Back to the Future

The nostalgic yet progressive appeal of wizards, hobbits, and Jedi knights


When the current generation of American children looks back on the first decade of the 21st century, it is possible that the three names it will most readily recall will be not Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and George W. Bush but Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Luke (or Anakin) Skywalker. Never before have three ongoing series of films—the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter franchises—proved so fabulously profitable and internationally popular.

The original Star Wars (1977) grossed $513 million worldwide, and its 1997 re-release earned $460 million. International theatrical rentals of the film swelled the total by an additional $779 million. (Not bad for a film that cost $11 million to produce.) The Fellowship of the Rings (2001) has proved fabulously popular, with worldwide grosses totaling $860 million and worldwide rentals $500 million. The Harry Potter series has produced only slightly less magical returns, with $600 million in worldwide rentals alone for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Nor will the flood of such films subside anytime soon. The VHS and DVD editions of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets have recently been released. The theatrical premiere of The Return of the King (the third part of The Lord of the Rings) is slated for December 2003. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are due out in 2004 and 2005. The next Star Wars film will be released in 2005, and a third trilogy of Star Wars movies is now in the planning stages.

While each of these series is impressively original, collectively they exhibit enough common features to prompt the question of why a certain film genre, loosely categorized as science fiction/fantasy (purists would scoff at this conflation), has unexpectedly assumed pre-eminence in contemporary culture. The question is no less relevant for viewers, such as myself, who have been disappointed by some of the recent episodes in these series—The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The popularity of these films owes much to the immense talent that has made possible their cinematic realization (and, with The Lord of the Rings if not Harry Potter, to the literary genius that gave birth to the novels on which the films are based). Technological advances in special effects and computer-generated imaging have lent a narrative credibility and spectacular quality to these movies that hitherto was unachievable. (By contrast, recall Ralph Bakshi's feeble 1977 animated rendering of The Lord of the Rings). The fact that all three series appeal to a broad audience that includes children and adolescents, as opposed to more "serious" films that market themselves exclusively to "mature" viewers, no doubt helps explain their box office success. But we are left to wonder why these particular films, as opposed to so many other well-crafted, financially successful, and technologically advanced pictures aimed at a general audience—Ice Age, Stuart Little, Toy Story, Shrek—have proved so culturally resonant.

One significant feature common to all three series is a dramatically compelling (as opposed to a didactically plodding) struggle between good and evil. The protagonists of these films do battle with a potent, even superhuman incarnation of evil: Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Darth Vader in Star Wars. Neatly counterpoised to these demonic figures are characters possessing magical or mystical powers who lead the fight for goodness and justice: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi (and Yoda). Between these moral poles stand a set of emblematic heroes—Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker—who, though they struggle against evil, nevertheless discover that they are related to or tempted by the evil figure they ostensibly oppose. Their struggle against evil ultimately turns out to be internal as much as it is external. As the literary critic Tom Shippey has pointed out, J.R.R. Tolkien's Rings trilogy makes a strong theological appeal. Like Harry Potter and Star Wars, it offers a mythological explanation of the apparent chaos, pain, disappointment, horror, and violence of the world in terms of a Manichean struggle of cosmic forces.

But if each of these series reiterates a theological narrative rooted in Western European Christian societies, they nonetheless respond to a specifically modern set of social anxieties. Indeed, each expresses a deep discomfort with modernity itself. If the fundamental narrative structure of the films borrows heavily from tradition, the specific forms that both good and evil assume within them are those of the modern world.

This may seem counterintuitive, given that science fiction and fantasy famously provide an escape from the realities of contemporary life. Yet all three series remain thematically rooted in the social problems from which they provide a cinematic holiday. Each represents an imaginary world that is and yet is not our own. Each presents a critical view of our modern world, and each offers a glimpse of a different and preferable modernity. These alternative worlds integrate appealing elements of the premodern past into a vision of the future.

One of the contemporary discontents to which all three series respond is a general boredom with modern bourgeois existence. The escapism of these stories is an antidote to the routine that is the special curse of safe, static middle-class life. The suffocating and vulgarly materialistic world of the Dursleys, the family that initially raises the orphaned Harry Potter; the pettiness and relative inconsequence of life in the Shire, where Frodo Baggins was born; the laborious and task-centered existence of the young Luke Skywalker on his aunt and uncle's dusty provincial farm—all bespeak the ordinary world of the middle class. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone provides an especially unfavorable view of modern bourgeois life. The Dursley home is what Harry most eagerly wishes to escape: His life is literally cramped, his daily existence reduced to the meager dimensions of a closet-cum-bedroom under the stairs.

