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?
The last person to engage with this question and actually provide an answer for his own time was none other than the father of modern fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien. His 1939 lecture, “On Fairy Stories,” is an articulation of fantasy’s specific social role for that time—though he would never have conceived of his speech in that light. Ostensibly a scholarly investigation of fairy tales and myths, the lecture discusses the origins of the fairy tale, its specious links with children, the alchemical properties of the adjective, and humanity’s natural tendency to fantasize. At its core, though, it is Tolkien’s manifesto—a simultaneous articulation and defense of “subcreation,” the writing of fantasy.
According to Tolkien, fantasy provides comfort and meaning in a world otherwise hostile to both. To read fairy stories—stories that deal with an alternate reality, “the nature of Faerie, the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country”—is to experience three things: “recovery, escape, and consolation.” To read fantasy is to engage with another world, a created world, and encounter “story-making in its most primary and most potent mode.” It is to open the passage by which the common world can become reenchanted.
“Recovery” revitalizes this world by means of the “arresting strangeness” of this other universe. In showing the hitherto unconceived-of pleasures of this other world inspired by the real world, it refreshes the reader’s ability to see the wonder in his own. Descriptions of a centaur reveal the nobility of the bull; the account of a magician who summons fire to do his bidding illuminates the miraculous character of electric lights and the gas stove. As Tolkien explains it, the fantasy world is based upon recognition of the impossible—“but not a slavery to [this understanding].” Fantasy frees itself to ponder alternatives—and forces its reader to think about exactly how this does differ from the known world.
However, this rejuvenation of the world could not occur without immersion in the alternative world, without “escape.” Tolkien attacks the idea that this desire to take part in another world is a weakness, declaring that those who label escapism a vice are confusing “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” To read about another world is not simply to run from this one, but is to make a principled choice, a declaration that this world is not as it should be. For Tolkien this meant a refusal of the “rawness and ugliness of modern European life”—the “Morlockian horror of factories” and the “‘grim Assyrian’ absurdity of top hats.” (One imagines that, in Tolkien’s mind, the inhabitants of Faerie are always sensibly dressed). He prefers the primeval power of lightning to the weak light given off by the street lamp. He prefers recognition of eternal, elemental powers to the attempts to conquer them with technology: “Fairy stories may invent monsters that fly the air or dwell in the deep, but at least they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea.”
“Escape” is a rebellion against the status quo. The “escapist” refuses “the whims of evanescent fashion,” the idea that he must accept new inventions as his “masters,” by recognizing them as “inevitable.” In fact, suggests Tolkien, this refusal could be just the first step toward active resistance. The reader might go beyond simply registering his discontent through his choice of a primeval literature and attempt to “rouse men to pull down the street lamps. Escapism has another and even wickeder face: Reaction.”
The fantasy reader, though, is not merely reacting negatively against the world. He is also constructive in his choice. He chooses fantasy because it offers something sorely lacking in the modern world: the promise of purpose.
Tolkien calls this purpose “consolation.” It is the ultimate resolution that all fairy stories, according to the Oxford don, are predicated upon. The happy ending orients the whole world—it creates a telos. This final moment is often a matter of luck, a “sudden miraculous grace.” “Dyscatostrophe,” failure and despair, was a possible outcome—and remains one in the future—but there is reassurance in the fact that good has, for the moment, won out. It tells the reader there is a worthy end to which the reader and the world, though unaware, move toward. Somehow or other, things will end up all right.
For Tolkien, this was not an idle promise, but one that spoke directly to his deep religious belief. For him, this consolation offered by fantasy contained the refracted light of the Evangelium, the story of Christ: the success of redemption. Fantasy had become “hallowed” by the truth of Christ’s life and resurrection (simultaneously, the most incredible fairy story of all); in this light, his work in the genre was not merely a hobby, but holy work, work done for God, furthering the Creator’s original act of Creation:
All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.
Seventy-two years have passed since “the voice of Gandalf” spoke these words. Since then, no one has managed to articulate what fantasy meant for his time as Tolkien did then. Certainly, fantasy must mean something else now. The orthodoxies of Tolkien’s time have worn away. The strength of steel, the stability of cities, the implacability of distance and time, the Eurocentric Christian framework in which Tolkien worked, all of them have crumbled.
