The Nightmares in Our Dreamlands

Shelob
courtesy of J. Longo

Your humble The Toast Tolkien Correspondent is back with the concluding volume of his epic trilogy that began with How I Defeated the Tolkien Estate, became a bloody battle with The Most Metal Deaths in Middle-earth, Ranked, and now reaches its epic climax with The Illegitimacy of Aragorn’s Claim to the Throne. As with the others, it’s accompanied by wonderful art from J. Longo, including the beautiful tourist poster for Shelob’s Lair above, and a glorious GIF of a flaming Denethor plummeting from Minas Tirith’s citadel.

The piece is a humorous look at how dubious Aragorn’s claim to the winged crown in The Return of the King really is (he’s 37 generations and half a continent removed from the last of his forefathers that ruled Gondor) and how nightmarish so many of our popular fantasy worlds really are.

I’ve long been fascinated by the longing so many of us feel for secondary worlds that are, if you think about them for more than two seconds, horrible places. Nobody really wants to visit H.P. Lovecraft’s world of malignant cosmic gods, but millions of people dream of setting foot into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which is just as awful. Sure, the Shire seems fun, but you’re also walking into a land of incarnate fallen angels, cannibal trolls, orc armies, witch-kings riding pterodactyls, bottomless chasms, giant spiders that devour light and regurgitate it as despair, and dragons that will hypnotize you into committing incest.

You could say the same for that far, far away galaxy in Star Wars. We dream of flying the Millennium Falcon and wielding a laser sword, but forget we’d be living in a galaxy controlled by an oppressive fascist empire that will destroy an entire planets to make a point, and is populated by horrors like giant slug gangsters, Sith Lords, and Sarlaac pits.

Harry Potter is probably the best example of this phenomenon. Children dream of getting a letter from Hogwarts, but what parent would allow their child to attend a purely vocational high school that offers no chance of going onto college, has no electricity or basic safety standards, is infested with dangerous animals, and is often attacked by magical fascists and dragons? The Dursleys should have been delighted to send hated Harry Potter off to Hogwarts, the worst, most dangerous school in Britain.

But the hellishness of Hogwarts, Middle-earth, Westeros, and is the very reason why we fantasize about these worlds. On a narrative level, the fact that these worlds are falling apart at the seams is what makes them worth knowing and visiting. Hogwarts isn’t interesting because it’s a school of magic, it’s interesting because a faction of its alumni and students want to violently overthrow the government and others want to stop them. We’re invested in the fate of the people of the Seven Kingdoms not because of their splendid food and heraldry, but because their realm is devolving into anarchy and apocalypse. We revisit Middle-earth again and again not because of the beauty of the mallorn trees, but because it’s under siege by Mordor and its fate rests in the hands of a humble hobbit. A thousand page novel set entirely in the Shire during the long peace before the rise of Sauron would be delightful and amusing, but probably wouldn’t inspire many boardgame adventures or CosPlay costumes.

Books and movies allow us to visit these worlds and partake of their wonders and dangers vicariously. That’s the joy of fiction–to allow us to imagine and inhabit, for a few hours at a time, lives and worlds more beautiful and terrible than our own.

 

 

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