Escapism

es·cap·ism [i-skey-piz-uhm]–noun

the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.

(dictionary.com)

Above is probably the most common conception about escapism.  It is often used in the strongest criticism against fantasy.  However, when you think about it, and really study the definition, escapism applies to all realms of literature.  In nonfiction the read escapes to another reality of the past or of another person.  In fiction, to a fictitious place or series of events to meet a fictitious cast of characters.  When you think about it, all art, of any kind or medium, can be considered escapist.  In any entertaining or artistic endeavor, the participant leaves the reality of his or her time, place or experience.  But not wholely so.

I would argue that escapism is not an avoidance of reality, though it may appear so on the surface, but fleeing towards reality.  In our modern world, much about everyday life and the world at large remains subconscious, unseen and unappreciated.  Escapism is not an avoidance of reality.  If that were so, everyday we live in a state of escape.  Escapism is better seen as a clarification of reality, the evokation of reality.  It is the moment we cast off the shackles and blinders of modern society to truely see the world and study our life.

In literature, the reader is guided through a story, often through a world much like our own.  Here we finally see the wonders of our world.  By “escaping” we find a deeper understanding of our innermost thoughts and values, we rediscover the world we’ve grown accostomed to.  In life we become so inured to it all, everything becomes comonplace, everything is washed out.  In the arts, in fantasy, in escapism we can find release.  It awakens the senses from the slumber of familiarity, making the whole world new in our sight. 

Escapism is most definitely not something to be rejected.  It should be embraced as the last vestige and path to the wonders of our world. 

Thinking of this brings to mind the first Elves, born of the banks of the Cuivienen.  They awoke in awe and wonder, finding all fair and beautiful to behold.  Through literature, especially Tolkien’s works, the reader can escape and return as one reborn to the beauty of the world.

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Samwise Gamgee: True Hobbit, Unlikely Hero

Samwise Gamgee is the only ordinary hobbit of the four.  Frodo is a Baggins, part Took and raised in Buckland.  Merry is a Bucklander and Pippin is a Took.  All are in some way associated with the “un-hobbitlike” behaviors.  Tooks have always been considered odd and prone to adventuring.  Bucklanders are odd for their liking of boats.  Also Buckland, to some hobbits, is outside the Shire, being across the Brandywine and under the shadow of the Old Forest.  Sam, on the otherhand, has no predispositions or oddities excepting a desire to see elves.

Sam is essentially the exemplar hobbit.  He has an aversion for adventure and boats, all he wants is to lead a simple life with a garden of his own.  Even his name is against him; Samwise means “halfwit.”  This is what makes Sam’s commitment and strength in the quest so outstanding.  He has no special virtues or abilities.  He is just a plain hobbit, with much hobbit sense.  His lowly station sets the stage for his unparalled devotion and love for Frodo.

This is what makes Sam so different.  He is like us, unwilling and unprepared for adventure.  His greatest asset is his love and loyalty.  If not for Frodo, Sam would never have left the Shire.  If not for Sam, Frodo would have never made it to Mount Doom.

This is why I think Sam is so often overlooked, for his “hobbitness.”  He is ordinary in a field of extraordinary characters.  The extraordinary deeds of Aragorn or Gandalf are plausible, their abilities coincide with their actions.  Sam’s actions, on the other hand, so exceed expectations they’re almost hard to believe.  He’s so ordinary it’s often hard not to overlook him.  And yet, in many ways, he is the heart and soul of the story.

Why I do what I do

Why do I bother with these posts?  Why complain about movies that have been out for years?

To me, the answer is simple: for the love of Tolkien’s works.  While the movies can be breath-taking and exciting, they are also riddled with flaws and blatant misinterpretations of the text.  I don’t “rant and rave” to complain, rather I try to express the shortcomings of the films in a logical, pseudo-scholarly way to (hopefully) heighten awareness and enjoyment of the books.  Everywhere too much focus and energy is spent on the films.  My hope is to redirect that focus back to the origin: Tolkien’s work.

Also, I’ve found, in writing these posts and planning future ones, that maintaining this blog requires me to think more deeply about Tolkien’s writings; often leading to new and intriguing observations.  The Lord of the Rings is so full of meaning, themes and ideas.  Thinking deeply about it deeply reveils new insights, which reawaken the excitement and novelty of the books.  Too often, I and others, read solely for enjoyment.  For most novels, this is enough; and it can be as well for Lord of the Rings.  However, in reading Tolkien deeply, new vistas open, new treasures are found, intricacies and beauties reveiled.   For me, Tolkien’s work only gets better in the rereading and rereading and study.

As an update:  I have yet to begin another true post.  The new semester begins next week, so I’ll probably decrease my posts to about once a week.  I hope any of you reading have enjoyed my posts and found new wonders in Tolkien’s work.

Happy Despair

One of my favorite scenes from the book has always been the coming of the Captains of the Outlands to the aid of Minas Tirith.  It is a moment of expectation and excitement.  It is a moment of joy and happiness in the dark of impending doom, countered by the desperate realization that too few have come.  Danger presses on all sides, cutting off help; diminishing Gondor’s full strength by preventing a united front.  Yet, even in disappointment, “‘every little is a gain'” (Tolkien 753).  Here at the Gate, is a scene of hope countered cruelly by despair. 

This scene strikes a chord.  It evokes vibrant sensations of the tramping of feet, proud trumpets, proud knights and barely shrouded fear.  Here at the Gate, more than any other moment in the siege of Gondor, is the desperation of the War more keenly felt.  The Captains come, risking what few men they can, in fear their homes are being destroyed behind them.  Yet they still come, proud and brave.  They remain loyal. 