Today, we live in a fundamentally uncertain moment. From the great to the insignificant, things are in flux. And this flux feeds the newly instantaneous media, which in turn broadcasts the precariousness of our situation, making us more aware of the flux, more anxious than ever before: The U.S. teeters between recession and recovery! The European Union hangs by a line of credit! China is poised to overtake the U.S.! (But when?!) The climate is turning on us! Heidi Klum and Seal have split! Facebook’s interface is changing—to a timeline!
Nothing is stable. Nothing is secure.
The specific certainties that fantasy offered Tolkien no longer hold true. What we get, what we have gotten from Harry Potter, is something quite different—and we’re quite a different generation than the one he wrote for.
There are many portraits, painted with broad brushstrokes, of the Millennials, the generation of which we, the people of Potter, make up a significant portion. The term “Millennial” refers to anyone born between 1982 and 2002; we, the generation of Harry Potter, were born, roughly, between 1983 and 1993. As a whole, the entire generation is called a plethora of names. They range from the perplexing—Generation Y, Echo Boomers—to the disparaging—Generation Me, Generation Sell. And we are told many things, often contradictory, about our collective selves, our collective character. Yet all of these narratives do agree on one thing: we maintain a fierce self-defining individuality (such that this “we” is particularly false).
Neil Howe and William Strauss, the men who coined the term “Millennial” and popularized generational thinking, define our generation with seven attributes. They declare “us” to be self-confident, positive-minded, and team-oriented, as well as sheltered and conventional. But, most importantly, they emphasize that we feel we are special and unique, that we have a sense of ourselves as individuals. From this self-confidence, they predict that we will build a stronger America.
Jean Twenge, who labeled us “Generation Me,” finds our sense of individuality to be excessive and dangerous. She calls “us” solipsistic egoists, narcissists, locked up within ourselves, unable to extend far enough beyond ourselves to create meaningful attachments. In her view, we are a generation of free radicals all with the single but diverse agenda of self-fulfillment.
William Deresewicz, who calls us, “Generation Sell,” sees “us” as the progenitors of small businesses. We might be super nice (“No anger, no edge, no ego,” as he puts it), but we’re also supremely interested in making a buck and convinced “that it’s every man for himself.” We all aspire to be our own bosses and be in control of our own life, while at the same time not making any enemies. Enemies are bad for business.
Perhaps the clearest expression of this individualism comes from a writer within our own generation. Maha Atal, who was a senior at Brown when she wrote an essay on college life for the New York Times, argued that there was no collective sense of our generation. She made the case that we each live supremely customized existence, where “we” and “us” does not apply:
Generation Y takes individualism literally. These days, young people don’t turn en masse to any one TV show or blog for news, music or fashion. In the decentralized world of YouTube and MySpace, bands rise to fame through Web downloads and never appear on MTV. We have personalized encounters with culture and politics, setting our homepage preferences to report only on the news that interests us.
We don’t recognize an overarching connective generational tissue. We easily break down into subgroups. We live balkanized existences, each at her own personal computer, each listening to her own iPod, each constructing a singular mode of existence.
What could these individualists all find in Harry Potter? Or rather, better put, how can Harry Potter unite all of these individualists?
Certainly, we are not looking for the same things as Tolkien, though Tolkien’s precise categories can help in discerning exactly where that difference lies.
Fantasy does not speak to our religious feeling, for, if the polls are to be believed, we have little of that (26 percent of our generation claim no religious affiliation—and that’s not counting those who identify but are without belief). Nor do we have the reactionary desire of Tolkien to escape this frightening new world of novel mechanisms. Technology is too ubiquitous to be so threatening; we’ve become inured to it (though we do sometimes complain about its constant demands). Nor do we feel some need to escape, even in this dire economic and political situation. The Pew Research Center found that nearly half of us were satisfied with the current state of things and nearly 90 percent of us were confident that, one day, we would be able to live the life of our dreams.
However, I think the answer can be found in something that these generational generalizations skirt around, but something that has struck me deeply, something that I’ve witnessed both in myself and in others around my age: a profound, pervasive cynicism.
