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Feeding on Fantasy
By Lev Grossman
Time.com – November 24, 2002
Truly let it be said that Sir Tristan von Eising is everything a knight should be–honorable and chivalrous, 6 ft. 4 in. tall and an expert in armed combat. On weekends Sir Tristan von Eising is a proud nobleman of the Barony of Nordskogen, but during the week he is better known as Darren Chermack, 34, an inventor who is a sword-carrying member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (S.C.A.), an organization devoted to re-creating the lifestyle of premodern Europe. And in case you’re not familiar with the Barony of Nordskogen, most benighted Muggles know it as the greater MinneapolisSt. Paul, Minn., area. Strange and magical things are afoot in this great land of ours–Middle-earth, Middle America, whatever you want to call it.
The past quarter-century of American popular culture was ruled by the great mega-franchises of science fiction–Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day, The Matrix. But lately, since the turn of the millennium or so, we’ve been dreaming very different dreams. The stuff of those dreams is fantasy–swords and sorcerers, knights and ladies, magic and unicorns. In 2001 the fantasy double bill of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings ranked first and second at the box office, and it’s happening all over again this year. In its first weekend alone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets cleared $88 million. Think Star Trek: Nemesis is going to come close to that? Harry hasn’t done badly at the bookstore either, having moved a total of 77 million copies in the U.S. so far, while Tolkien’s works sold 11 million copies in the U.S. in 2001 alone. The online fantasy game EverQuest pulls in more than $5 million a month from its half a million subscribers, and the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering boasts 7 million players. The business of fantasy has become a multibillion-dollar reality, and science fiction is starting to feel, well, a little 20th century.
Popular culture is the most sensitive barometer we have for gauging shifts in the national mood, and it’s registering a big one right now. Our fascination with science fiction reflected a deep collective faith that technology would lead us to a cyberutopia of robot butlers serving virtual mai tais. With The Two Towers, the new installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, about to storm the box office, we are seeing what might be called the enchanting of America. A darker, more pessimistic attitude toward technology and the future has taken hold, and the evidence is our new preoccupation with fantasy, a nostalgic, sentimental, magical vision of a medieval age. The future just isn’t what it used to be–and the past seems to be gaining on us.
The strangest thing about it is, we’ve been here before. It all started with a little-known Oxford professor whose specialty was the West Midland dialect of Middle English. Beginning with The Hobbit, a story he invented in the early 1930s to amuse his children, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s novels first became merely popular and then turned into a phenomenon. When a pirate paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was published in the U.S. in 1965, it and other versions sold more than a million copies within a year. GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT buttons appeared on wide late-1960s lapels, and FRODO LIVES was scrawled on subway cars. Led Zeppelin gave Gollum a shout-out in Ramble On. Tolkien inspired an American insurance salesman named Gary Gygax to quit his job and create Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that launched a million junior high school wedgies.
“The funny thing,” says Simon Tolkien, grandson of J.R.R. and author of the forthcoming novel Final Witness, “was that he was most famous on your side of the Atlantic. I think the English establishment was slightly suspicious of him.” In fact, Tolkien found all the fuss distasteful. “Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I’m not,” he once remarked about his fans–or as he called them, “my deplorable cultus.” He wondered what Americans saw in his long, deeply Anglophilic and, let’s be frank, overwritten epic. But the Rings had struck a chord. The burgeoning environmental movement saw in his wasteland of Mordor a strip-mined industrial dystopia. On a deeper level, a country drowning in the moral quicksand of Vietnam and Watergate found comfort in the moral clarity of Tolkien’s epic story of a just, clear war. Good and evil are fixed stars in the skies of Middle-earth even as they’re starting to look wobbly in ours.
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