The Quest For Fantasy’s Power: Muggles, Millennials, Magicians, and Everybody Else

by on February 23, 2012

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Essays Issue 2 Nonfiction
The Quest For Fantasy's Power

I can imagine it. The night of June 14, darkening, deepening, edging ever closer to the morning of June 15, ever closer to that witching hour. Dark shadows, robed shadows, gathering in the streets, assembling before fluorescent movie houses and waiting for the strike of midnight to enter and commune with the figures on the screen who resemble them. They wave their wands and shout at each other, laughingly, or sometimes with the utmost seriousness, “Expecto Patronum!” “Wingardium Leviosa!” “Avada Kedavra!”

But they are not the only ones not fully of this world this night, and their magic is not the sole enchantment at work. On television screens, Gandalf the Grey, shrouded in white light, stands on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, confronting the fiery Balrog. On computer screens, Dwarven warriors attempt to stem the tide of undead into their land. A doctor sleeps poorly because his wife refuses to turn out the light before she finds out what happens to Jon Snow out on patrol beyond the Wall. On his computer, their son is watching the Game of Thrones episode that he missed on Sunday. Vampires steal into the bedrooms of teenage girls. They wake up terrified—and titillated, which terrifies them all the more. Dragons blaze across the night sky.

From book, from disc, from screen, other worlds seep into our own, capturing our imaginations, casting a spell over the whole land.

 

If I had been outside The Pavilion Cinema at the bottom of Prospect Park on June 15, I could tell you exactly what happened that evening—no imagining—when the final Harry Potter film was released. I wholly intended to begin this essay with an eyewitness account of that scene. After all, Harry Potter is the prom king of wizards and this piece is about the nation’s affair with fantasy. It seemed like a good place to start.

However, when I got off the subway from my shift at the restaurant that night, my uniform splattered with stale beer and ketchup, I was just too tired to make it out. I had work the next morning and had to be up early. Around 11:40, I got home and sat down in my kitchen—just for a moment, just for a drink of water—and I only got up to collapse into bed.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t too disappointed; I was only intending to go as a journalist. I had already experienced the end of my time at Hogwarts with the final book in 2007. Watching the movies have only been exercises in nostalgia for that first reading experience, only enjoyable because they have reminded me, albeit faintly, of the books that I had devoured so eagerly. My vision of Harry’s world was so different from that of the directors.

However, the newspapers have told me that I’m terribly out of touch, that the era actually ended on the momentous night I slouched from the kitchen chair into my bed and read a little Borges before turning out the light. The scene I missed, though, can still be cobbled together. In San Francisco, there were reports that robed wizards camped out as early as 2 a.m. on the 14th to secure tickets. The New York Times says that, in New York City, lines for midnight showings already stretched two blocks at 9 p.m.. The Boston Globe even tells of a Canadian who traveled twelve hours and across the border to take part in the massive midnight showing at Boston Common’s AMC. “We do have midnight premieres in Canada, but they’re smaller and there’s not as much hype,” she said.

And it wasn’t simply the numbers—that they appeared at 3,800 sold-out theaters throughout the country—or the fans’ willingness to brave summer heat in full wizarding dress that proclaimed the series’ significance. The pundits were hovering; they declared the night a generational landmark. The New York Times paid homage to the end of the Chosen One’s run with a tribute fit for a king, an op-ed entitled “Long Live Harry Potter,” that credited the series with restoring a sense of wonder to its readers. The Chicago Tribune ran an article called “Harry Potter and the End of Childhood.” In the Christian Science Monitor, “‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2’: The bookend of a generation” made the case that Harry Potter had transformed its readers’ values, transmuting cynical relativists into principled Manicheans. The Washington Post, however, was the most lyrical in assessing the series’ impact. It began its article on the phenomenon with the line, “Friday, it comes, the final detonation of the cultural blast that left millions of foreheads metaphorically imprinted with lightning-bolt-shaped scars.”

Few between 18 and 28 escaped this blast, they claim. As Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communications at the University of Southern California says, Harry Potter is “pure cultural capital”; its immense popularity “flies in the face of the commonly accepted notion that we are losing shared cultural norms.” The Washington Post notes that, between 2002 and 2008, the greatest surge in readers was among those between 18 and 24 (now 21 and 27); this, the paper suggests, was because we were hooked on Potter.

The press has said that the end of Harry Potter was important, a dividing line in our lives. In their narrative, those of us between 18 and 28 have become inextricably linked with “The Chosen One.” We have come of age with the boy wizard, they write. He has spoken to us and shaped us, uniquely, left a mark on us that defines us as the generation of Harry Potter.

To a certain extent, this narrative cannot be contested. We have turned out in record numbers to read the books and watch the films. 450 million books have been purchased. The films have grossed over 2 billion dollars domestically. If money is speech, as the Supreme Court says, we have certainly spoken. But that is not all—we have also acted. We have chosen to play Quidditch on our campuses and conceived a galaxy of fan fiction beyond anything hitherto encountered. We have named rock bands after the characters and created documentaries about our fanatical fandom.

And yet, underneath these facts lie so many questions yet unanswered.

I believe, I must believe, that we have chosen Harry Potter as much as the books and films were foisted upon us by overeager librarians and schoolteachers, by well-intentioned book clerks and avaricious video salesmen, by the publishing and film industries, by market forces, by capitalism, by chance, and that, if we can better understand the reasons behind this collective choice—the social context that created the demand for Harry Potter—we will learn something important about our present moment and ourselves. In this imagined world must lie some secret about our own world. Harry Potter was thrust upon us—no doubt about it—but we chose, ourselves, to run off to Hogwarts.