Whether it was a miasma that settled upon our cribs and infected our young lungs or the revisionist histories that we later learned in school, cynicism has become our reflexive condition. We couldn’t bring ourselves to protest Iraq or Afghanistan in any real way, with any real impact. Before Obama our levels of voting only voted for one thing: apathy. Pew Research polls show us to be the least patriotic generation. What is hipsterdom—the condition of excessive irony and the emptying of all symbols that plagues us—if not born out of a calcified cynicism, a shell containing a hidden nihilism?
Time and time again, though, when movements have reached a critical mass, our generation has committed itself wildly. When Obama appeared, and the Tea Party took center stage, and Occupy Wall Street sent out its call, we flocked to them in droves. We became the most ardent of believers in these big ideas of Change, of Hope, of Equality, of Fairness.
Like all cynics, like all skeptics, we always have wanted to believe. We just needed an excuse. And these campaigns gave us the perfect excuse. They were empty movements, balloons that we inflated with our own individual dreams and hopes. They allowed us to commit without compromising our individuality. They were ciphers.
Obama, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party all offer broad platforms. They are big tents we could huddle under without having to commit to anything, specifically. We could inflate Change with the promise of Universal Health Care (and a UHC that would not only mean cheaper rates for all of us, but also more fair payouts to doctors) or with the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians. We could blow up Hope to mean a capital where lawmakers would actually talk to one another or a jobs bill that would set up WPA-like projects and halt the recession. In the chant of “we are 99 percent,” we could imagine a world where the political machine worked for us. We could conceive of a world where college cost less and the really rich were taxed more.
Of course, we didn’t have to agree on these things. And there are a million other things that they could have stood for—that have not even crossed my mind and, possibly, never will. At some point in time, these movements passed some sort of sacrosanct tipping point—enough people had dipped their foot into the water, and it became alright, socially acceptable, to dive into the pond. A wary crowd had committed and now we, too, could like the movement and believe in it wholeheartedly. Like memes, those empty phrases or images that circulate the Internet, the movements had gone viral. And like memes, by themselves they meant little. It was only each individual who imbued them with meaning. And because of that there was no risk to believe—because we were only working with beliefs that we already held.
The secret to Harry Potter’s success is that these books are ciphers too. They demand little of the reader, offering but a half-formed world to fill as one pleases. The magic of the work, however, is that, within them, we find a place where we can believe—though we only believe in ourselves.
The main impediment to reading fantasy—aside from the social stigma traditionally associated with reading books with dragons on the cover—has been the demand that it placed upon the reader to commit oneself to accept and learn about a whole new world. To enter into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, one has to suspend disbelief. One has to commit to learning strange-sounding names and places. One must trade in mythical images. One has to accept the presence of magic. One has to give up one’s independence and sit at the writer’s feet as he divulges the workings of this world.
But this is not the case in Harry Potter. There are few leaps that have to be made. We begin in the real world—the world of the Dursleys and 9 Privet Drive—and ease into fantasy from there. Magic is merely the custom of a different land. There’s a special door for those in the know that gets you to Platform 9¾, and from there you travel by train as if you were to leave Boston for Burning Man. In this other place, magic is just a different form of energy—strange, surely, but only degrees odder than Brazil using sugar cane to power its automobiles. Rather than resort to turbines and combustion, you swing a wand in a particular pattern and recite particular words in a particular manner (perhaps it releases energies only battered into existence at certain frequencies).
And it’s not merely the magic that has been reduced. In this series, all of fantasy’s elements are boiled down into neatly comestible packets. The GREAT EVIL, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” is not a mysterious, inexplicable (albeit unnameable) presence, but given a psychology and a back history: an orphan mistreated by callous caretakers, disavowed by a father, angry with his mother for still loving the man who abandoned them etc. Death, the great unknown, is demystified as ghosts can talk about how they died. Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s myriad trips to the place shows that there’s nothing really that forbidden about the Forbidden Forest. Nor is there ever any real risk. Until the very end, Dumbledore is watching over them, in his own person, by means of Snape, by vision visitation, or through one of his many magical allies. He always helps them vanquish their enemies; Harry never has to confront his duty alone. Nor is his duty, to tell the truth, all that important. As A.S. Byatt points out, “Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.” Even if Voldemort wins, the Wizarding World will proceed as it always had, for the most part. A few more muggles will be tortured, no more mudbloods will become wizards, but it’s not Sauronian domination, absolute enslavement. It’s merely a world more restricted, as in the post-9/11 U.S.—a lamentable state of things, but certainly not the End of the World. It’s suburban fantasy, fenced in, safe, and low-stakes.
