Not long ago, a few friends and I traded in our mortal frames for a brief evening’s romp in the villain-soaked hills of Icewind Dale. We neutralized a goblin infestation, solved some puzzles, traded tongue-in-cheek Elizabethan and, when all was told, returned with that peculiar ‘fullness’ which proceeds from communal sub-creation.
Many have spoken, rightfully, of the dangers of escapism; but here I believe it’s important we distinguish between ‘escaping’ and ‘escapism.’
When we escape via sub-creation – that is, when we think, write, and speak of that what does not exist – we are scratching off some paint from the cerulean curtain to expose the vastness beyond. As we tell tales and weave stories, we discover a kind of oasis in a desert populated with indigestible, empirical scrub grass. Here we find Bilbo Baggins cresting the leafy canopy and, beyond the reach of Mirkwood’s stupefying illusions, discovering a cleansing breeze.
“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, thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls.”
But cruel thorns grow thick on either side of the ditch. Escape, when carelessly indulged, can soon start hanging out with that worrying ‘ism’ kid and become another animal entirely. Of these were Grimm’s twelve dancing princesses, whose nightly romps in a gilded forest nearly ended in the blurring of what was real, and what wasn’t.
When escape – whether through movies, books, trinkets, or games – becomes a knee-jerk reaction to the hardships of life, it becomes an understandable, but misguided plunge into diversion rather than resolution. It is planning a parade for the dragon-plagued village when everyone should attending a war-council. It is attempting to enjoy a moment in time when, in the back of our mind, we know it is all an illusion.
Escape cannot be your home. It may help remind you that there is more, but it cannot be that more. When you return to the real, you will find the exasperation is still there, the monotony of the job, the heart-wrenching decisions of a child, and all the varied responsibilities and weights of this world.
When Israel was in trouble, as they often were, they attempted to lean their full weight on the promise of aid from Assyria and Egypt. But these proved unworthy, treacherous staffs that ultimately “pierced their hand.” The solution to hard times is to not to downplay or magic them away, but to find a support that will bear up under them. For Israel and, I would argue, for us, this solution is to rest in the God who made us.
The other ditch (we seem to be in a cul-de-sac) is escape from maturity. In our age there is a tragic epidemic of young men who refuse to grow up, get married, have families, and hold down a steady job. In dark basements they linger like subterranean humanoids, submerged in virtual worlds, subsisting on a withering diet of party-mix and Hawaiian punch, simultaneously expanding outward and spiraling inward.
Here again, one finds the pretense of mission – the self-sacrificial hero, the band of brothers (see my thoughts on camaraderie here), the thrill of adventure – without any substance.
In the truly great stories, one rarely finds a hero who exists only to serve his own interests – when such a one does exist, we call him an anti-hero. That’s because, deep in every one of us, lies a spark reminding us that not to do the good we know should be done, is not the same thing as doing good. I say this because the battle-cry of the modern millennial is all too often, “Well, I’m not hurting anybody” – as if the mere act of existing were, in some way, heroic. As if the criteria for all decisions could be reduced to, “Does it leave another human being broken and bloodied in a ditch somewhere?”
We have fabricated a false dualism. There is evil, that is, hurting someone, and then there is everything else; we can’t really call it ‘good’, but it isn’t evil, so we tolerate, and perhaps even celebrate it. “Sure I may be financing my basement-dwelling son’s gradual devolution into a carpet-fungus, but, hey – at least he isn’t on a murderous, raping, rampage!”
Rant finished, back to the topic at hand.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy and Edmund finally reach the world’s end, Aslan the Lion opens a portal back to their own world and informs them this will be their last visit to the magical land of Narnia, in response they cry –
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
The children were never meant to live in Narnia – at least, not yet. They were only meant to stay long enough to perceive the already real things better in the real world.
Whatever our form of escape, here are the questions we must answer honestly: Do the true things seem true-er? Is the mission clearer? Do you emerge older? Can you see farther?
Can you come back again?