Growing up in the 80s, loving Tolkein and other fantasy, was certainly not to be on the outskirts of the culture- “Dungeons and Dragons” was on Saturday morning cartoons, the bookstore where I bought series after Del Rey series was only a short walk from my house, a game store proferring a seemingly infinite variety of pencil-and-paper RPGs and fantasy-themed board games sat invitingly downtown- but it was, nevertheless, to have a piece of your mental world that was cut off from everyday school and family life, and which most if not all of the people around you didn’t share. I’d look up and imagine a door opening in the clouds, through which Middle Earth or Narnia or Prydain or Xanth or any of the other worlds (rendered in sometimes good, sometimes terrible prose) would becken; or see the shadows of Ents on a hike with my parents, or turn to a friend when we were driving to his family’s cabin, and remark that the granite face of a highway rock cut we were passing was just the kind of things dwarves would live in, and with my friend’s uncomprehending shake of the head, it was clear that regular people would tolerate my private world but didn’t share it. It was to my astonishment that at one Christmas party, a neighbor’s son, back from his first semester of college, heard that I loved Tolkein and explained his understanding that Tolkein was inventing an Anglo-Saxon mythology along the lines of the Greek myths. The central core of my reading life was, at any rate, composed of images which, if they borrowed from movies or illustrations, were at least largely self-generated, with little of the detail or specificity that would have marked a more visual or artistically-inclined kid, but containing a sense of the vastness of imaginary worlds.
There is a lot to say about the rise of medieval-inflected fantasy into cultural prominence, until it can sit comfortably in one of the four thrones of our post-millennial Cair Paravel, (alongside superheroes, hip hop, and Star Wars perhaps.) Some of the rise of fantasy is likely due to the shift of child-focused culture into adult prominence, along with a yearning for a pre-modern world of timeless cultural homogeneity and moral clarity. One thing that cannot be said is that a kid who reads Tolkein or JK Rowling or any of the dozens or hundreds of imitators and imitators of imitators, would feel alone or different because of it, or- given the ubiquity of movies, video games, and toys on fantasy themes- feel that the imaginative world was his or hers alone. Still less would a grown-up who has watched all fifty broadcast episodes of Game of Thrones and waits with bated breath for the next season to begin tonight, feel alone.
Game of Thrones, both the HBO show and the attendant but increasingly marginal ASOIAF books, are perhaps the best example of a work relentlessly resisting its origins (in good Harold Bloomian “anxiety of influence” fashion): struggling to be maximally inappropriate for children (even as it is about dragons), and not to be delimited by Eurocentric provincialism (even as its seven kingdoms are based on the pre-conquest map of England and the Stark/Lannister conflict is modeled on York/Lancaster), fighting for moral ambiguity (even as it is about ice zombies threatening to take over the world.) My own view, having read the first three books in the series with enjoyment and leaving the last two volumes of meandering to Wikipedia, is that George R R Martin created an ultimately nihilistic but complete work ending with A Storm of Swords– as my wife said after one rapine-and-murder filled episode, “I hope the White Walkers win,”- and has been struggling for the last fifteen years with the emotional about-face required to bring the work to a more conventional conclusion.
The sheer vastness of human effort associated with the imagined worlds of Westeros or Hogwarts these days- the thousands of people making the movies or TV shows or toys or video games, etc- combined with the increasing believability of CGI dragons and the accessibility of people online who want to talk about them, suggests that in a not-too-distant future, the digitally rendered portal in the clouds that opens to let us into an imagined world will be, if not entirely real, at least convincing enough for many of us to step through it. It will not be our imagination that creates the world on the other side, of course- that will be left to wiser heads and cybernetic minds. And those of us who felt like oddballs once, for loving the fantastic and the escapist, will be perhaps at home. Or perhaps we will find that we preferred when fantasy was something you could see in the distance, like the shadows of Ents beneath the trees or the dwarven gates hidden in a highway rock cut, but never quite reach.