Among so many exemplars of courage, this one is my favorite.  The tension has been building, building so great it’s hard to bear.  The coming of the Captains seems a final breath, a relief from the darkness.  But it is a thin and wavering light.  In intense expectation we watch the Captains come with the watchers at the Gate, frantically counting their numbers with them….and finding them achingly small.  It is a moment of happy despair. 

I would have loved to see this depicted in the film.  It is a scene of such power and poignancy, which never fails to give me chills. 

PS.  I am going to be away for about a week, on vacation…so no posts for a while.  I hope to get some work done on “Frodo, Gollum and the Ring,” dealing with the nature of Gollum’s taming, oath and whether Frodo ‘failed’.  This post has been on my mind for a long time, and will require research and quotes…so I thank any readers for your patience.

The purpose of Tom Bombadil, revisited

Here is what Tolkien had to say on the subject:

“‘…even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are.  Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).'” (Tolkien, Letter 144, p 174)

So, in reality, whether Bombadil has a purpose or not is beside the point.  He is meant to be unresolved.  Like the scattered references to the Silmarillion, Bombadil is supposed to inflame our curiosities.  He is there because he is part of the fabric of Middle Earth.  Who he is, or why he’s there is not the question.  He is there to evoke wonder and awe; to bring to life the mythical, through the power of the unexplained.

Tolkien continues in other letters:

“‘Tom Bombadil is not an important person-to the narrative.  I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’….if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take you delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means to power quite valueless….Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive.  Nothing would be left for him in a world of Sauron.'” (Tolkien, Letter 144, p 179)

“‘I don’t think Tom needs to philosophizing about, and is not impoved by it.  But many have found him and odd or indeed discordant ingredient.  In historical fact I put him in because I had already ‘invented’ him independently…and wanted an ‘adventure’ on the way.  But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out…..he is then an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture….Also T. B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him….The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not delusion-but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of the Universe.*'” (Tolkien, Letter 153, p 192) (*my italics)

The last statement above is, to my mind, the most important of all.  Tom Bombadil exists as a mythical element, an enigma not meant to be solved.  He also defines the one moment when the Ring no longer has power, is not the center of everything…to show there are other things in the world, for Good and for Ill.

Visions of depth

Throughout the Lord of the Rings, the reader finds many references back to distant ages and forgotten lands.  These references anchor the story firmly into Middle Earth and the world of the Silmarillion.  The Lord of the Rings is a giant tapestry.  Scattered throughout are small holes, windows to a mural behind.  In these frames open scenes of magnificent and perplexing beauty.  The work is shrouded in mists, beyond grasp, yet achingly intriguing.  As the tapestry unfolds, the reader finds these holes, dimly perceiving the gossamer threads which bind the tapestry and mural as one. 

Guardians, and the purpose of Tom Bombadil

I understand why Tom Bombadil and the Barrowdowns were cut from the films.  To most, they appear to be an add-on, useless and pointless.  However, this could not be farther from the truth.  They have a purpose, if somewhat obscure.

In the beginning, the hobbits are neither prepared nor mature enough to face the cruelties and evils of Middle Earth.  Therefore, for much of the book, they rely on Guardians.  First, when confronted with the Black Riders, they find the elves.  Then Farmer Maggot.  These are relatively weak and passing examples, but equal to the level of peril.  

After leaving the Shire, the hobbits are alone in the Old Forest, which leads them to the Withywindle and Old man Willow.  It is a danger none of them understand or grasp fully, with no clear solution or salvation.  Thus, enters Tom Bombadil.  Even after the knowledge of Bombadil is imparted and they’ve had their first tastes of danger, the hobbits are still caught by the Barrow-wight.  Tom comes to save them again. 

It is important to note, upon the parting of Tom and the Hobbits, their reluctance to be parted.  They long for the safety, the security he offers.  It was the same in the Shire.  It is what they have always been used to: an easy life, with little fear.  But now fear has found them and they do not know what to do.

Tom Bombadil is replaced by a long line of Guardians and caretakers: Aragorn, Glorfindel, Gandalf and the others of the Fellowship.  Each watches out for the hobbits.  Yet, in the end, the hobbits are separated momentarily from a guardian.  Merry and Pippin are captured by the Uruk-hai.  They manage quite well, finding and using courage they did not know they had.  Frodo and Sam also no longer have a guardian and manage to navigate the Emyn Muil.  However, again, they find guardians.  Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard.  Sam and Frodo meet Gollum.  What is key to notice here, is the stature of these guardians.  They grant more freedom and responsibility to the hobbits, especially in the case of Gollum. 

Even so, the most important point to make is that the hobbits only have “guardians” until the moment(s) that really matter!  Sam and Frodo are left alone in Shelob’s lair.  Sam is left alone after Frodo is taken by the orcs of the tower.  Pippin is alone against the madness of Denethor’s madness.  Merry is alone to strike the Witchking.  It is during these moments when the reader finally sees the true mettle and indomitable strength and courage of each hobbit. 

The parting of Gandalf and the hobbits is the most important moment in the growth of Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo.  Here, finally, they are forced to see the change in themselves; to stop relying on others and take up their burdens on their own, knowing they are now capable. 

“’I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be.  I am not coming to the Shire.  You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.  Do you not yet understand?  My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk do so.  And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help.  You are grown up now.  Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’” (974 Tolkien)

So Bombadil has a purpose, a very important one!  He, and the other guardians, is there to guide and teach the hobbits.  They could be seen as instructors, easing the hobbits towards self-reliance.  The guardians are crucial to the plot.  In part, Lord of the Rings is not just a story of good versus evil, epic battles, or virtue, but a story about growth.