December 9, 2018

Deep Reading Fantasy: Escapism and Sovereignty

Sometimes, after sunset, I sit in a comfortable armchair with a paperback fantasy novel and a cup of black coffee in my favorite mug. My old cat curls on my lap. And then I pass into another dimension, another time, and another place, where immutable laws lose their potency. I climb my Spiral Tower.

Some would argue that climbing the Spiral Tower is a waste of time. Too much reading, particularly of fantasy and science fiction, is no less a distraction than binge-watching a show. Not so. The mental and creative demands of reading fiction are minuscule compared to watching television. And reading to enrich one's interior life cultivates a powerful habit of allegorical and imaginative thinking. As one deep reads a physical book, particularly fantasy, one becomes producer, director, and editor using the medium of the mind. Moreover, one inoculates oneself against orthodoxy and develops mindwisdom (empathy). This doesn't happen when one passively consumes other media, where, arguably, the aesthetic decisions have all been made.

From a political perspective, too much reading of escapist fantasy is problematic as well. The individual is trapped by their book, like a fly in a spider's web, and their inescapable political relationship to others is ideologically sidelined. Even worse, they have shirked their duties to this world. One's attention is dangerously fixed on an unreal drama, fake people--mere constructs of literary language--even as our actual world, other actual people, are burning, changing, for better or worse: ecological disaster, political turmoil, technological progress, and other transformative tides continue coming in, while the reader, irresponsibly, holds tight to boards and pages.

Taken together: how can one devote so much time to deep reading fantasy?

But what are the alternatives? One could refuse fantasy for consumption and production. One could leave Middle Earth and labor, help the economy, and animate it with one's productive activity. Or, one could become an activist in a great cause. One could organize others, make speeches, protest, and so forth.

You should counter, "This is a false dichotomy. The choice isn't between economic production and political activism. It's a spectrum. And reading can be plotted on that spectrum. Reading can serve the poles of either ideal. There are plenty of hours in the day, and dedicating a few to reading isn't that big of deal."

To an extent, I agree; however, this rhetorical move risks diminishing the essence of deep reading fantasy.

J.R.R. Tolkien said something apropos to this in his 1939 lecture, "On Fairy-Stories" where he compares reading fantasy to mentally escaping from prison: "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?" Why should he be scorned?

I agree with Tolkien though I take issue with his allegory of a prison. Deep reading secondary world fantasy is a radical escape from the ordinary and the order of the day into one's own world, not the author's. J.R.R. Tolkien opened the gateway to Middle Earth, but you create it as you read. Seen in the right light, deep reading is an epideictic act of sovereignty.

In contrast to a prison, I propose the the allegory of a sorcerer dwelling in his Spiral Tower. The story goes, the sorcerer built a stone tower that spiraled very high into the stars. At the highest level was a library of eld tomes, dusty scrolls, and ancient codices. The only way to get to the library was to climb many spiraling stairs.

What mysterious doings of the sorcerer, so incarcerated in that self-imposed aerie of stone...?

Clark Ashton Smith captured the sublimity of reading fantasy, its intimate relationship to sovereignty, in part II of his poem, "The Star-Treader":

Who rides a dream, what hand shall stay!
What eye shall note or measure mete
His passage on a purpose fleet,
The thread and weaving of his way!