Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Stories Are for So Much More Than Escapism

Stories Are for So Much More Than Escapism

If anyone is willing to sponsor it, I’ll embark on a PhD in literature tomorrow. My question: when did we start treating literature as escapism? This question obviously applies to stories more broadly, but I’m particularly interested in books. For while the medium of screens later combined with streaming services profoundly changed how we consume stories, mindless reading predates television and Netflix—and radio, for that matter. The uncritical and disengaged consumption of stories has certainly found an immense ally in our screens, only we were already mistreating stories when they arrived. In fact, I’d be tempted to argue that escapist reading paved the way for the success of streaming services.

With J. R. R. Tolkien I reckon stories are inseparable from our very existence. That is, they’ve been with us since the beginning—whenever you believe that was. To be human is in some senses to tell stories. But why? Why are do we incessantly share them? Put another way, what is their purpose?

Stories Serve a Greater Purpose Than Escapism

As things stand, my proposed PhD topic rests on certain presuppositions concerning the purpose of stories—as well as the right or most appropriate ways of engaging with them. And, I’m sure you can already tell, I don’t believe that this is escapism. 

Late last year I went as far as saying that labelling literature ‘escapist’ is denigrating. Alternatively, I suggested that if the highest commendation you can give a book is that it was “a perfect escape,” then that book was probably mediocre at best. Earlier in 2022 I wrote, riffing on the philosopher Peter Kreeft, that “the best stories aren’t those that take us out of our world but the kind that shed light on it and the human experience.” 

Still, I realise that I haven’t proven that escapism is indicative of lazy reading, or mediocre storytelling, or both. Nor have I demonstrated why it isn’t an appropriate way to engage stories. That being said it simply wasn’t the intention behind storytelling for millennia. Looking back over history we encounter: myth, fables, drama, cautionary tales, and philosophical or moral dialogue. Children might have listened to these with delightful abandon, but adults knew better. Stories steered nations. They instilled an identity. They offered a vision for society.

Stories throughout history were many things, but they weren’t for escapism.

Consider the Stories Within Watership Down

One my favourite novels is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Throughout it, the pilgrim rabbits share stories. If you were rushing through Watership Down, you’d probably conclude that these are nothing more than entertaining interruptions—much like the shows we gorge on today. However, if you’re reading carefully you’ll notice that each story Dandelion tells is carefully chosen for the particular point of their epic journey.

Sometimes the story is selected to bring about calm and quell fear. Others reiterate hope, helping the rabbits rest in what they know despite what they can’t. Then there are stories that inspire action, inviting them to imitate the great El-ahrairah. Finally repeated storytelling serves memory, so that the rabbits don’t forget what’s been done for them, by their forebears.

Again, the casual reader of Watership Down might conclude that Dandelion’s stories—typically told after yet another long, arduous day of their odyssey—function to help the rabbits forget their worries. The rabbits gather around their bard, Dandelion, in the evenings for another episode of their favourite show, El-ahrairah. But this only reveals something about our own habits, rather than Adam’s rabbits. And it’s not that we’ve traded in the bard for a screen, or some streaming service; our fundamental approach and expectation to the stories we consume is profoundly different. It’s profoundly different, both to stories told by Dandelion and the innumerable others heard throughout history.

By Stories We Escape the Illusions of Our Lives

Maybe you aren’t persuaded. In fact, my guess is that many aren’t; my argument is anything but watertight. So let me conclude with an appeal.

Answering critics of Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis wrote: “As for escapism, what we chiefly escape is the illusions of our ordinary life.” Only, the English churchman wasn’t endorsing escapist readings of Tolkien’s masterpiece. He was claiming that the work shed greater light on life and being. That is, Middle-earth wasn’t a fictional imagination to help us forget ours, but a profound commentary on reality—even revealing depths to this existence that our ordinary lives leave us blind to.

That brings me back to the ways most of us consume stories today. Sadly, we are indifferent to the power of stories to shape us; one might say, ignorant. This means at least two things, in conclusion. Firstly, we’re all being shaped unawares, even those of us who treat stories as a means of escapism. While we may be disengaged, we’re still being formed, possibly even deformed. Secondly, by reducing great stories to little more than an escape we both cheapen them and rob ourselves of opportunities for positive, thoughtful, not to mention, meaningful engagement.

Mindlessly consuming stories, therefore, leaves us doubly poorer. On the one hand, the undiscerning approach to story will be ignorant to the ways they’re perhaps forming us negatively; and, on the other, it deprives us of the many ways they can shape us positively.

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