Any true fan of Fantasy is well aware of the quote "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?...If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" Indeed, I have used it here on this mostly humble blog any number of times. Yet today I learned a frankly startling fact. That despite all one reads across the internet, even in such places as Goodreads, this quote was not said by J.R.R. Tolkien. Almost.
Almost? How can a person almost not say something? Did Tolkien say it nor not? Well, the answer is he both did and did not. Technically speaking, he did not. Here is the whole quote:
"The oldest argument against SF [Sci-Fi] is both the shallowest and the profoundest: the assertion that SF, like all fantasy, is escapist. This statement is shallow when made by the shallow. When an insurance broker tells you that SF doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit the canons of Socialist Realism, and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer is given by Tolkien, author, critic, and scholar. Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the know-nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can."
The writer is none than the late Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Earthsea Cycle and The Annals of the Western Shore (& the woman to whom I owe my own Cynnahu Saga), as part of her collection of essays published in 1979 entitled The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. So why is the quote credited to Tolkien, particularly since Le Guin is among the most respected Fantasy authors who ever lived? Well, as one can see, in the quote she is paraphrasing Tolkien, specifically his comments on escapism in his On Fairy-Stories essay (which I highly recommend):
"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. 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." – J.R.R. Tolkien
In sum, despite Le Guin making it clear that she is paraphrasing Tolkien, the lion's share of the original quote is 99% of the time credited as a direct quotation from J.R.R.Tolkien – and with an exclamation point tacked onto the final sentence. So, is it a Tolkien quote? Almost. Technically he did not say it, but it is someone else directly paraphrasing something he did say (the quote of a paraphrasing of another quote, as it were) making it arguably more of a Tolkien quote than a Le Guin one insofar as the content goes. I am not going to split hairs here, but I think we can all agree that Le Guin clearly paraphrased Tolkien brilliantly seeing as 99% of the world believes it to be a literal, verbatim quote of his. Also, it is easier crediting it to Tolkien than writing the following:
"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?...If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" – Ursula K. Le Guin paraphrasing J.R.R.Tolkien
(Side note: This is my 500th post on Stars Uncounted!)