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The Lord of the Rings

Author
Category Articles
Date December 20, 2002

Truth is supposed to be stranger, stronger than fiction, for ours is the strangest of all possible worlds: Middle Earth seems morally simple by comparison, while the world beyond Harry Potter’s railway platform is childishly predictable

American Calvinists are enthusiastic about The Lord of Rings’ films. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London demurs, expressing his views in an article in the Times, Wednesday, December 18, 2002, entitled "Fantasy is the Opium of the Ignorant and the Indolent," and subtitled "The popularity of The Lord of the Rings signifies our cultural impoverishment."

What is his concern? That fantasy is our fix. "In the past twenty or thirty years fantasy has become the most bankable form of fiction, the genre of our times. Yet the rise of fantasy is puzzling, even to those who relish its thrills. It defies common wisdom. Truth is supposed to be stranger, stronger than fiction, for ours is the strangest of all possible worlds: Middle Earth seems morally simple by comparison, while the world beyond Harry Potter’s railway platform is childishly predictable. Realism is unbeatably interesting: that is why social observation is the foundation of all the world’s best books. When there is so much reality to go around, it is hard to understand how audiences can fall for fantasy. For fantasy is self-doomed to be implausible. It is hard to feel involved when the author can whistle up a wizard to get the hero out of a fix. Magic, like madness, is no way to contrive a denouement: in worlds where anything can happen, the tension of the plot – which depends on characters trapped in the constrictions of unreality – dissolves. Art demands discipline, and there are no disciplines tighter than those of the real world.

"Our fantasy fixation is worrying. Fantasy doesn’t just feed on the imagination: it drains it. Virtuality erodes reality . . . Kids know more about the life of Harry Potter than the life of Henry VIII. Fantasy endangers history, some say: realism is on the way to extinction, shrinking from the syllabus, extruded from bookshops, de-accessed from libraries. Fears like these, however, misrepresent the rise of fantasy. The demise of history and the retreat of realism are not the result of fantasy’s popularity, but its causes. Unmindful of our real roots we reconstruct an imperfectly imagined antiquity. The fault lies with historians, who have done their best to make the true past boring.

"Meanwhile, we recoil from history because we are afraid of its lessons: it teaches us that we have made no moral or intellectual progress for thousands of years and have grown most in our capacity to do ill. We flee to fantasy in recoil from truth. We are suckered by make-believe, because we have lost touch with the majesty of myth. Instead of the past, we fall for pastiche. For those who forget the past, it seems, are condemned to reinvent it."

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