How fantasy crept back into the cultural mainstream

"Fantasy and fairy tales work as elemental forms," he observed, "and they're very powerful." Powerful enough, I proposed by citing the example of the fellow at the weekly Tolkien readings, to survive an insult to the brain. "That says a lot," replied Klein. "The folk experience is odd, right? That suggests that mythic memory resides somewhere specific, and whatever part of the brain was damaged, this story had migrated somewhere else. It could not be erased."

If it's unfashionable to talk about master narratives, it is even more so to suggest that they may have a biological basis. But looking for universalism in fantasy makes sense; and it helps explain the cross-cultural appeal of Tolkien and company (although I'm not sure anything can explain why people risk persecution for doing re-enactments from Tolkien's dense backstory novel, The Silmarillion, in, say, Kazakhstan). And it establishes a kind of human bedrock at the bottom of the postmodern pit. You can only dismantle so much truth, history, science and progress before the world becomes completely alienating. "In some way, maybe we're beyond modernism and postmodernism altogether," Professor Klein suggested. "It's the oldest impulse of all—we need some kind of sublime identity, something to describe our disquiet, and postmodernism in the end doesn't do that. But mythic stories and fantasies do fulfill this need."

So it may be no irony, then, that fantasy became popular just as its themes were coming under intellectual attack. As postmodernism was busy demystifying, fantasy proposed, or rekindled, a replacement set of mythic forms. Fantasy offers one way to take meaning out of the meaningless. Because what makes Frodo, or any fantasy hero, continue the quest is trust in some kind of eternal order, a conviction that the world is not absurd. It is a statement of faith. The quest's end also promises to restore faith—faith in the moral or cosmic order, and ultimately faith in oneself.

That's not to say that every glossy fantasy paperback is transcendent literature. Even fans will admit much of the genre is abysmal. When Yale professor Harold Bloom charges that Harry Potteris formulaic and unchallenging, he's right. Harry's unexpected transit to magic school and ensuing exploits are an escape; Frodo's movement through Middle-earth and the ongoing confrontation of his and others' frailties is anything but. To use Tolkien's term, the sub-creation of good fantasy is an uncommon gift. Tolkien himself insisted that a primary task of fantasy was not escapism but Escape. In fact, he made it a matter of definition: Escape is not flight, but an engagement of reality at a higher level. Entering the Secondary World allows clearer perception of ours, the Primary World—moments when you can glimpse the "sudden joyous 'turn'" and "see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater."

Fantasy is a way of escaping the limits of our present selves. To call it escapist, in the pejorative sense, is to miss the point. Fantasy, after all, is often inspired by our earliest stories, the great epics, which are themselves fantasy works, replete with journeys, monsters and heroes. At the level of Tolkien, fantasy fiction provides an invented cosmogony as complete as any derived from shared human experience. Here, fantasy is fundamental—even ontological: it presents meaning, a structured and ordered universe. Ted Sherman, a Tolkien scholar at Middle Tennessee State University, describes this appeal as longing: "We want vastness. People want more to life than what they see around them, and that's what fantasy delivers."

Indeed it does. I just saw The Lord of the Ringsfilm, and vastness is the consistent timbre resonating from the screen. Here, for the first time, an audience really does get a visual sense of the immense intricacy of Middle-earth. Eons fade into every horizon, and tension builds in Wagnerian tones; whether Frodo is riding toward Rivendell or descending into the Mines of Moria, the mood signature is always de Profundis—from the depths. But silhouetted against the imaginative density of this world is the complex of characters, caught between fate and the consciousness of that fate, tracing a moral path along the way. Although Tolkien may not have approved, this film adaptation of his work rises to what Tolkien meant by fantasy. It is a world the spectator can enter, where the symbols invite identification, and the Secondary World is complete enough for the visitor to gaze back at himself and receive that "joyous 'turn'": an ecstatic catharsis in which we see our own destinies magically mirrored in those of the characters we see on the screen.

And that's what fantasy is for, right? "After all," one fan said to me recently, "we all have that ring we have to get to Mordor."

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