However, while it is a world reduced, it is an arena in which the cynicism of its readers is disarmed. The book creates a class of people who already are cynical—muggles. The gross Dudley, the petty Aunt Petunia, the brutish Uncle Vernon are plain awful. They are the ones who deny the existence of magic. They declare it “rubbish.” No one wants to be like them and, to be unlike them, you must believe in magic. With the options to believe or to be among the dreadful muggles, you’re coerced into having to believe. You’re given license to believe in the magic. It’s the cool thing to do here.
And so, one enters into, commits fully to the “secondary secondary world,” as A.S. Byatt calls it—which is not to commit to anything at all. Rowling’s world is populated with creatures of which we are already aware, but which are subtly reappropriated. Well-known nomenclature such as “hag” or “vampire” are deployed without ever being explained—we’re simply expected to use our preexisting knowledge to flesh them out. The rules are never made fully clear. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, which also borrowed, heartily, from known previous traditions, Rowling relies on our own projections to fill her world.
Tolkien’s “escape” is not a possibility here. Hogwarts is not another world, but simply part of our own world, and a fledgling part at that. Instead, Potter is a fantasy that has gone all in on the “recovery” function, while noticeably repressing Tolkien’s idea of fantasy as “escape.” Unlike much previous fantasy, which, set in medieval worlds, was totally without technology, it exists in this world, though wizards don’t use it. In this world, such wizards as the Weasley family are in awe of Muggle devices. Their amazement at how telephones (“fellytones”) can transport voice or batteries can contain energy reminds us of the mysterious power of our own technological devices (and eliminates the occasional worries about how these things actually work). As such, believing in this world strengthens our own belief in the wonder of our own.
Otherwise, however, the world of Potter is largely a vacuum, despite the inflated praise to the contrary. The Christian Science Monitor claims that “since 1997, the adventures of Harry Potter have not only entertained, but also shaped the morals and attitudes of a generation.” If this is the case, we are, indeed, in poor shape. The Potter series has little real wisdom to impart, passing along only the most unquestioned of general liberal-humanistic sentiment, most often in the guise of Dumbledore, who tends to spout morals at the end of books such as, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” or, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
Even worse, this world knows no absolutes. Its morality is a relativistic one. (I could even use the word cynical and not be far from the mark.) At Hogwarts, they talk of the three Unforgivable Curses: the torturing spell, Crucio, the controlling charm, Imperius, and the killing curse, Avada Kedavra. And yet, in their fight against Voldemort, the supposedly principled protagonists deploy all three. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book, Harry, as old and wise and responsible as he will ever be, is hiding behind his invisibility cloak as he watches a sadistic Death Eater spit in the face of Professor McGonagall, a teacher he respects. He can easily stun the man and that’s that. However, instead, he screams, “Crucio,” and tortures him. McGonagall responds to his action more concerned that he is in danger at Hogwarts, than that he has used an Unforgivable Curse. There is no reproach, no warning about the use of such spells. In fact, McGonagall even says that Potter’s act was “very gallant.”
Potter is no moral paradigm. Nor does the narrator assume that responsibility. It is only what the reader brings to the text. It is only the reader who can make such determinations. Potter merely presents an arena in which such determinations can be made.
We want to believe in something—everyone wants to believe in something—and the vacuity of Harry Potter, like that of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, permits us the freedom to do so. It allows us to believe without having to commit to anything beyond our own dreams, while being part of something larger than ourselves. These are worlds, platforms, only sketched out, that permit us to let down our guard, allow us to pretend that we have faith.
If Harry Potter’s secret is that it gives us a safe space to embrace our empty beliefs, what is it, then, that fantasy promises the nation as a whole?
Well, to begin, the nation is not looking for the same thing as its youngest conscious generation.
Older Americans are not in need of a place where they can be free to believe. They already have faith and their churches of God and Country. More than half pray every day and more than half—nearly two-thirds—say that religion is very important to their lives. Eight in ten self-identify as patriotic; most fly the flag at their homes.
