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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.
Like a sleepy Balrog in the depths of Moria, fantasy fever is stirring again. In 1997, voters in a bbc poll named The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the 20th century. In 1999, Amazon.com customers chose it as the greatest book of the millennium. The Tolkien revival began when the Internet bubble was bursting, the market for consumer electronics was nosediving like Harry Potter chasing the Golden Snitch, and America's long summer romance with technology was fizzling. "Change and technology are so pervasive a part of daily life that for the most part there's no magic to it anymore," says Vivian Sobchack, a professor of film and television studies at ucla. "The promise of science and technology has been normalized. The utopian vision we had didn't come to pass."
The magic would have to come from somewhere else, and we found it in fantasy. Swords, not lasers. Magic, not electricity. Villages, not cities. The past, not the future. It's a world we see in the creepily cozy work of Thomas Kinkade, whose soft-focus paintings of bucolic never-never lands has brought his company, Media Arts Group, almost $75 million so far this year. Fantasy envisions a society modeled loosely on agrarian medieval Europe, though with plenty of Vaseline on the lens. Antitechnology, antiglobalist, it's a misty, watercolored memory of a way we never were. But if the vision is imaginary, the longing for it is very real.