Great Escapism: J.R.R. Tolkien's Preindustrial Fantasy Feeds Postindustrial Entertainment

By Mooney, Chris | Reason, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Great Escapism: J.R.R. Tolkien's Preindustrial Fantasy Feeds Postindustrial Entertainment


Mooney, Chris, Reason


Each morning, I fire up my laptop and gaze into Hobbiton, a digital landscape inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Trees cast speckled shadows on the grass, and green hills sprout chimneys and little round door holes. In the foreground, a footbridge spans a river whose waters are churned by the wheel of old Mr. Sandyman's mill.

This idyllic computer image, a fantasy of rural living uncontaminated by modernity and advanced technology, comes courtesy of Vivendi Universal Games, a subdivision of the international megacorporation Vivendi. This winter, Vivendi is bringing out the first in a line of Lord of the Rings video games. Competitor Electronic Arts is likewise bringing out a Tolkien game. The release of both is timed to coincide with the premiere of The Two Towers, director Peter Jackson's much-anticipated sequel to his massively popular film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Such activity underscores how intensely entertainment companies are mining Tolkien's mythic Middle-earth. And why not? Millions of fans around the globe have welcomed almost every new product associated with The Lord of the Rings.

Nearly 50 years old, Tolkien's multivolume novel remains a vibrant inspiration for all sorts of popular culture. Beyond the two video games and the new movie, there are spinoff books, CDs, DVDs, and board and card games. In a broader sense, The Lord of the Rings informs the entire contemporary fantasy genre, which would scarcely exist without it.

What's driving the demand for so many "Tolclones"? One well-rehearsed answer is that such escapism appeals to the economically oppressed, to those working long hours, to victims of "the machine." This take finds superficial support in Tolkien's own writings, which are shot through with nostalgia for simpler, preindustrial ways of life.

Yet the vital center of today's Tolkien fandom is, of all things; a Web site: TheOneRing.net, which draws over 1 million unique users per month. Far from seeking an escape from this modern world of machines and technology, Tolkien buffs luxuriate in its offerings. As important, the relentless commercialization of Tolkiendom has provided its fans with unprecedented opportunities to create strong, vibrant, and lively communities. Fans get together to play Reiner Knizzia's popular Lord of the Rings board games; they travel through cyberspace--and real space--to meet with their fellow chat room members. They dissect all things Tolkien and, rather than accepting them uncritically, argue endlessly about legitimacy and authenticity.

Throwing two new, graphically gorgeous video games into this mix multiplies further the possibilities for immersion in Tolkien's imaginative subcontinent. …

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