Great Escapism

J.R.R.Tolkien's preindustrial fantasy feeds postindustrial entertainment.


Each morning, I fire up my laptop and gaze into Hobbiton, a digital landscape inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Trees cast speckled shadows on the grass, and green hills sprout chimneys and little round door holes. In the foreground, a footbridge spans a river whose waters are churned by the wheel of old Mr. Sandyman's mill.

This idyllic computer image, a fantasy of rural living uncontaminated by modernity and advanced technology, comes courtesy of Vivendi Universal Games, a subdivision of the international megacorporation Vivendi. This winter, Vivendi is bringing out the first in a line of Lord of the Rings video games. Competitor Electronic Arts is likewise bringing out a Tolkien game. The release of both is timed to coincide with the premiere of The Two Towers, director Peter Jackson's much-anticipated sequel to his massively popular film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Such activity underscores how intensely entertainment companies are mining Tolkien's mythic Middle-earth. And why not? Millions of fans around the globe have welcomed almost every new product associated with The Lord of the Rings. Nearly 50 years old, Tolkien's multivolume novel remains a vibrant inspiration for all sorts of popular culture. Beyond the two video games and the new movie, there are spinoff books, CDs, DVDs, and board and card games. In a broader sense, The Lord of the Rings informs the entire contemporary fantasy genre, which would scarcely exist without it.

What's driving the demand for so many "Tolclones"? One well-rehearsed answer is that such escapism appeals to the economically oppressed, to those working long hours, to victims of "the machine." This take finds superficial support in Tolkien's own writings, which are shot through with nostalgia for simpler, preindustrial ways of life.

Yet the vital center of today's Tolkien fandom is, of all things, a Web site:, which draws over 1 million unique users per month. Far from seeking an escape from this modern world of machines and technology, Tolkien buffs luxuriate in its offerings. As important, the relentless commercialization of Tolkiendom has provided its fans with unprecedented opportunities to create strong, vibrant, and lively communities. Fans get together to play Reiner Knizzia's popular Lord of the Rings board games; they travel through cyberspace—and real space—to meet with their fellow chat room members. They dissect all things Tolkien and, rather than accepting them uncritically, argue endlessly about legitimacy and authenticity.

Throwing two new, graphically gorgeous video games into this mix multiplies further the possibilities for immersion in Tolkien's imaginative subcontinent. The world pictured in these games may be premodern, but high-resolution graphics and breathtaking computerized cinematography are central to the experience of the current Tolkien obsessive. (To be sure, Tolkien's devotees yearn to encounter nature too. Red Carpet Tours promises to take them to "the very heart of the magic realm," with tours of the actual New Zealand landscapes where Peter Jackson filmed his movies.)

The new Vivendi game has more going for it than just great looks. In 1974, Tolkien's influence on role playing games became apparent with the release of the pathbreaking Dungeons & Dragons. Soon after, Tolkien-obsessed hackers at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory created a D&D-style computer role playing game called Adventure, which spread across the Net and deeply influenced the seminal game Zork, the precursor of Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, and everything in between. Each subsequent role-playing game—whether Myst or the multiplayer EverQuest, in which thousands of online individuals interact at any given moment—has its ultimate origins in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

Given such a history, Vivendi's role playing game arguably more fully embodies the Tolkien spirit than Electronic Arts' level-by-level arcade-style game (which doesn't even let you play as a hobbit or a wizard!).

But the game most suited to the modern Tolkien experience—one that combines technology, community, and commerce—doesn't exist yet. It would be a huge multiplayer online game like EverQuest, capable of blending the wired communalism of Tolkien fandom with fully interactive role playing. In the late 1990s, gamemaker Sierra Online launched a failed experiment to do just this. They've since been gobbled up by Vivendi, which has revived the project.

Whenever it comes out, the sales pitch for this one should be obvious: One game to rule them all…One game to bind them….