It is no accident that all three series initially focus on the fortunes of an adventurous youth. Harry, Luke, and Frodo all secretly hope not to become like their elders. Though by no means revolutionary firebrands, all rebel against the older generation. All share a common desire for freedom, travel, and heroic adventure, a yearning to leave behind the safe but restrictive world in which they were raised.

The fact that such narratives strike a responsive chord among parents as well as their children suggests that the lure of adolescent rebellion against bourgeois life may be as strong—or stronger—for middle-aged, middle-class adults whose hopes of realizing their youthful romantic aspirations are rapidly fading. If The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter reject the modern bourgeois order, each also implicitly rejects the notion that each generation should emulate and carry on the traditions of their elders. As such, all three exemplify the spirit of romantic rebellion against the modern bourgeois order—a rebellion that is itself fundamentally modern and bourgeois. Each generation thinks of itself as progressive and its parents as conservative or reactionary. Yet the traditions of the older generation are in no way deeply rooted in the past, emerging instead from a relatively recent rejection of the norms of a not-so-distant generation.

This cycle of generational revolt is complicated by the curious fact that the heroes of these romances ultimately stumble on a secret inheritance at odds with their staid middle-class lives. Each learns that his true parents are nothing like the people who actually raised him. Luke makes the fateful discovery that his father was a Jedi knight. Harry finds his real parents were wizards. Frodo takes after his errant, widely traveled, and eccentric uncle Bilbo, who bequeaths to him the very ancient Ring of Power. All these romantic heroes rebel against their given social role and paternal expectations in the name of a hitherto concealed "true" identity rooted in an obscure and mysterious past. To become a wizard, a Jedi, or the Ring bearer is to claim an ancient title and anachronistic position impossible to reconcile with the narrow social possibilities and historical limitations of life in Little Whinging, the Shire, or a rural community on the outskirts of a galactic empire.

Were the heroes of these films to leave their tedious lives for a world utterly alien from the mundane ones they had known, these stories would offer pure escapism. Instead, each encounters a hellish version of the modern world he has fled. In the first Star Wars trilogy, Luke battles an empire propped up by a vast, robot-like army of imperial storm troopers and equipped with the most deadly weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. Joining a loose confederation of rebels, he helps spearhead a war of independence against a regime that is soulless, tyrannical, hegemonic, and technologically based. Given that George Lucas' original trilogy was produced during the final years of the Cold War, it is not hard to identify his Empire with what Ronald Reagan famously described as "the Evil Empire." (That critics of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative derisively dubbed that program "Star Wars" further melded the series with historical reality.) Despite costumes freely adapted from the Flash Gordon serials and titles borrowed from Roman antiquity, the Empire represents a fusion of fascist and communist elements.

Luke and the other freedom fighters who oppose this totalitarian menace are characterized by their relative independence (suggested by Han Solo's very name), their voluntary and negotiable participation in the great struggle, and their comparatively decentralized forms of resistance and military organization. Perhaps the most interesting thematic development of the second trilogy (now two-thirds complete) is the revelation that the Empire emerged historically out of an apparently free and republican federation of planets. While reiterating in simplified form the transformation of republican into imperial Rome, the overall arc of the Lucas films hints that the totalitarian Empire issued from the ostensibly democratic and free Federation. And whereas the first trilogy celebrated the exploits of independent smugglers (Han and Chewbacca) who join up to fight an oppressive Empire that controls galactic trade, the second trilogy begins with the revelation that an evil Trade Federation, sanctioned by the Republic, secretly plots to take over the independent planet of Naboo. Surely the doubts about the collusive relationship between big business and big government, and the growing concern with the attendant loss of freedom in the Republic, reflect the changed post?Cold War environment of the 1990s: The only hegemon remaining is not the Evil Empire of the Soviets (much less the ever more transparent ghost of Nazi Germany) but the last great superpower: America.

