Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Colonizers of Dreams

For my birthday, I requested a copy of The Hobbit. My mother sent me the 1975 version owned by my grandparents, which I truly view as a family heirloom. I love old books, and this one, with its yellowed pages and $1.75 price tag, was the first copy of The Hobbit that I ever read, about eight or nine years ago. So naturally I was thrilled to learn that it had been bequeathed to me.

This month, I opened once again those hallowed pages, and stumbled upon a brief foreword which I’d ever bothered to read as a girl. Written on July 14, 1973, by Peter S. Beagle in Watsonville, California, the short paragraphs were rather astonishing in their poignancy and relevancy. Below is an excerpt:

“In terms of passwords, the Sixties were the time when the word progress lost its ancient holiness, and escape stopped being comically obscene. The impulse is being called reactionary now, but lovers of Middle-earth want to go there…For in the end it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

Part of what we love about Tolkien’s works is that they allow us the opportunity to slip out of our daily lives and jump into something utterly fantastical and exotic, but familiar all the same. We may not have furry feet or be three feet tall, but we empathize deeply with Frodo and Bilbo. This escape allows us to return with renewed vigor to the present.

Escape may have become a more viable alternative in the Sixties, yet I’m not sure it is still entirely accepted. However, if the term ‘escape’ was clearly defined, I think it would meet wholehearted acceptance. So I will seek to define it, because I believe that it is only through escape that we can hope to positively affect our world.

Productive escape is not a medically or chemically assisted escape, but an escape into beauty.

I’m talking about the kind of escape that comes when you take a long hike or devour a brilliant piece of literature. I’m talking about the escape that comes when you lose yourself in a painting or in the meticulous preparation of a birthday cake. It’s the escape that comes when you find beauty in little everyday moments or thunder and rain. I’m talking about imagination and rekindled wonder.

Redemption is the ultimate determining factor in escape. If something like a novel can fill me up with wonder and delight, a small part of me has been redeemed for goodness. I firmly believe in the idea of working to make the world a better place, even if I never see world peace in my lifetime, because what we do now affects what we will be in the next life. I believe that heaven will be affected by what we do on earth, and as we move toward redemption, we make heaven that much more beautiful.

Through this escape into beauty, we can return to the world to ease those who are suffering, because when we have that redemption in our hearts, we are nobler, kinder people. Escape into beauty isn’t irresponsible. It’s a way to transform ourselves into better people. When we escape into beauty, we feel compelled to share what we have learned with others, even if it is only through kindness.

Colonize can be a bad word these days. I like to think of it this way, in terms of Mr. Beagle’s quote: let us praise those who so capture the spirit of a dream in a way that can be shared with and enjoyed by others. Let’s praise those that share beauty with the world, that share laughter, and light.

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