Feeding On Fantasy

Forward into the past! At a time of uncertainty, American culture looks backward for comfort

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Truly let it be said that Sir Tristan von Eising is everything a knight should be--honorable and chivalrous, 6 ft. 4 in. tall and an expert in armed combat. On weekends Sir Tristan von Eising is a proud nobleman of the Barony of Nordskogen, but during the week he is better known as Darren Chermack, 34, an inventor who is a sword-carrying member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (S.C.A.), an organization devoted to re-creating the lifestyle of premodern Europe. And in case you're not familiar with the Barony of Nordskogen, most benighted Muggles know it as the greater Minneapolis--St. Paul, Minn., area. Strange and magical things are afoot in this great land of ours--Middle-earth, Middle America, whatever you want to call it.

The past quarter-century of American popular culture was ruled by the great mega-franchises of science fiction--Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day, The Matrix. But lately, since the turn of the millennium or so, we've been dreaming very different dreams. The stuff of those dreams is fantasy--swords and sorcerers, knights and ladies, magic and unicorns. In 2001 the fantasy double bill of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings ranked first and second at the box office, and it's happening all over again this year. In its first weekend alone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets cleared $88 million. Think Star Trek: Nemesis is going to come close to that? Harry hasn't done badly at the bookstore either, having moved a total of 77 million copies in the U.S. so far, while Tolkien's works sold 11 million copies in the U.S. in 2001 alone. The online fantasy game EverQuest pulls in more than $5 million a month from its half a million subscribers, and the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering boasts 7 million players. The business of fantasy has become a multibillion-dollar reality, and science fiction is starting to feel, well, a little 20th century.

Popular culture is the most sensitive barometer we have for gauging shifts in the national mood, and it's registering a big one right now. Our fascination with science fiction reflected a deep collective faith that technology would lead us to a cyberutopia of robot butlers serving virtual mai tais. With The Two Towers, the new installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, about to storm the box office, we are seeing what might be called the enchanting of America. A darker, more pessimistic attitude toward technology and the future has taken hold, and the evidence is our new preoccupation with fantasy, a nostalgic, sentimental, magical vision of a medieval age. The future just isn't what it used to be--and the past seems to be gaining on us.

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