche) he left behind him, it is a pity that neither his great-great-nephew Kaiser Wilhelm, nor some of Germany's subsequent leaders, nor for that matter many of the rest of the world's leaders, did not also live in that dream-land; moreover, it is a crime that their peoples and ourselves have had to live in what Dr. Williams considered reality! In any case, fear not; should the Prince of Wales become Charles III, and should the same sort of folk that run the world now do so when historians write of his reign, they no doubt will declare much the same thing.

We have dwelt at length with politics, as an area eminently practical; but the "ethics of escape" which undergird our reading and enjoyment of fantasy literature (as well as the two sister genres) have application to all of life. They constitute, in essence, an entire philosophy. Arthur Machen's work has been described as comprising three major themes: a) "the old ways were better, and the world to-day lacks mystery and colour. London has lost its magic, and the nation has forgotten its traditions. Old farmhouses, old taverns, old country churches---all are relics of a more natural way of life"; b) "there is a world of dark, pagan terror behind the glittering beauties of nature, and untold depths of evil locked within the human heart"; and c) "science and rationality are limited in the truths they can reveal. In fact, they are virtually blind; they explain nothing. And all around us lies a great unseen mystery."

Most fantasists would agree with all or much of this credo, metaphorically if not literally. But what it amounts to is not simply a justification for fantasising, but a restating in other ways of the Neoplatonic world view: that this reality of ours at once conceals and symbolises a higher and greater one. What appears to the masters of this world, the gaolers in Tolkien's words, to be mere escape is in reality a quest, a quest which Machen describes thusly in the opening words of his 1923 essay, "With the Gods in Spring": "We shall go on seeking it to the end, so long as thereare men on the earth. We shall seek it in all manner of strange ways; some of them wise, and some of them unutterably foolish. But the search will never end." For what, does Machen opine, do we search? "The secret of things; the real truth that is everywhere hidden under outward appearances." It is, however dimly we may think of it, that real truth that was the Grail, the New Jerusalem, the Isles of the Blest; and all of the writers of our fantastic, horrific, or scientifictive canon have looked for it: Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Machen, Blackwood, Yeats, and all the rest of that goodly company. And we with them.

If with this comes realisation that what appears to be an escape is really a quest, then let it also be remembered that the same magic transforms the boredom or agitation with which we struggle into something greater than itself: into the very adversity against which all heroes and heroines must struggle. In a word, it is that "wilderness of Wirral" which Sir Gawain had to win through, ere he could find the Green Chapel, and therewith his destiny and his honour. As did he, we must war at whiles with worms, "and with wolves also, at whiles with wood-trolls that wander in the crags..."

Should we manage to persevere in this glorious quest, we shall find truth, and with it that freedom which we are told truth will bestow. It is that same freedom of which a taste here in this world of types and shadows was given to Richard Lovelace, as he sat imprisoned in the Tower by the Puritans for his loyalty to King Charles I:

When love with unconfine'd wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
And fetter'd to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
Know no such liberty.
When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty grief in wine we steep,
When healths and draughts go free---
Fishes that tipple in the deep
Know no such liberty.
When, like committed linnets,
I With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how great should be,
Enlarge'd winds that curl the flood,
Know no such liberty.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron walls a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my heart am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

And so, my very good Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen, I pray that we all of us find that truth, that beauty, and that freedom which reigns, in the words of Tolkien, "in Elvish lands beyond the Lune, green and quiet." May we all escape the gaol, and may this banquet we have enjoyed be a foreshadowing of our mutual attendance at the one spoken of by Aquinas in his sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem : "Thou, the wisest and the mightiest, Who us here with food delightest, Seat us at Thy banquet brightest, With the blessed Thou invitest, An eternal feast to spend." The escape must be made, the quest undertaken, along the "hidden paths which run, towards the Moon or to the Sun." Do not fear the jibes of those who do not understand; search for that Grail, look for that El Dorado: as Master Elrond told the Fellowship of the Ring ere they set out, "You will meet many foes, some open, and some disguised; and you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it." Good luck on the journey, and God bless you all.

Do not fear the jibes of those who do not understand; search for that Grail, look for that El Dorado: as Master Elrond told the Fellowship of the Ring ere they set out, "You will meet many foes, some open, and some disguised; and you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it." Good luck on the journey, and God bless you all.

Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is an American Catholic author, historian, and lecturer who is known for his advocacy of monarchism. Mr. Coulombe has a weekly podcast where people ask him all sorts of questions on religion, culture, politics and history.
Loading Comments