August 6, 2001
Wizard Guides Out of Our
Fantasy worlds of good and evil, black and white, provide a balance lacking in life. Hence our insatiable appetite for Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars et al, says Verlyn Flieger In an age of impoverished belief, emphatic materialism, cultural fragmentation and erosion of assumed values, the increasing popularity of mythic fantasy in books and films should come as no surprise. Myth is what connects us to the world around us. It shows us our place in the scheme of things. Even though (or perhaps because) it now comes more often packaged as fantastic fiction than as creed, it seems we still reach out for myth. The fantastic mode, in the past more often employed in books for children than for adults, seems to free authors from the constraints of observable reality precisely to comment on that reality and enable us to see afresh. Four decades or so ago J. R. R. Tolkien found it expedient to declare that his books were not intended for children; but that if he had not written them in the style of children's books, people would have thought he was "loony".
That some 40 years later the perceived problem no longer exists is almost certainly due in large measure to Tolkien himself and to the readers who found in his work something they had been looking for without realising it. Paradoxically, Tolkien satisfied a hunger that no one knew existed and at the same time created an appetite for more. That hunger is for mystery and magic in a world where virtual reality has become an IOU for real enchantment. Our ever-accelerating, technology-oriented, computer-chip culture has created a need for its opposite, something intangible but not imperceptible, an element missing from modern life and sought in a certain kind of literature. This is what fuels the inter-galactic special-effects films, the ever-more fantastic role-playing games, the endlessly proliferating fantasy trilogies.
The enormous popularity and commensurately profitable sales of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, together with the undeniable, enduring popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, might cause one to ponder how what used to be called fantasy became mainstream fiction and whether the mainstream has changed direction or fantasy has been charted inaccurately all along. Authors such as Tolkien and Rowling - and C. S. Lewis and Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner and E. Nesbit among others - once categorised as writers of "children's" or "young adult" literature, easily cross the line into "adult" literature. Or perhaps they demonstrate the obvious fact that there is no longer (or perhaps never was) a line. The platitude that "we are all children at heart" will not do. The desire for fantasy is no more typical of children than of adults. The audience for the above-cited writers and others like them is not characterised by age but by taste, and the taste is shared by more - and more disparate - readers than might have been supposed.
When the super-sophisticated NoŽl Coward died in 1973, he had The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit's classic "children's" book, open on his bedside table. Likewise, the extraordinary, largely unpromoted success of The Lord of the Rings was not just a 1960s phenomenon, but a continuing trend, one that those who confuse fantasy with escapism may not have caught up with. The fact that at the century's end numerous polls in the United Kingdom found Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to be the top choice as the greatest book of the century produced cries of outrage from the literati. They either had not been paying attention to what ordinary people read and why, or they did not care.
Fantasy literature and the huge appetite for it are signs of the times, indications of a deeply felt need for the assurance that the world is more than random chaos, that it has a transcendent meaning, albeit not a wholly optimistic one - perhaps its being not a wholly optimistic one is one of the attractions. Fantasy's darker side seems to be what draws many readers. In the ongoing Harry Potter series, it is embodied in the evil wizard Voldemort who, after years of impotent lying-low, is poised to take over the world. Tolkien's Dark Lord, Sauron, his design for the subjugation and domination of Middle-earth frustrated by a yard-high Hobbit from the provinces, is vanquished for the Third Age, but not forever. It is part of Tolkien's point that Sauron has been defeated before, but keeps coming back. He was beaten in the Second Age, and will need to be fought again in ages to come. Evil never completely disappears, and has a tendency to pop up just when good seems to have the upper hand. For all its Hobbit jollity, Tolkien's book is more sombre than many readers may at first perceive. Much that is beautiful and treasurable is lost forever in the War of the Ring. The book's hero, Frodo, pays for his efforts to destroy Sauron's Ring of Power not with his life but very nearly with his soul, and is saved only by grace and Gollum. Even saved, he is wounded, sick and maimed. He finds that he cannot go home again, but must leave his beloved Shire and indeed sail away from Middle-earth altogether if he is to be healed.
This is not a happy ending, not even upbeat. But Frodo's Middle-earth, like our world, is not an upbeat world. It is, however, a world with meaning, even if that meaning is sometimes cruel. It is a world in which ordinary individuals can affect not just the future of human events but the balance of the natural world that surrounds those events, and have the secure knowledge that they are a part of and contribute to that balance. We need that knowledge.
This is what keeps us coming back to The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, to Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy and Alan Garner's The Owl Service. With unparalleled affluence rubbing elbows with abysmal poverty, with technological improvement making it less and less necessary for us to speak to one another face to face, we have lost a sense of who we are and where we belong in a world we no longer know very well. The function of myth is to give us that sense. And a function of fantasy fiction is to give us myth in a myth-impoverished world.
Verlyn Flieger is a professor in the department of English at the University of Maryland at College Park.