Though I love “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (books and films), I’m not a fantasy reader. Still, I very much enjoyed Adam Gopnik’s essay about J.R.R. Tolkien and the meaning of fantasy books for the young. Excerpt:

Something similar is going on with the Eragon books. Adolescent boys, of the kind who take up books in the first place these days, already experience their lives as a series of ordeals: tests, in every sense. A narrative whose purpose is not to push the hero or heroine toward a moment of moral crisis, à la “Huckleberry Finn” or “Little Women,” but to put him through a telescoped series of ordeals, which aim only at preparing him for the next series of ordeals: this is the story of their life. Eragon never really grows from boy to man, as he might have in another kind of book; he mostly just learns how to be a dragon rider and contend with mysterious helpers, half hostile and half friendly, as kids do at school. Kids go to fantasy not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation; since life is like this already, they imagine that it might be still like this but more magical. By the time they’re ready for college-admissions letters, they’re already dragon riders, if not yet grownups.

One might mock—one does mock—the mastery of what is, after all, mere mock history. But the fantasy readers’ learned habit of thinking historically is an acquisition as profound in its way as the old novelistic training in thinking about life as a series of moral lessons. Becoming an adult means learning a huge body of lore as much as it means learning to know right from wrong. We mostly learn that lore in the form of conventions: how you hold the knife, where you put it, that John was the witty Beatle, Paul the winning one, that the North once fought the South. Learning in symbolic form that the past can be mastered is as important as learning in dramatic form that your choices resonate; being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade. Fantasy fiction tells you that history is available, that the past counts. As the boring old professor knew, the backstory is the biggest one of all. That’s why he was scribbling old words on the blackboard, if only for his eyes alone.

Read the whole thing. The Tolkien material appears toward the beginning. I would be grateful to readers of this blog who are fans of the fantasy genre if they would offer their reactions in the comments thread.

UPDATE: Alan Jacobs says Gopnik gets Tolkien wrong. Excerpt:

It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

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