Man, has it really been eleven years since the first Lord of the Rings movie hit theaters? It feels more like ... Well, like ten years. Ten and a half at the most!
Since then, the genre of Epic Fantasy has boomed over the years — And by “Epic Fantasy,” of course, I mean sword and sorcery, not the kind that involves you, a stick of butter, your wife's parents' bedroom, and a naked Natalie Portman with a picture of Ryan Gosling's face taped to her back. The kind that makes you ashamed and confused and poorer after the psychiatrist's bill.
Now, with the Game of Thrones franchise making about half as much money as the IRS, the genre has reached a new zenith, but it actually seems to have been making the rounds for longer than that. Back in the 90s you had the highly successful series Xena, The Warrior Princess (not as successful as GoT, granted, but it ran for a strong six seasons in total and still has a fanbase) and in the 80s, there was Conan the Barbarian. In fact the tradition goes back even further. In the 60s and 70s, the very Lord of the Rings that generates countless memes on your mobile device today was inspiring Led Zeppelin songs and even band names. with none other than the Beatles trying to take a movie adaptation off the ground for them to star on. And there's indication that Tolkien himself, father of Middle-Earth was influenced by the literary version of Conan the Barbarian to create his own mystical universe. So it's a great big circle of swashbuckling burly men massaging each other's backs throughout the generations of the 20th century. Rather moving, if you ask me.
The difference, now, is that fantasy is dark. It's not just dungeons and dragons anymore, it's political intrigue, lavish orgies and a fair share of cussing. Not that I'm complaining. I've dabbled in a little dark fantasy myself. I think this is the reflection of the fact that the “lighter” fantasy fans who were learning Qenya 10 years ago have grown up and discovered that no man can deal with the level of blue balls that Aragorn goes through. Not that things in the real world are entirely like the HBO series, though. That one seems to overlap a lot with the sort of epic fantasies featuring Natalie Portman and Ryan Gosling that I mentioned above.
I think the success of the genre comes from a desire of freedom and a longing for simpler times. It really began its boom just as industrialization was kicking up in the real world and people started trading in their plows and sickles for cars and radio. The new possibilities of technology were certainly a bit frightening and a bit emasculating, too. No longer was a single man expected to work the farm with his own muscles — that were guaranteed to grow and bulge from all the exercise. No longer would you settle your debts with an axe duel in the hills (I may be a little bit fuzzy on the details of the time).
Nowadays, we find ourselves meekly discussing the merits of the Nexus versus the Kindle Fire on Radio Shack with an attendant that is just as flabby and overweight as we are, and there's probably a big chunk of our brain that wonders why you're not ripping your shirt off, slashing the guy in half and wearing his hide as a warning to others who cross your path that you're the undisputed authority on tablet computers, and whomever may challenge your title shall meet their fate at the edge of the same broadsword that smote the fiendish Radio Shack employee.
The mundane problems we have seem so whiny and pathetic in comparison to the quarrels that pervade those fictional worlds. We want those quarrels not because we like to suffer, but because the merits of overcoming them are far greater than those of finishing your third-quarter analysis spreadsheet on time. We go back and forth in our little commutes, by bus or car or subway, and the biggest danger we face is stepping on dog dooty, and as we scrape that dooty away we dream about lands where everything you step on has some dooty on it, and not only don't you mind, you also have no inclination of complaining to the Homeowners' Association about it. Not when there be goddamn dragons to slay.
That may seem like a somewhat male-centric view of the subject, but the ladies are as much in on the action as we are. The fantasy genre has been relatively woman-friendly since its inception, with the Red Sonya (the inspiration for Red Sonja) character showing up in Robert E. Howard's work as early as 1934. And now that women are far more empowered and independent than they were in the past, they too can fantasize about killing ogres and stepping on dooty and not giving a damn.
In fact, the rise of this form of fiction pretty much rides side-by-side with the female rights movements, and this may not be a coincidence. In fact it's quite possible that the all-time high of popularity for sword and sorcery may be due to this emerging market. After all, with women consuming as much of it as men, it's double the profits. That may explain why there's increasingly more warrior-women in fiction, especially in the Game of Thrones universe. With the females still suffering more oppression than males in our society, this type of character who can hand a man's ass to him any day may be even more enticing to them.
The advancements in science, medicine, and technology may have brought us unprecedented comfort and safety in these modern times, but they haven't been able yet to tame our wild, dragon-slaying, dooty-stepping side.