How fantasy crept back into the cultural mainstream

This level of elaboration explains why the most successful fantasylands can be inhabited by their readers, in an almost literal sense. And it's the key to well-designed role-playing games and video games as well; they lay out the boundaries of fantasy in precise, sometimes densely articulated rules, giving the imagination a controlled system but with room to maneuver. To do this successfully, Tolkien thought, was an almost spiritual achievement: he called the process "sub-creation," and he meant it—the sub-creator is the Creator of his world. At this level, he wrote, fantasy is "not a lower, but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent."

That's quite a claim for a genre that is hardly viewed as art at all by many critics, academics and publishers. Since Tolkien's books appeared, fantasy has been controversial. Reviewing The Lord of the Ringsin 1954, W.H. Auden, noted, "I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it."

One who couldn't was Edmund Wilson. Writing in The Nation in 1956, Wilson called the novel, which he had just read aloud for his daughter, "a combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh." In what may have been the first skirmish of the culture wars involving swords and sorcery, Wilson concluded that there must be something about the British that makes them go for "juvenile trash."

If Wilson was dismissive, others were alarmist. In 1983, an editor at The Partisan Review thought she detected a tilt toward fantasy in the mainstream, and she was very worried. Concerned about the "intellectual chaos" that will reign when the sun sets on rationality, she quoted Daniel Bell opining that the rise of fantasy is part of the collapse of the Enlightenment, and she herself called it "a symptom of a profound crisis in Western thought."

Other naysayers point to the taint of feudalism in fantasy, which often re-creates worlds with a medieval social order—an augmented Chain of Being with the familiar lords, heroes and commoners, as well as new echelons for elves, dwarves, wizards or whatever creatures the author chooses. This is part of the larger charge made that fantasy literature is reactionary. You can see the signs in Tolkien's founding texts: a suspicion of technology, a slightly troubling treatment of culture and races, a wistfulness for the halcyon days of old.

But the idea of fantasy as a conservative ruse fails to explain why The Lord of the Ringsboom began with the counterculture. Tolkien's works, as well as those of his serious heirs in the genre, do not simply replace the modern world and its troubles with a pre-modern enchanted paradise. They depict vexing questions, often in the midst of immense social transformations. "Remember," cautioned a member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society one night when I was at their Burbank clubhouse, "fantasy worlds are usually not static. In The Lord of the Rings, the fantasy age was ending. The elves were leaving. The fourth age, the age of men and technology, was approaching."

It's central to fantasy that the charmed world is inevitably ending—the official term for this is "thinning." This sense of transience makes the genre, in the eyes of its supporters, very modern, even radical. But it is also true that the change is usually greeted reluctantly; the specter of modernity's unwelcome arrival is part of the dramatic tension behind the quest. The reader—as much as the melancholy hero—doesn't want to see the old order disappear. In that sense, fantasy fits right in with the tradition of art simultaneously reflecting and counteracting its time.

In this vein, it is also tempting to talk about today's fantasy moment as an escape from the opening salvo of what may prove to be a very messy 21st century. But that may be too easy: fantasy has been around for decades, and this season's films were in post-production long before Sept. 11. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that the emotional disruption of the attacks will only accelerate the rising currency of fantasy. Jane Chance, a medievalist and Tolkien scholar at Rice University, told me that she was recently invited by the Jung Foundation to participate in a panel discussing The Lord of the Ringsas a mythic response to Sept. 11. Jung believed in the collective unconscious, the idea that we all tap into the same set of symbols when dreaming. These archetypes, which we know subconsciously, also appear in most literature. They are all present in The Lord of the Rings, and the Jungians, according to Chance, are interested in how Tolkien's works could be applied therapeutically.

Jung's theory was also the basis for much of Joseph Campbell's work; his mono-myth concept is sort of a narrative version of the collective unconscious—all people tell (and want to hear) the same stories. This is why you can draw a straight thematic line from The Lord of the Ringsand Star Wars to Beowulf, The Iliadand The Odyssey. I was talking about this recently with Norman Klein, a professor at CalArts whose upcoming book is about special-effects environments from the 16th century to the present.

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