And yet, the current uncertainty is harder on them than it is on the Millennials. Being older, they have more at stake; they do not have as much time as the youngest generation to rebuild. They have families to care for and are burdened with greater amounts of debt. Consequently, they are much more pessimistic about the country and the world, more concerned about the situation in which we find ourselves. In 2010, only 26 percent believed the current situation to be alright. And these older generations believe, in statistically significantly greater numbers than Millennials do, that life in America has declined since the 1960s. Seventy-six percent of them declare that they are either angry or frustrated with the country’s current situation.
In fact, their worldview seems not so far from that of Tolkien. Like him, they are religious. Like him, they are skeptical of the future. Perhaps they are turning to fantasy for what Tolkien found there: recovery, escape, and consolation. To desire to be distracted from the rigors of grinding out sustenance when the rivers dry up makes perfect sense.
However, fantasy has changed since Tolkien first conceived it. It has become darker, stranger, crueler, no longer a stroll across the preserved countryside, but a trek through a forest of cracked mirrors. In fact, the story of fantasy is, ironically, the tale of an asymptote approaching reality, a movement toward the real world.
It took twelve years for fantasy literature to grow beyond Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But in 1977, fantasy came into its own, emerged as a robust genre. Then, Star Wars was ruling the screens and, as is the case today, a bitterness had crept into American life. The defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and a deep economic recession had shaken America’s self-confidence. Some people whispered that America had entered an “Age of Limits,” wherein the nation would have to operate under constrained expectations—it was a boom time no more. Voter turnout for the 1976 Presidential election was a record low. The Soviets surpassed America’s nuclear dominance.
In this context, Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara sold 125, 000 copies—in its first month—and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane commanded a strong cult audience. Together, they proved that it wasn’t just Tolkien that people were craving: they were eagerly consuming anything that mentioned magical rings.
These books show the shift occurring as fantasy turns strange and scary, dark and dangerous. They are haunting, and not merely because they delve into the supernatural. If you enter into them, far from comfort, you find things that disconcert and linger. They, too, are inflected with the darkness of their time.
Terry Brooks’ mediocre knockoff of Tolkien, The Sword of Shannara, is set in a post-apocalyptic world scarred by two nuclear holocausts—our world, in the future. It is a world whose magic stems from the aftereffects of nuclear radiation, and whose golden age was the current era. The remnants of modern-day skyscrapers are the great ruins at which the characters marvel. One could argue that this fantasy could offer recovery, reminding its readers how wonderful the current era may truly be. However, showcasing the future dystopia that evolves from the current world hardly helps to recover the present’s wonder—nor, sadly, does it provide a means of escape.
Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane moves even further from Tolkien’s model. His protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is a leper, and his first act upon entering the magical world of The Land is to rape Lena, the sixteen-year-old girl who finds and takes care him. Covenant is full of anger and spite, repulsive and difficult to spend time with. One hardly wants to read about him, let alone escape into his world. The series is the tale of his attempt at redemption. However, even the idea of consolation comes into question. While Covenant preserves The Land, is that enough? Does that redeem his original sin?
This trend toward darker worlds (in evidence with even the children’s tales of Philip Pullman) reaches its apotheosis with the most popular general fantasy of our era. While Harry Potter disarms cynicism by making cynics into villains, cynicism is at the core of George R. R. Martin’s fantastical reality. Though Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series—which spawned the television show Game of Thrones—is, unquestionably, high fantasy, dealing with the survival of a kingdom and of a world, it is unlike all that has come before it. Traditional high fantasy has enthroned good versus evil and pitted them against each other in pitched battle—each bringing all of its weapons to this final showdown, weapons ranging from objects such as maces and bows, to good or bad races such as orcs and elves, to abstract concepts (of questionable value) such as “Despair” or “Truth.” Martin’s world, Westeros, a medieval kingdom whose line of succession is unclear, features flawed characters fighting each other, some for power, some for survival, some because that is all there is to do, all that they know to do. It is absolutely insecure. Favorite characters, central characters, narrating characters, all meet unfair ends. Alliances are ever-shifting. There is no absolute evil—the focus is upon man against man. There are none of the saints of The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings—and it is more believable, in this way. Good men are undone by their pride. Treachery triumphs honesty. There is a realist—perhaps even a naturalist—streak that was not present in fantasy before this moment. The superlatives of the Fellowship of the Ring are gone, the scriptural quality of past epics has been overthrown. There is no jubilant victory—yet. No turn, no consolation to be found here.
