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That may be why the 24,000 members of the Society for Creative Anachronism are so busy brewing mead, sewing doublets and whacking each other with swords. Their motto? "Forward into the past!" "I think our technology today has taken us further from morality and generous behavior," says Darren Chermack--that is, Sir Tristan. "I find that this lifestyle is a way to touch on something that I want to be as a person--the pursuit of courtesy, chivalry and proper behavior." "There's a heavy anti-industrial streak there," agrees Carrie Crowder, 41, a conservative Republican, mother of two and former S.C.A. member. "It's tied back to the medieval, feudal landscape that is the backdrop for so much of fantasy." Granted, the S.C.A. crowd is a good deal further out on the fringe than most people who will shell out to see The Two Towers, but as John Adcox, 38, a fantasy fan in Atlanta, points out, it's all relative. "If I told you about a group that dresses oddly, paints their bodies and gathers by the thousand to share an enthusiasm, who would you think of?" he asks. "Right, football fans." Point taken.
But the appeal of fantasy goes deeper than mere nostalgic Luddism. Tolkien, a veteran of the British nightmare at the Somme in World War I, is a poet of war, and we are a nation in need of a good, clear war story. At a time when Americans are wandering deeper into a nebulous conflict against a faceless enemy, Tolkien gives us the war we wish we were fighting--a struggle with a foe whose face we can see, who fights out on the open battlefield, far removed from innocent civilians. In Middle-earth, unlike the Middle East, you can tell an evildoer because he or she looks evil. The Lord of the Rings also plays to America's view of itself as a reluctant warrior. As Peter Jackson, director of the Rings trilogy, remarks, "On some level most of the people watching these movies regard themselves as peace-loving, gentle people who would rather stay out of trouble and who are forced to deal with situations that are out of their control." Sometimes fantasies tell us less about who we are than who we wish we were.