Why fantasy 'Rings' true

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It is a day of deep apprehension for me. Twenty years ago, as a teen, I first read "The Lord of the Rings." (I have now read it six times and even taught it at MIT.) Today I will see a big-budget movie adaptation of my favorite novel. I feel apprehension, because I'll be looking at someone else's vision of what I have already imagined.

Then there's all the commercialization - from Burger King mugs of Frodo Baggins to the hideous movie covers on the novels. I can only hope that people will like the movie enough to read the books. They will discover a secret: that Tolkien's works are among the literary masterpieces of the 20th century.

Certainly, there are colleagues of mine who would disagree. To read Shakespeare is respectable, but if you read Tolkien, well, aren't you supposed to outgrow it? I can understand their doubts. There have been a few high-profile cases of Dungeons and Dragons players taking game fantasy too far. But for the most part, many people find fantasy beneficial.

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Unfortunately, among much of the literati, there's a belief that fantasy literature is something less than what the classics of the Western canon teach. You know, fantasy is just escapism. But it's also about the search for truth and for our place in the world, a yearning that has only heightened since Sept. 11.

In Harry Potter-speak, it's the mortal, or "muggle," Vernon Dursley's way of executive life in the mundane moneymaking fast lane versus a way of life that passionately embraces wonder. It's the quest for low-orbit missile defense versus aiming for the moon and Mars. One clings to self-interest, the other reaches for "the cathedral of the imagination," as Wyn Wachhorst terms it in "The Dream of Spaceflight."

If there's any escapism in fantasy for adults, it's the desire to escape the incessant demand to make money in order to accrue more things, like a snail hugging its hard shell about itself. It's also about getting away from conformity with others whose social and political views and skin color are like one's own, and where adventure means a sale at Filene's and the latest episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

On the other hand, those who love fantasy have learned to explore beyond the edge of sea and sky. For them, true adventure means curling up in front of the fire and turning a thousand pages of "The Lord of the Rings" for the fifth time.

But what does fantasy really teach? In "The Lord of the Rings," we learn about Frodo's desire to give up material comforts in an attempt to destroy a ring of evil so that others may live in peace. In "Harry Potter" we learn that love and the loyalty of friendship will help us overcome loneliness, bitterness, and maliciousness. Fantasy is about learning how to take responsibility for your life, which often means sacrificing to help others.

Fantasy gives many a sense of wonder in a contemporary world that teaches us that an MBA is more practical than an advanced degree in literature. We live in a world where we are supposed to find more importance in the cacophony of disasters and fluctuating stock prices than in the tears shed during a moment of insight as one turns the final page of a newly discovered author.

But beneath the noise, pulsing below the surface of everyday life, our myth-makers are writing tales of profound wonder: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, George Lucas, Joe Straczynski, among many others. Such works comprise the Homeric epics of our day. These authors have created works of literature and media that - like the mythologies of our ancient past - help many discover who they are.

Thus, we have such fantasy shops as Forbidden Planet in New York City; Million Year Picnic and Pandemonium Games and Books in Cambridge, Mass.; and Dangerous Visions in Hollywood, Calif. They provide windows into worlds where people can discover transcendence in the middle of a world crying out for mythological visions. Many want catharsis in an over-advertised, sexy world of smooth bodies and passionate, surface desires that leave them empty.

This is why millions of people are learning about wizards and hobbits. They want to drop their own "muggleness." There are few other options to turn to that put them on a quest where they can learn what it truly means to be human.

Kurt Lancaster is the creator of the science fiction Web narrative, LettersFromOrion.com. He teaches science fiction and Shakespeare at MIT. He is also the author of 'Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performances in a Media Universe' (University of Texas Press, 2001).

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