Lucas claims to have laid out the overall arc of his story long before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Even so, there is an unexpectedly subversive strain in the Star Wars saga that has become more pronounced as the long narrative has unfolded. The whole series turns, after all, on the fact that the great hero of the Federation, the Jedi Anakin Skywalker, goes over to the "dark side." In the process, he literally loses his individual human features and becomes something halfway between man and machine, trapped within the inhuman armor and featureless technological mask of Darth Vader. That the defenders of individual freedom and democratic liberty might paradoxically come to resemble the totalitarian enemy they once opposed is darkly suggested by the final scene of the first Star Wars film. Lucas' concluding shot of Han, Luke, and Chewbacca triumphantly advancing toward the dais on which stands Princess Leia recalls a famous scene from the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will: Leni Riefenstahl's high-angled shot of Hitler and two top aides (including Goebbels) walking in measured fashion between the vast crowds at the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. The grim suggestion of the Star Wars films, borne out by the more spectacular but dramatically less compelling second series, is that the regime that once represented freedom and democracy has itself become corrupt, centralized, soulless, intrusive, despotic, and imperial.

Frodo's quest in The Lord of the Rings brings him face to face with a similarly terrifying image of modern political life. As Shippey has noted, notwithstanding Tolkien's denial that his trilogy was an allegory of the political events of 1939?45, both Isengard and Mordor, the realms of the Tolkien villains Saruman and Sauron, exhibit many features of 20th-century totalitarian states. (To be fair, they also exemplify characteristics of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish powers of World War I.) Once enemies, Saruman and Sauron have become allies, though their alliance is built on the mutual recognition that the weaker must ultimately serve the stronger. Their dark kingdoms lack all individual liberties. They rule vast worker-states devoted to conquest and marked by compulsory military service and forced labor. Their orc armies consist of deformed and inhuman masses lacking relations, beliefs, traditions, and interests outside the direct control of the state. In a scene vividly captured in one of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, Saruman breeds a new species of orc, the Uruk-Hai. Such eugenically designed creatures literally owe their existence to the regime's dark powers.

The oppressive conditions of these militaristic states are underscored in Tolkien's final part of the trilogy, The Return of the King. Here Frodo learns that Sauron built the fearsome Tower of Cirith Ungol not for defensive purposes but in order to keep those under his power within the borders of Mordor. Any reader old enough to remember the great totalitarian regimes of the past century will recognize the allegorical dimension of Tolkien's work.

J.K. Rowling's vision of political and social evil is rather obscured in the first two Harry Potter films. But in the climactic scene of Rowling's first novel, in which Professor Quirrell reveals himself to be Harry's hidden enemy, the two-faced villain recites the creed of his master, Voldemort: "There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it." Voldemort's vulgar Nietzscheanism is a familiar moral nihilism that can never be entirely vanquished. As opposed to Harry, who represents the redeeming power of love, Quirrell has become, like Voldemort, "full of hatred, greed, and ambition." His amoral doctrine waits a new incarnation by means of which it can re-enter the world. Should Voldemort ever succeed, Hogwarts—Harry's school of wizardry and witchcraft—would become "a school for the Dark Arts." Rowling suggests that this evil has manifested itself fairly recently in the modern era: "Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the Dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945."

But if the ultimate institutionalization of the Dark Side is kept at bay in the Harry Potter films, lesser forms of badness trouble Harry's years at school. In particular, Harry, the quintessential scholarship boy, constantly struggles against the malign intentions of his upper-crust classmate Draco Malfoy. Given the historically contentious class politics of modern Britain, the threat that Malfoy exemplifies, class prejudice and snobbery, likely touches a raw nerve among Rowling's British readers in a way that their American counterparts do not fully appreciate. Nonetheless, the virulent and unjustified antipathy that Malfoy feels toward "riffraff" and "Mudbloods" (those of non-magical ancestry) clearly represents the defining ethos of the ancient Malfoy family, Professor Snape, and the residents of the most exclusive (and illustrious) house at Hogwarts: Slytherin. Not surprisingly, the evil forces of Voldemort are surreptitiously linked with the upper-crust students and teachers of Slytherin. Ron Weasley, Harry's close friend, reports that Draco Malfoy's distinguished father (a Slytherin alumnus) was among those great wizards who joined Voldemort during his first grab for power—and that he needed little persuading to ally himself with the forces of evil.

