How fantasy crept back into the cultural mainstream

©2001 New Line ProductionsWhen I was 12, I lost Grislor, Lord of the Half-Dark, somewhere inside the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. I had nurtured poor Grislor from a feeble little Prestidigitator to a powerful wizard 10th level with no cheating, if you want to know—and now he was gone: no retrieving the body; no chance of resurrection. If you're addicted to Dungeons & Dragons, losing your favorite character is like having a close friend move away. I was despondent.

"Tough luck," said another guy, maybe 20 years old with long hair, pointed bangs and a torn-up Triumph T-shirt. He reached into his canvas army-surplus backpack. "Here, man, you should check this out."

He slid a well-worn and coverless copy of a book across the table. "You can keep it." Between the scribbles and sketches on the frontispiece, I could make out the title: "The Fellowship of the Ring, being the first part of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien."

I read the Fellowshipstraight through in three days and then gave it to a friend, who did the same. Then I bought The Two Towersand The Return of the King, read those, gave them to the same friend, who passed them on, too. This is how the Tolkien tradition expanded outward like a literary Pascal's triangle, not only through Altadena but also from South America to China, selling 100 million copies in the process and introducing the world to the literature of fantasy. It's also how Harry Potter has become the most popular wizard since Gandalf. Parents and children transmit them to one another like sacred knowledge. Their recommendations are imperative: "You have toread Harry Potter. They're just magical." These types of books do more than build a community that shares enthusiasm—they turn people into missionaries. With Harry Potter, the resulting momentum has sold 50 million copies in the United States alone and made the latest installment the fastest-selling book ever.

Almost unnoticed, fantasy crept into the heart of the cultural mainstream. Today, The Lord of the Ringsconsistently places first in readers' polls as the best book of the 20th century, sometimes even the millennium. And Harry Potter is set to become the most successful publishing franchise in history. Beyond these two publishing phenomena, fantasy fiction colonized bookstore shelves, spawned Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing realms, and inspired countless digital quests, from Zork to the legend of Zelda. Even Beowulf is making a comeback. Seamus Heaney's new translation sold nearly a quarter-million copies in hardcover in 2000—an astonishing figure for a thousand-year-old epic poem—and Benjamin Bagby's recent Beowulf recitations in Anglo-Saxon were so popular he performed them twice.

This season, in the space of six weeks, several generations of fantasy fans will achieve the ultimate validation: their foundational texts have been turned into feature-length films. The groundbreaking opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone already pushed well beyond the record for a single weekend's gross, and Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Ringsseems poised for a similar performance. When New Line released the second trailer for The Fellowship of the Ringon the Web in September, its server received more than 3 million download requests in the first 24 hours—far more than there were for The Phantom Menacetrailer one year earlier and enough to temporarily disable the company's website.

This kind of enthusiasm is not just the fanaticism of fandom. It is part of the fantasy's profound pull—a power I witnessed a few weeks ago at the Valencia Barnes & Noble, where every Monday night, a group of Tolkien readers gathers to recite The Lord of the Rings aloud a page at a time. I sat near a young man who carried a walker and did not read when his turn came. With no prompting, he leaned over at one point and explained why: "Did I tell you the reason I don't read? I was in a car accident; that's why I can't walk. I also lost my memory. Friends, family"—he snapped his fingers—"all gone. And I lost the ability to read." Just as I was wondering how he could discuss Tolkien if he had lost both his memory and the ability to re-read the books, he added, "The reason I come here is that there is one thing I do remember, and that's Lord of the Rings."

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien loved language. He was a philologist and a devoted scholar of early Celtic and English tongues. At Oxford, Tolkien taught a famous seminar on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which he had translated, along with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and other medieval poems. Tolkien was known as a charming eccentric around the campus, not least of all for the ditties he used to write in Gothic, Icelandic, Middle Scots and Anglo-Saxon, which he mimeographed, distributed and exhorted his fellow professors and students to sing. He was also a central member of the Inklings, an informal Oxford club that included C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams and would meet at Oxford pubs to discuss and read various works and poems, both ancient and their own.

Next Page »

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!