We gotta get out of this place
If it's the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
'cause girl, there's a better life for me and you.
– The Animals
Along with reading good stories, I’ve always enjoyed watching good movies, especially when they are full of imagination, drama, and adventure. Consider the classic World War II movie, The Great Escape. It has everything a good book has in spades: a band of quirky, clever, and quick witted Allied servicemen, led by Steve McQueen, memorable lines and actors, comedy, suspense, and action. And most importantly, there’s the tension and drama of the escape from the Nazi POW camp. As one of the soldiers says:
It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.
Escape, wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, is the second essential function of a fairy story. In words that parallel Ramsey’s in The Great Escape, Tolkien writes, “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 topics other than jailers and prison-walls?”
Tolkien’s own experience in World War I looms in the background as he describes the function of escape in his essay On Fairy Stories. You can see the soldiers huddled in the muddy trenches of the Somme, feel the ground shudder from the mortar blasts, and hear the machine guns rip holes in the tranquil morning air.
Escape, as Tolkien understood it, is different from escapism, however. Too often readers, writers, and critics mistake “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” For Tolkien, however, this is a confusion of words. Escape is not a pejorative word when used properly. Rather, it is an essential theme in a good story. Escape is not cowardice, but courage in the face of great peril. Escape does not take the reader out of the world but calls our attention to what is permanent and fundamental in this world and the next. Escape is not burying your head in the sand but seeing the world clearly. Escape in good stories helps us to see the rawness and ugliness of the life with all its pain, poverty, sorrow, and injustice; it fills us with a longing for escape from this broken and dying world. Escape is the “oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.”
Tolkien’s own stories bear this out. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins and the company of dwarves escape three Stone Trolls, the giant spiders in Mirkwood Forest, and the goblins under the Misty Mountains. Later, Bilbo escaped from Gollum and helped the dwarves escape captivity from the Wood-elves with the help of his new-found magic ring.
Escape is an essential theme in The Lord of the Rings as well. With the help of the mysterious Strider, Frodo Baggins and his friends escape the nine wring-wraiths, first in Bree, and again at Weathertop. Rivendell, the elven home of Elrond is itself an escape. It is a haven, a sanctuary of peace and protection from the dark and wicked world outside its borders. When the Fellowship leaves this safe harbor they narrowly escape the Balrog in the Mines of Moria thanks to Gandalf’s sacrifice. Soon after, they arrive in Lothlorien, a temporary, yet Edenic escape on their journey to Mordor to bring the Great Escape from death and destruction by destroying the One Ring.
Jesus is the great Houdini of the grave for us. And through His death He gives us the Great Escape from death that leads to the great joy of the Resurrection.
In Tolkien’s work, escape from great peril leads to great joy. Bilbo returns home to the Shire and Bag End. Frodo leaves Middle-earth for the Undying Lands in the West. The same is true in the great escapes of the Scriptures.
Israel escaped captivity in Egypt by the blood of the Paschal Lamb, the Red Sea crossing, and the Exodus. Rahab escaped the destruction of Jericho after helping Joshua’s men escape the king’s men. Jonah escaped the belly of the fish after three days.
The same Lord who provided all these escapes and more, stood with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of His transfiguration talking about His exodus which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). This is Jesus’ great escape, the great Exodus through death for you. That makes Jesus the greatest escape artist that ever lived, and died, and lived again.
Jesus, the Paschal Lamb shed His blood for our escape.
Jesus, the hope and lineage of Rahab, took our destruction on the cross to provide for our escape.
Jesus, the greater Jonah, spent three days and nights in the belly of the earth so that on the Day of Resurrection the grave will spit us out into one final Escape.
Jesus is the great Houdini of the grave for us. And through His death, He gives us the Great Escape from death that leads to the great joy of the Resurrection.