One might say that the defining moment for Harry's future comes when he insistently asks not to be placed in Slytherin, despite his eligibility. In short, the great menace that haunts Hogwarts and indeed Britain itself is the old self-interested political, financial, and cultural elite that remains opposed to the new, more democratic heroism of Harry Potter.

If the Harry Potter series displays hostility toward conservatism and the traditional class hierarchies of England, its success nonetheless relies on recuperating many traditional features of English society for a more pluralistic, multi-ethnic, and egalitarian vision of the United Kingdom. The charm of these films relies not solely on the thrill of magic, but also on the appeal of the archaic and anachronistic. In a fundamental respect, the Potter stories are simply fanciful versions of a well-established and well-respected literary genre: the Bildungsroman or "novel of education" set at an elite public school or university (e.g., Tom Brown's Schooldays, Brideshead Revisited). Like the modern middle-class boy admitted on fellowship to an elite English educational institution, Harry must learn rituals, games, social protocols, and systems of knowledge that belong to the past.

To memorize ancient chants and spells is not so very different from learning the dead languages of Latin and Greek. To become a star "Seeker" at Quidditch is comparable to mastering schoolboy games such as Fives (played at Eton) or taking up a traditional pastime of the English social elite—cricket. The remote and bucolic location, immense wealth, privileged social standing, quaint academic dress, architectural grandeur, and ancient historical stature of Hogwarts all bespeak a rootedness in the English past. To enter Hogwarts is to travel back in time.

Indeed, before he passes through its ancient doors, Harry must buy his school supplies—a wand, an owl, books of magical lore—in Diagon Alley, a secret shopping district at the heart of present-day London that is a visual compendium of medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian England. The persistence of such places and institutions as Diagon Alley and Hogwarts in a contemporary Britain dominated by the spirit and customs of ordinary Muggles (as normal humans are called) is more truly magical than any spell cast at Hogwarts.

Of course, Harry's school does not represent a simple return to the moral values of the English past. Rowling carefully introduces crucial features of modern liberal Britain. The student body at Hogwarts is notably heterogeneous: Its houses hold a conspicuous mix of black, South Asian, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon students. Girls are fully the equals of boys, as students, faculty, and Quidditch players. Most important, those who attend the prestigious school are drawn from rich and poor, privileged and obscure, urban and rural backgrounds. All accents are spoken at Hogwarts. If class conflict still lurks behind the institution's attractive face, the school also exemplifies the progressive spirit of the new multi-ethnic, feminist, democratic, postimperial, and communitarian U.K. The education of Harry Potter represents a magical attempt to wed the best of traditional English culture with Britain's most progressive social values.

Because Star Wars reflects an American rather than British worldview, it draws on a briefer national history. Luke Skywalker's status as a provincial farmboy making his way in the galaxy evokes a distinctively American nostalgia for the small towns and rural communities of the recent past. By visually evoking the American western—the dusty barren landscape of the planet Tatooine on which Luke's aunt and uncle make their home, the image of the burned-out homestead and the bodies of massacred settlers—Lucas manages to establish his hero as a representative of the American frontier. More generally, the aw-shucks demeanor of Luke and Han, their love of futuristic hot rods, their do-it-yourself Yankee ingenuity, and their go-it-alone determination are meant to summon up the virtues of a simpler, pre-urbanized, pre-corporate, decentralized, and more virtuous American era. Victory over the Empire depends crucially on the virtues and skills of Yankee farmers, frontiersmen, and commercial traders. (Han is the exemplary unregulated, freewheeling, independent trader cum smuggler).

Meanwhile, as in the Harry Potter series, the virtues of the American past are slyly blended with a forward-looking and progressive sense of the new American century. The conflict between frontiersman and aboriginal, between white and black, between the "native" American citizen and the ethnic immigrant are largely effaced. (A few residual traces persist—the Jawas of Tatooine, for example, are troublesome nomadic desert scavengers, though not a serious threat to civilized existence.) In Lucas' future there exists amity and equality between white man and Wookie (Chewy is more of a full partner than Tonto to Han's Lone Ranger), between whites (Han, Luke, Obi-Wan) and blacks (Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu), between men and women (Princess Leia, Queen Padm√© Amidala).

