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Wolf in a White Van: Effective Escapism

Last year I read John Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van. Though his first major literary work, I have been a long-time fan of Darnielle’s band the Mountain Goats, through which his ability to craft short but emotionally nuanced stories has been consistently demonstrated through his role as the songwriter and lyricist.

As such, I approached the book with high expectations and was pleased to find it did not disappoint. The story Darnielle has crafted is one which is psychologically incisive and strangely unnerving. Yet what stayed with me the most was the way in which the novel examines the power of escapism.

Wolf in White Van focuses on the first person experiences of Sean, a young man recovering from a violent incident which left him hospitalised and requiring facial reconstructive surgery. As a way of passing the time and distracting himself from his injuries, Sean develops Trace Italian, a play-by-mail, choose-your-own-adventure game. Players are tasked with surviving a post-apocalyptic desert landscape whilst searching for the titular Trace Italian, a vast fortress which provides refuge from the brutal conditions outside.

Trace Italian provides Sean with an escape from his immediate surroundings and a coping mechanism for the painful and constrained situation he finds himself in, but even despite Darnielle’s love for all things fantastical, he is not afraid to explore the negative side of such escapism through the book. Sean seems to be aware that his creation offers no ultimate solutions other than a temporary distraction from the player’s immediate surroundings. He confides to the reader that reaching the centre of Trace Italian (the eventual purpose of the game) is impossible, leaving the experience one of endless searching, with no hope of a satisfactory conclusion. Furthermore, when one of his players decides to give up half-way through by committing suicide he treats his decision with a respectful admiration, noting that “He had made the right move.”

All of this got me thinking about the purpose and value of escapism. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy’ escapism can come in many forms. Arguably sports, espionage thrillers and romantic comedies can all fulfil this role. However, when I think of the term it’s often Dungeons & Dragons or science fiction that comes to mind, possibly because their fantastical and otherworldly settings provide a more obvious counterpoint to our own. And whilst nerd culture is becoming increasingly commonplace, it’s hard to ignore the old stereotypical view that the champions of these genres have traditionally been stigmatised as people who escape to fantastical realms to gain a degree of power or worth not afforded them in ‘the real world’.

The point of criticism is obvious. Such entertainment amounts to a kind of ‘emotional fast food’, artificially fulfilling our hunger (for power, importance, nobility, adventure) whilst providing nothing of real substance.

However, there is another way to look at it. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, for example, espoused a very different kind of escapism. Few would deny the artistic value of The Lord of The Rings and Narnia series, but what elevates them above the cheap and short term fixes many associate with escapism in general, and the genre of fantasy, in particular?

Firstly, I would argue that though the settings are fantastical and otherworldly, The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series portray real human conflict and emotion within their fictional settings. Although Tolkien has argued that The Lord of The Rings is not an allegory for either of the world wars, the epic battles he portrayed mirror the actual conflicts which occurred during the writing process. Other real-world concerns echoed in the novels include the corrupting influence of power, the dangers of industrialisation and the importance of courage in the face of evil. Relatively speaking, the Narnia series has tended to operate on a smaller scale. However, the conflicts faced by the protagonists have remained engaging, relatable and believable, despite the inherent fiction in their premises. For instance, in discussing The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe fellow fantasy writer Lev Grossman notes:

“Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.“ (Source)

However, if the true value of these works is in the re-framing of ‘real’ conflicts and concerns within the context of a fantasy setting, what worth is the setting itself? Is all the talk of elves and dragons just a hook to get people invested? For Lewis, the role of fantasy was much more than this – it allowed for the suspension of disbelief, the entering of ‘another space’, removed from that which is familiar. Following this, Lewis (whose books were plainly but not offensively evangelistic -a rare thing indeed) used the space to communicate to the reader a ‘higher’ truth, one regarding the nature of good and evil and the presence of spiritual forces, without the reader becoming defensive and disengaging due to their own preconceptions on such matters. In discussing the value of using ‘Fairy-Stories’ to communicate spiritual truth, Lewis writes:

Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to. I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of the stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” (Source)

Arguably most modern readers would lack a sense of obligation to reverence concerning spiritual matters. However, most will have their own (often negative) preconceptions of Christianity, often dismissing its more fantastical elements (e.g. Jesus’ divinity & resurrection) offhand. However, I would argue that in wilfully choosing to enter an otherworldly space such as Narnia, we abandon our vice-grip on the need for complete rationalism and become accepting of events which make sense not according to strict scientific and logical consideration, but rather those which have an aesthetic and emotional cohesion. (FOOTNOTE 1)

Therefore for Lewis, the question is not ‘Is escapism acceptable?’ but ‘Where are you escaping to?’  For Tolkien, the answer to this was ‘to Joy’. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ he writes:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) in its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Source) (FOOTNOTE 2)

However, Tolkien also gave thought to where people were escaping from and why they had need to escape at all.

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. 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, 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, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”  (Source)

The ‘Prisons’ Tolkien primary discussed were the forces of fascism and communism operating at the time of writing. However, they could just as well apply to our own dominant world-views. Indeed, for Lewis himself, the fantasy writings of George MacDonald caused a ‘baptism of imagination’ which allowed him to ‘break free’ from the prison of his materialist world-view.

In an age in which materialist and post-modern narratives dominate, we need art to divulge truth about the world, ourselves and the nature of good and evil. The need for good to triumph over evil in our fantasy stories is because we have a sense deep down that this is true, yet it is not something that is necessarily self-evident from the world around us. Being honest in the workplace can earn us the ire of our superiors, making self-sacrificing purchasing decisions on ethical grounds can feel like a token gesture and a relative drop in the ocean. Bad things happen to good people and evil prospers. If there is truth to our basic instincts that a coherent and moral structure to the Universe exists, we need it to be validated by the art we engage in. Taken in this context, the ‘escapist’ literature of Tolkien and Lewis (among many others) becomes, in fact, a kind of ‘hyper-realism’ transporting us away from the illusory hallucinations we find ourselves confronted by (‘Humans are just DNA replicating machines’ / ‘truth and morality are socially constructed’) and into a place of emotional and spiritual truth surpassing that of our immediate surroundings. In the words of Lewis, effective escapism will give the reader a desire for “They know not what”:

“It stirs and troubles [the reader] (to their life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond their reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth’. They do not despise real woods because they have read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. (Source)


FOOTNOTE 1 Though we still like to think of ourselves as logical and scientific, in a ‘post-truth’ world, we are quickly abandoning the notion that people are driven primarily by rational thought and are re-learning the importance of emotion in people’s beliefs and decision-making. If we are to champion Christianity, the arts’ ability to portray this aesthetic and emotional ‘sense-making’ is something which will be undeniably valuable. After all, can anyone truly say that the idea of penal substitution is ‘logical’ more than it is beautiful?

FOOTNOTE 2 Interestingly, this quote echoes Sputnik favourite Flannery O’Connor and her discussion of ‘the moment of grace’ in her writing. However, in the stories of O’Connor, the ‘moment of grace’ operated on a much more individual and personal level than the cosmic event which Tolkien seems to be referencing.



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