Fantasy: Gaiman’s American Gods and Tolkien’s The Hobbit Essay (Critical Writing)
Updated: Nov 25th, 2020
Does fantasy encourage escapism, or does it help us think through important real-world issues?
Fantasy literature has many peculiar features, one being the possibility that in the process of reading, the reader will be relocated from the world of reality into a new world that offers unknown surroundings, unexplored feelings, and unfamiliar people. Some of the texts studied in this trimester are excellent examples of this sort of opportunity for escapism. At the same time, when reading these pieces, subtle indications of hopelessness and desperation are discernible even in fairy tales. The present paper argues that even though it is written as a fantasy, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods inspires the reader to ponder crucial real-world issues.
The first indication of the impossibility of escaping from reality becomes evident as the book begins. The first thing the reader finds out about the main character, Shadow, is that he has been released from prison (Gaiman, 2001). The acknowledgment of this serious, sad element of the character’s life circumstances reminds the audience of the inescapable nature of many circumstances in life.
Moreover, throughout the book, Shadow has no choice but to follow Mr. Wednesday and cannot leave his duties (Gaiman, 2001). The impossibility for the main character to do whatever he wants provokes the reader to think about his or her own life choices and the possibility of choosing freely. The author motivates the audience to contemplate the questions of freedom and independence as the major indicators of escapism.
Shadow’s search for personal meaning and identity is not depicted through escapism but is instead reflected through the limitations of myth. According to Blomqvist (2012), this character is the only “possible solution” to the dilemma of defining truth and knowledge (p. 5). Shadow is the key to understanding right and wrong as depicted “in the novel’s America” (Blomqvist, 2012, p. 5). Therefore, it is not reasonable to regard escapism as a viable option in this case. The main character conveys the meaning of a constant search for the self through the realization of his own “need to exist within a social context” (Blomqvist, 2012, p. 5). This indication reinforces the idea of the impossibility to escape since avoiding society makes it no longer possible to be a part of this context.
Therefore, although the major task of the protagonist in American Gods involves traveling in search of himself, escapism cannot be found in this journey. Shadow is constantly supervised and guided by Mr. Wednesday, making the mere idea of getting away from the situation impossible. Thus, the audience is not encouraged to think about avoiding a difficult period in life by any possible means. On the contrary, the book inspires those who read it to analyze the problematic situations in their lives as well as the frequent impossibility of avoiding these difficulties. Based on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, it is possible to conclude that fantasy literature inspires the reader to think about important real-world issues rather than avoid them.
How do fantasy texts engage with heroism, journey, or world building?
One of the most popular themes in fantasy literature is adventurous travel. Among the best representations of a fantasy literature journey is J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. The story not only involves traveling: the tale is itself a journey in the reading. The present paper argues that The Hobbit engages the idea of a journey within the literature that is filled with exciting destinations, intriguing plot twists, and the rich experience gained by its characters.
The idea of a journey first appears in the title of the book, the full version of which is The Hobbit, or There and back again (Tolkien, 1991). Thus, even before opening the book to peruse the first page of the text, the reader understands that some pilgrimage is about to be described. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is not a typical adventure book ─ the tale represents a unique and brilliant example of fantasy literature that was born in the middle of the 1930s (Atherton, 2012). The journey is not a part but a leitmotif of the story about Bilbo Baggins and his friends.
An important issue to note about The Hobbit is that it is not only ─ and not so much ─ the representation of an actual physical journey as it is the depiction of the so-called “hero’s journey”: the movement of a character through a series of hardships, after which he returns home a new man. In the case of Bilbo, the hero’s journey starts at his home when Gandalf interrupts the hobbit’s usual routine by inviting him to take part in an adventure (Tolkien, 1991). This stage of the structure is known as the call to adventure (“The hero’s journey,” n.d.). The rising action involves the characters’ movement through a series of challenges and hardships (Tolkien, 1991). The last part of the first half of the structure is known as “the abyss” (“The hero’s journey,” n.d.). In The Hobbit, this phase takes place in the caves where the main characters must contend with goblins, and Smaug and Bilbo are required to solve Gollum’s riddles.
The most prominent part of any hero’s journey is the climax. In The Hobbit, this event takes place in the Battle of Five Armies. While the reader might assume that Thorin is a more realistic hero since he, unlike Bilbo, is not afraid to fight against the enemy and does not retreat, when considering all the elements of the hero’s journey, Bilbo completes one more phase of the hero’s journey than Thorin ─ the former returns home, while the latter dies.
Therefore, Tolkien’s The Hobbit may be regarded as a journey book since its main character passes through all the phases of the hero’s journey. Although Bilbo is not the bravest hobbit, he still cherishes his friends and native land too much to disregard the invitation of leading them to a better future. While The Hobbit involves other crucial ideas, such as world-building and heroism, about Bilbo’s character, the notion of the journey surpasses all other themes.
Atherton, M. (2012). There and back again: J. R. R. Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit. New York, NY: I. B. Tauris.
Blomqvist, R. (2012). The road of our senses: Search for personal meaning and the limitations of myth in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature, 30(3), 5-26.
Carroll, S. (2012). Imagined Nation: Place and identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Extrapolation, 53(3), 307-326.
Gaiman, N. (2001). American gods: A novel. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Goldman, W. (2013). The princess bride: An illustrated edition of S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The hero’s journey. (n.d.). Web.
Slabbert, M., & Viljoen, L. (2006). Sustaining the imaginative life: Mythology and fantasy in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Literator, 27(3), 135-155.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1991). The Hobbit, or There and back again. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Watson, J. C., & Guidry-Grimes, L. K. (2016). I will never doubt it again. In R. Greene & R. Robinson-Greene (Eds.), The Princess Bride and Philosophy: Inconceivable! (pp. 77-84). Chicago, IL: Open Court.
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