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Fantasy and History

Here’s a really fascinatingly provocative post by Adam Roberts:

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well — resonated so powerfully with so many people — in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.

I wonder if this is a broader cultural phenomenon. We prefer stories of Marvel superheroes to actual stories of ‘crime fighters’ (policemen, soldiers and so on) because we have lost faith in the latter, or more precisely lost faith that the latter can ever exhibit the kind of perfect heroism we want our stories to articulate. Hogwarts, being fictional, can apprehend something very important — school — without being tangled in the messy specificity of actual real-world schooling. A sequence of novels set in Eton would be noisome; although that is, in effect, what Rowling has written. The twentieth-century has cured us of our attachment to a certain kind of ideology-text; and the cure we have chosen is — worldbuilt fiction.

At the moment I’m thinking that this is right, and importantly right. But I need to think about it some more.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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