Back at the dawn of the new millennium, an Oxford don argued, at book length, that fantasy was the most important literature of the 20th century and that the claim rested on the work of JRR Tolkien. Prof Tom Shippey was duly ridiculed by some for his heresy, with this paper describing it as “a belligerently argued piece of fan-magazine polemic”. Among those who Prof Shippey cited as influenced by “the master” was one Alan Garner, author of a series of beloved children’s fantasies.
How much more secure the professor’s claims look today. Garner, now 87, has just been shortlisted for the Booker prize for a novel called Treacle Walker, which, if more folky than fantastic, certainly displays its fantasy pedigree. Meanwhile, Tolkien delivered more than 25 million global viewers to Amazon Prime on the first day of its splashy new prequel to The Lord of the Rings. The show is reportedly the most expensive ever made, with suggestions that $465m (£400m) was spent on its first season. This sum does not include the $250m paid to the Tolkien estate for the rights.
The Rings of Power is a Frankenstein’s monster of a story, cobbled together from contextualising notes, and the jury is out on how good it will turn out to be over its eight episodes – but the anticipation is telling. The hold of Tolkien has never been solely about the writing: it is about the mythopoeia, a term this professor of Old English adopted in the 1930s to explain the creation of mythical worlds in which the author was merely “the little maker”.
The magic portal for the arrival of this mythopoeia in the 21st century was opened in 2001 by the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. In 2010, Forbes comically declared Tolkien the third-highest-earning dead celebrity, after Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, basing this assessment on both the films and half a million book sales in the previous year. And so it has continued. In the 2022 What Kids Are Reading report, which collates information from 6,500 schools across the UK and Ireland, two titles in the trilogy were among the favourites of secondary-school students of all ages. The same survey found that the most popular book in primary schools was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the seventh and final title in JK Rowling’s series.
Fantasy suits the era of film and television because it is infinitely grandiose while sidestepping the need to grapple with the effect on plot of modern technology: Frodo can’t phone home. However, two decades have passed since Jackson’s films landed, so the enduring popularity of The Lord of the Rings isn’t simply tie-in fever.
From the off, Tolkien was caught in the crossfire between those who dismissed his work as escapism and others who saw in it a moral purpose forged on the killing fields of the Somme. It’s a pointless binary. “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory,” wrote the master himself. “If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
This commitment to pushing against constraints is one reason why so many of its writers – from Rowling and Neil Gaiman to Tolkien himself – have featured on the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books list over the decades. Fantasy, as recent events show, retains it power in our new age, and will always defeat those orcs bent on capturing and controlling the imagination.
• This article was amended on 11 September 2022 to refer to Treacle Walker, not Treacle Water.