How come? Why has this story—of all the million stories floating around us—enchanted us so thoroughly? What is it about it that appeals so much to so many individuals of the same age, a generation that has refused to define itself as such—a generation without generational consciousness? Why can we all agree on Harry Potter, but so little else?

 

If we really are a generation linked with Harry Potter, though, I missed an important night,a moment when capricious zeitgeist revealed itself. Whether or not it does have generational significance, I did miss a moment of collective consciousness—and those moments are few and far between. Maybe it was in Zucotti Park—I certainly remember the feeling at Obama’s inauguration. And Harry Potter, bizarrely enough, could very well turn out to be the most enduring of these moments.

I find consolation by telling myself that it was never all about Potter, nor just about our relationship with it. Harry Potter was not and has never been an isolated phenomenon—despite what the headlines may have lead us to believe. All this writing of epochs and eras, of ultimate discharge, is a matter of construction. Yes, Harry has inspired unbelievable devotion and taken in nigh-mythical amounts of cash, but we don’t live in an era simply of Harry Potter. We live in an Age of Fantasy.

This is what I tell myself.

“Fantasy” is a difficult genre to define, for so much falls under its banner. The stories tend to have such common features as the existence of other races, a medieval setting, and talismanic objects of great power. But to put it most generally and accurately, fantasy is about another world. Though science fiction stories are also about other worlds (and the defining line is certainly a blurry one), I’ve always believed that the existence of magic—that blend of spirituality and supernatural force—makes a work fantasy; all worlds without are science fiction. (This would make stories like Dune and Star Wars qualify as fantasy, despite their space age trappings.) Most works in the genre have followed J.R.R. Tolkien’s quest-to-save-the-world-before-final-battle High Fantasy model, but there are unique works, such as Little, Big, or The Magicians, that simply ask questions about what it means to live in an enchanted land.

Since Tolkien published his Lord of the Rings in the U.S. in 1965, the consumers of fantasy have always made up a distinct subculture. At that time, it was the hippies who found, in the tale of Frodo’s journey to destroy the One Ring of Sauron, master of the smoke-stacks of Barad-Gul, an analogy for their own opposition to the atom bomb and irresponsible development. Plus, the magic appealed to their psychedelic sensibilities. Since then, fantasy has attracted avid fanatics, often marginalized individuals, who have entered the world of fairy behind closed doors. Tolkien was both alarmed and puzzled by the character of the enthusiasts who wrote to him. But it makes sense: in the story of an outcast’s transformation into a world-historical figure, individuals or subgroups seemingly out of sync with their world found a genre that seemed to speak directly to their own situation on the fringes. As many before me have remarked, fantasy has long been the genre of the nerd.

I can peg the moment, however, when fantasy moved out of the dungeon and into the light to the stroke of midnight on July 8, 2000. The first sign of Harry Potter-mania might have been the 350,000 preorders of the book, but the thousands who lined up outside Barnes and Noble and Borders across the nation to be the first to purchase Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire heralded the shift—fantasy was not going to be read on the margins, but at the heart of society, as a collective experience.

I was there. My parents woke my brother and me before midnight and we all bundled into the car off to the local Barnes and Noble. I was tired and excited and at the uncertain age where the storyteller, the juggler, and the magician that the store had hired for that night were patently uncool. Harry Potter, though, I could embrace without a single worry—everyone else would be reading the book anyway. I swooped upon my copy on the table of books and tried it to read it, in line as I waited for the cashier, in the dark on the ride home, in my bed before sleep. The next morning, I woke up and finished the whole thing before night came again.

For the last ten years, America has been a land enchanted by magic and mythological beasts, by little boys wielding powerful weapons and wizards with countless idiosyncrasies. There have been innumerable articles about fantasy fever. Eragon has gotten a shout out in a rap song. The New York Times Best Seller list has been fantasy’s fiefdom. Since 2001, every book of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has been a #1 bestseller. Twilight and Eragon’s seven installments have inherited the rule of the children’s list from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and the Potter books. George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons was among the fastest selling books of 2011, selling 200,000 copies on its first day on shelves. Fantasy films have also conquered the box office; every year since 2001, magical films have been among the top-grossing of the year. The small screen has been stormed by squadrons of swordsmen and sorcerers, from NBC’s Merlin to Starz’s Camelot, from NBC’s Heroes to HBO’s Game of Thrones. And it’s on consoles as well. Massively multiplayer roleplaying games (MMORPGs) with fantasy elements have caught fire. Surging to national consciousness in 2001 when pieces appeared on NPR and national newspapers on the addictive, immersive qualities of Everquest (“Evercrack”), the genre remains a hit. World of Warcraft, now the leader in the field, is one of the biggest computer games in the world with over 10 million players subscribing monthly to pretend to be Tauren paladins and Worgen mages.

And it’s not solely the young who consume this stuff. It is statistically impossible that only people of our generation are fantasy hounds. For the Game of Thrones season finale, three million and forty thousand people tuned in—and less than half were between 18 and 50. Furthermore, millions of books have been sold; films have grossed billions of dollars. We could not generate these numbers alone. We know that we are not the only ones reading about magic. We know that we’ve seen many an elderly gent cradling A Dance with Dragons on the subway. A.S. Byatt and William Safire have even devoted op-eds to excoriating those “childish adults” who patronize Harry Potter. Perhaps fantasy is not just about us, after all. Perhaps Harry Potter is just a part, after all.

If this is the case, then the scope of this essay widens; the question it asks becomes not merely about one generation, but the entire nation. It asks not merely what social confluences are at the root of Harry Potter’s allure, but what has dictated that fantasy be the genre of the time. This is something that affects not one segment of the populace, but everyone. What is it about these imaginary worlds that speak so strongly to the real world at this present moment?

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