Fantasyland

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.

Tolkien saw the great epics as vestiges of lost eras, with philology as the means to recover them. The structure and texture of the languages, he believed, contained worlds that could be reconstituted through reading. Tolkien applied the same principle to his works; he wanted his epics to sound authentic, like translations of lost sagas in arcane tongues, and so he constructed the whole or parts of 14 languages to serve as the vital font of the world he called Middle-earth. Tolkien started working on his linguistic inventions long before any of his stories took shape. Indeed, he wrote, "The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. I should have preferred to write in 'Elvish.'"

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was published in 1937. Although well-received as a children's book, The Hobbitwas not popular at first and didn't begin winning an audience until years later. Tolkien spent more than a decade writing his next novel, The Lord of the Rings, which was published in three parts between 1954 and 1955. It, too, caught on slowly, not taking off until the mid-1960s, when the books worked their way into the reading list of the counterculture movement. By 1965, enthusiasm for The Lord of the Ringsstampeded across British and American campuses. At UC Irvine, students briefly rallied behind an effort to name the school's mascot the Hobbit. That honor ultimately went to the anteater, but the university's first undergrad-housing community was christened Middle Earth. To this day, hundreds of UCI students live in dorms with such Tolkien-inspired names as the Shire, Mirkwood, Oakenshield and Rivendell.

At other universities, bookstores couldn't stock the tome fast enough. One store manager, unable to keep the books on his shelves, said the phenomenon was "more than a fad; it's like a drug dream."

It was a dream of another world. The Lord of the Rings begins with hobbits, a race of diminutive, lazy sorts whose greatest pleasures are eating and leisure. The novel tells the story of Frodo, a humble hobbit from the bucolic Shire, an Eden-like quarter of Middle-earth where the greatest danger he faces is the scheming of his relatives over the inheritance from Bilbo, the now-aged hero from The Hobbit who disappears on his eleventy-first birthday. In that inheritance is a ring, which turns out not to be just any ring but The One Ring—the original ring of power created by the Dark Lord Sauron several millennia earlier. Needless to say, Sauron wants his ring back, and if he gets it, all hell will break loose—literally. In fact, by the second chapter, it's starting to break loose already, and Frodo soon discovers he must destroy the ring, beginning an adventure that takes him across the landscape of Middle-earth, on encounters with wights in their barrows, elves in the treetops, and orcs in the deep as he makes his way toward the infernos of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor.

The counterculture embraced Tolkien because his stories were about marginalized protagonists defeating evil on a grand scale. People liked Frodo—and the adventuring party he gathers (the fellowship in the title of part one)—because they are idealized anti-heroes. They are outside the establishment, and yet the world's fate rests on their shoulders. Tolkien himself identified with hobbits, and he saw Frodo as a sort of Everyman: he wanted readers, as one fantasy fan described to me, to "look at Frodo and say, 'Frodo is us.'"

If Frodo is an anti-hero, he's also on an anti-quest because The Lord of the Rings is an epic about the renunciation of power, rather than its conquest. Despite the danger Frodo faces, he cannot use the ring without risking the corruption of soul and letting the world fall under the dominion of Sauron despite his good intentions. In the high scientism and Cold War anxiety of the 1960s, readers saw the ring as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, technology, even material progress itself. Add to that the pluralism of the fellowship and the environmentalism of Tolkien's sylvan world, and people found a lot of Earthly sociopolitical inspiration in Middle-earth.

But the allure of this world runs deeper than the novel's putative applicability to the political ideals of the day. It springs from the very nature of fantasy—as Tolkien knew well. The purpose of his kind of storytelling, he wrote, was "to create a Secondary World" inside which "your mind can enter." Too often, he thought, fantasy was used "frivolously," but when a true Secondary World is created, then you have that rare fulfillment of the craft—what Tolkien described as "story-making in its most primary and potent mode." For many scholars, Tolkien's Secondary World is the key to modern fantasy fiction. It is an internally consistent but impossible place—an autonomous fantasyland that the "spectator can fully enter." It is also the place where almost the entirety of post-Tolkien fantasy literature unfolds.

When you talk to serious Tolkien fans and ask them why they like The Lord of the Rings, they'll often say something like "because it's real." That authenticity is felt because Tolkien intended it. He wanted the reader "to get inside the story and take it as an actual history." For Tolkien, a Secondary World must be comprehensive or else it will remain merely fanciful. Indeed, he spent much of his life cataloging the entire 30,000-year history of Arda, the larger world in which Middle-earth resides. As the master astronomer, geographer, ethnographer and librarian of Arda, he worked out every detail, from genealogy to alternate constellations to botanical details about the flora.

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.

"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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