So what is it then? If we’re not leaving to a world of wonder, where we can contemplate eternal verities, what is the attraction of these tales? If we’re only heading to a world that is as complex and morally ambiguous as our own, what do we get from it?
Tolkien called fantasy “story-making in its most primary and most potent mode.” And I think that the surge in interest with fantasy has to do with this perseverant idea of his. All art presents an ordered experience of the world, which otherwise can appear haphazard and chaotic, utterly indecipherable. Fantasy provides the baldest structuring of the world, creating a new reality entirely. And it is a world enchanted. There is meaning and purpose there—not simply because it is a story (for every story is, ultimately, enchanted), but because it is a story about the most enchanted of things, big things, about the world’s destruction and salvation.
Perhaps A.S. Byatt has it right. In her 2003 essay “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult,” she declared that today’s adults read fantasy— and, in particular, children’s fantasy—because they desire the comfort of order. Earlier this winter, in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik went further down this track, explaining how adolescents found in fantasy a means by which they could order their life. Perhaps we get from fantasy, like the adolescents that Gopnik discusses, the means to conceive of our fragile lives in a way that makes them a little less likely to shatter. Buffeted as we are by forces beyond our control, the illusion, if only for a few hours, of a crystallized place, a world that has a guiding consciousness watching over it, a logic, even if it might be as brutal and unforgiving as Martin’s, is, undeniably, a great comfort. Reading fantasy permits readers to leave everything in the author’s hands and revert to being children, without responsibilities in this foreign world, simply hanging on the author’s next word to learn about it. Like toddlers we must just accept what they tell us because we do not know this world’s logic. We are in a state of dependence.
And yet, every time I read Tolkien’s lecture, I am reminded of the words of Albert Camus, the apostle of independence. Writing about the novel after World War II, he said that it was the means by which “man refuses the world as it is, without consenting to escape it completely.” According to Camus, “the art of the novel re-made creation itself, the creation which is both imposed by man and refused by him.” All this sounds eerily similar to Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories.” For Camus, the novelist, by engaging with the world, was acting like a revolutionary, taking on the world and interrogating it, challenging it, and then recasting it in his work. He created new meaning from the rubble of the world. He rebelled against its accepted forms.
Both Camus and Tolkien point out that it is a dissatisfaction with the current state of the world that leads us to fiction. And both Tolkien and Camus point toward the same possible truth: that reading, thinking, can make us independent of this world. By reading, by re-imagining, we are able to refute the world’s confines and, in our minds, ride upon dragons.
Though the reader begins at the novelist’s feet and must cling on every word that spills from the writer’s pen to define this new world, it is the reader who breathes it into life. Fantasy may make its reader the subaltern, but the reader is aware of the constructed-ness of this world, that he can figure out its logic. The reader is aware that he is creating this world too. He is not the simple receptacle of the author’s thoughts, but an active participant. And so the reader, though he starts below, ends up on equal footing with the author, as her twin, the other subcreator, the reigning God of the new world.
To read fantasy, then, is both a revolutionary and reactionary act. We seek comfort from this world and we revolt against the world. We sublimate our desire for a new order that cannot yet be created, that is beyond the power of any one of us to create. We assert our agency, our ability to think, create, control.
I wrote earlier that fantasy is defined by its alternate world, its new—and different—land. And it is this place, the space that it offers that, more than anything else, is so valuable. To the Millennials it offers a space, in particular, to attempt to refresh ourselves through the ritual of belief. But also, to everyone, it offers a place where one can freely create and imagine, where new ideas can take root. It offers fertile soil.
However, fertile soil of this type, topsoil, is never deep—and this soil is no different. It is fragile. And the closer fantasy approaches the real world, the more it threatens to cede this rich earth for the barren ground that we tread every day, for the very ground that we need new ideas to revitalize.
Will something grow out of this other world into our own? Will a great oak sprout there from which we will be able to see far into our own universe? Is there a fantasy novel gestating that reveals the Camus in Tolkien and faces up to the genre’s true revolutionary potential?
I do not know—though I do hope.
For the moment, we persist: 300 million individuals, who revolt against the state of our country with our choice of literature, but do not know yet where to turn for the next step, the step that none can take alone, but must be done together, as a society. America’s love for fantasy has registered its discontent. But, from here, only a seer can foresee what comes next.