It is a heck of a month to be a nerd. Two massively successful franchises, Marvel’s Avengers and HBO’s Game of Thrones, are closing out their story arcs. Both have achieved critical and commercial success; on the critical front, Game of Thrones has won thirty-eight Emmys (more than any other scripted series, and second only to the all-time winningest Saturday Night Live), and Marvel’s cinematic universe has collected numerous Oscar nominations over the course of its films (including a Best Picture nomination for Black Panther) as well as three wins. On the commercial front, Game of Thrones has accounted for HBO gaining over 50 million new subscribers, and Avengers: Endgame made $1.2 billion dollars in five days (at 120 hours in five days, that is literally ten million dollars an hour).
Here’s what’s fascinating: when I was a freshman in high school, you would not have been caught dead reading an Iron Man comic. Dragons were weird. I distinctly remember a kid stopping by my desk as I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring and asking me “Why do you read that stuff? Do you think anybody cares about stories like that?” Flash forward a few years, and The Lord of the Rings film franchise broke box office records. Return of the King not only received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it won the damn thing, and it earned every inch of that statue. The kid who had asked me why I read “that stuff” was now playing Dungeons & Dragons. Around the same time, Harry Potter was becoming a household name. Fantasy was cool. (For what it’s worth, this same phenomenon had happened in the book publishing industry several decades previous, when works like The Sword of Shannara, The Belgariad, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and The Wheel of Time became increasingly successful, with the latter installments in The Wheel of Time regularly making #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.) Twenty years ago, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that in 2019, the most successful entertainment franchises would be films about comic book characters and a television show about knights and dragons, yet here we are. Now, it’s not a perfect track record. Franchises of the fantastical have most certainly had their flops, from 2011’s Season of the Witch (not even Ron Perlman headbutting Beelzebub could save that one) to last year’s film adaptation of Mortal Engines.I suspect that fantasy fiction fails more often then it succeeds, but when it does succeed, it succeeds in big, record-shattering, household-recognition fashion, performing far better than its contemporary counterparts. Sure, a show like NCIS is wildly popular, but it does not have near the reach or cultural impact of Game of Thrones.
The question is, why? What is it about these stories that, when successful, causes them to become such critical and commercial behemoths?
To answer this, I think we need to go back to fiction’s roots (which is, in fact, fantasy). Humankind’s oldest tales are those such as Homer’s The Illiad and the Odyssey, both works of epic fantasy that were passed down over the generations via oral tradition. As a first rule, fiction is escapism, but the best kind of escapism also comes around full circle by being relatable to the audience. Homer’s highly imaginative campfire stories engaged readers on an escapist level by portraying tales of great adventures, heroic battles, and clashes with cosmic forces, but for every epic theme these stories invoked, they also invoked equally personal themes such as a how people can fall due to pride, the impact of individual choices on our destinies, and the importance of coming home at long last. They engaged a range of subjects, from the deeply individual to the cosmic.
Flash forward, and fiction has gradually changed over all those years, transforming in increments from the oral tradition of Homer’s poems into the paperback works of prose we enjoy today. Like any other form of art, it evolved over time, and as fiction matured, the ancient form of poetic fantasy gave way toward tales that showed more realism. General fiction (excluding fantasy and science fiction as niche genres) has dialed down on the elements that were harder to relate to (gods and cosmic forces) and dialed up on the elements that were easier to relate to (personal challenges). For example, the scenario in John Grisham’s The Firm is orders of magnitude more plausible than Harry Potter’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts. It bears mention, though, that neither story, even if the former is more believable than the latter, is a shred more real than the other. Neither story happened, period, so in a sense they are both fantasy.
So, when a successful and relatable fantastical story such as Lord of the Rings does come along, I think it’s the equivalent of fiction coming home, returning to the themes and conflicts that the earliest stories tapped into. All good stories find a way to tap into the reader’s sense of wonder, and fantasy is the essence of wonder, imagination unfiltered, awe in its most potent form. At the end of the day, though, I think it’s because it resonates with us for one simple reason: fantasy fiction tells us that we are living life for more than just ourselves. These stories always revolve around characters who are thrust into situations much bigger than themselves: the stakes are high, the world is ending, the dark is coming, you get it. And when these characters find themselves in these situations, they discover that they are the ones who are able to make a difference. That taps into a very fundamental part of the human psyche. We want to think our lives mean something, that we are doing more than just existing from one day to the next, and that we’ll do something that leaves an impact after we’re gone. Fantasy fiction does this in spades: it tells us that we are doing more than just existing, we are making a better place for those that follow us. Ultimately, it’s relatable. That’s a hard concept to wrap one’s mind around, given the elements that usually populate fantasy fiction, but as Neil Gaiman once wrote “fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Sure, in our lives maybe we do not fight three-headed monsters in the heights of a snow-swept mountain range, as did the heroes in Warrior of Light, but we do face demons of a more figurative nature, and the message remains the same: we can beat them. These tales will stick around for a long time, and I think we will find our lives have been made better because of them.