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The genre that defines our age

The Rings of Power: like stepping into “the Kensington of Middle-earth”

Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings show “looks every cent of the billion dollars Jeff Bezos reportedly spent making it”, says James Marriott in The Times. “Steepling cliffs of brilliant blue ice. The white sails of a thousand elven ships crossing a dark ocean.” The whole thing just “feels wealthy” – it’s like stepping into “the Kensington of Middle-earth”. We shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy has become “the central genre of our time”. The highest grossing film of the century is Avatar, “about a planet full of cyan humanoids with pointy ears”. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings “made more money and won more Oscars than any film trilogy in history”. Game of Thrones, adapted from George RR Martin’s bestselling books, was a TV phenomenon. Even many of the top video games are “Tolkien-influenced”: The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, World of Warcraft.

It’s strange, when you think about it. A society that trumpets itself as “relentlessly modern” is actually obsessed with medieval make-believe. A culture that prides itself on being practically allergic to earnestness turns out to be “at ease with a level of high seriousness that makes grand opera look knowing and postmodern”. Really, though, all this is just proof that the authority of “gatekeepers and snobs” has been eroded by mass media and the internet. Popular entertainment used to be “almost self-consciously trivial” (think music hall, circuses, detective fiction), while “humourless mythological grandeur” was the preserve of the literary elite (think Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur). But that was always unfair: Lord of the Rings has topped polls of the nation’s favourite books for decades. Now, finally, the rest of the culture has been allowed to catch up.