Dr. Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor,” will offer a keynote talk at TexMoot on the conference theme. Here is an abstract for his address:
“Release from Bondage”
In “On Fairy-stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien explains his concept of “Escape.” What he articulates in that talk is sometimes misunderstood, so I will begin by defining and exploring this term and its exact scope as Tolkien presents it. Next, I will look at how Tolkien’s stories appeal to and utilize that idea, bringing it to life in narratives and in characters. The Lay of Leithian, subtitled “Release from Bondage,” is a significant story of Escape of various kinds. Without the context of both the subtitle and Tolkien’s principle of Escape from “On Fairy-stories,” it is impossible to fully grasp the meaning of the story of Beren and Lúthien. Therefore, I will explore the ways in which he embodies these ideas about Escape and release in this seminal story, then turn to The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn tells the tale of Beren and Lúthien under Weathertop, and the story about release from bondage has a powerful impact upon the characters who hear it. This central narrative recurs at the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, when Sam ponders the significance of old stories to the one he and Frodo are currently enacting. Examining the tale of Beren and Lúthien in these three iterations serves as a case study for how Tolkien’s concept of Escape is embodied within his stories, and then how the reception of these stories affects listeners and readers. Finally, I will turn to a book by Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis: The Last Battle, where Lewis confronts the question of escape from Death. In a surprising turn, his characters make the Great Escape by not escaping from Death. Due to this bold narrative choice, many readers have found this final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia strange, bizarre, or morbid. But such a reading utterly misses the point. Having looked at Escape, what it is, how it works, and the effect of hearing stories of escape, I will close by pointing out how this renewed perspective enables a powerful reading of The Last Battle and the biggest escape question of all: our relationship with Death and with the entire mortal life. Lewis’s unexpected answers to these questions of escape prompt readers to apply the principles of nightfall in Narnia to their own lives, by equating the end of the Chronicles with the beginning of their own story.