The irregular rebel army is the racially and sexually integrated volunteer force of the post-Vietnam era. Even the deeply fraught relations of master and slave are reinvented as the amicable relationship between a young man and his favorite androids. The most heterogeneous clientele gathered from the farthest reaches of the galaxy drink together in the same wayside cantina, and a rich interplanetary mix of ethnicities, races, and genders are conspicuously represented in the Republican Senate. Lest this multi-ethnic, gender-neutral future seem to lack ancient traditions or theological grounding, the Jedi are there to represent a deep wisdom—part Eastern mysticism, part Rosicrucianism, part traditional Protestantism, and wholly New Age. The American past, it seems, is to be the progenitor of the New American Millennium.

Of the three series, The Lord of the Rings represents the most conservative and critical assessment of modernity. Where both Harry Potter and Star Wars project a youthful optimism about the future, The Lord of the Rings exhibits a more deeply nostalgic and elegiac attitude toward the past.

To be sure, the forces of Saruman and Sauron are ultimately defeated by the unified efforts of "the four, the free peoples"—elves, dwarves, Ents (giant, peripatetic, talking trees), and men, to which we must add the fifth free people, the hobbits of the Shire. Aragorn is triumphantly crowned King Elessar and united in marriage to the elfin Lady Arwen. Yet any reader of Tolkien's novels or viewer of Jackson's films recognizes the tragic dimension of these works.

Bilbo is tormented until his dying day by the memory of the Ring. Frodo never fully recovers from the wound he suffers from the blade of the Ringwraiths, nor the one Gollum inflicts on him at Mount Doom. Boromir dies repenting his betrayal of the Ring bearer. The Shire does not escape the dreadful consequences of the War of the Ring: Before Frodo and Sam return home, Saruman brutally exploits and tyrannizes the Shire. And the longed-for destruction of the Ring of Power marks the end of Elvish civilization in Middle Earth (as Tolkien's world is called). Of the Elvish peoples only Arwen, who chooses a mortal life, will remain. The others, along with Frodo, are borne by ship "into the West."

The tragic and elegiac dimensions of The Lord of the Rings only heighten the appeal of traditional and premodern ways of life. Making spectacular use of the varied natural scenery of his native New Zealand, Jackson has succeeded in conveying a vision of preindustrial existence that is immensely appealing. The unsullied beauty of the country's mountains and lakes provides an inspiring backdrop for the simple village life of the Shire. The realms of the elves are fully integrated into their wondrous natural settings, while their architecture, furnishings, and clothing are based on organic forms; it is impossible at times to distinguish those things crafted by the elves from the natural shapes that flourish in their old forests and mountainous river valleys. Having spent much of his youth in and around the urban blight of Birmingham, one of England's first great industrial cities, Tolkien anticipated in his fiction many contemporary ecological concerns. Treebeard—leader of the Ents—speaks for Tolkien when he says Gandalf is "the only wizard that really cares about trees." With few exceptions, the free peoples of Middle Earth are distinguished by their willingness to integrate themselves into the natural world and not to disrupt or destroy it.

By contrast, Saruman "has a mind of metal and wheels" and "does not care for growing things." Jackson's films emphasize the hellish atmosphere of Isengard, where Saruman's orcs clear-cut the forest and ravish the landscape in order to build what amounts to an enormous munitions factory. Fittingly, the Ents destroy Isengard by unleashing the river dammed up by Saruman's forces.

Of course, the free peoples of Middle Earth are not entirely immune to the lure of technology, industrialism, and the modern project. The dwarves have proved too relentless and rapacious in their pursuit of mithril, the precious silver they mine from under the Mountains of Moria. In the course of their ambitious building and tunneling they have awakened the Balrog, an evil creature who engages Gandalf in mortal combat. The wizard draws a moral from the misfortune of the dwarves: "Even as mithril was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane."

Although the Shire does not provide much of an arena for high adventure or personal ambition, and although its village customs can seem stifling, its deep attraction becomes apparent to Frodo after he leaves its confines. Until the onset of the War of the Ring, the Shire largely escaped the great political struggles. Its relative obscurity and isolation—most in Middle Earth have never heard of hobbits—is a measure of its political independence. The hobbits know only a very loose and undemanding form of local self-government. In this respect, Tolkien's much-vaunted medievalism (he was a prominent scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literatures at Oxford) seems consonant with certain 19th-century theories of the origins of English liberty.

For Tolkien, as for other Victorian defenders of the medieval English past, the premodern period of loose and competing feudal political relations and independent townships gave birth to modern English political and personal freedoms. An epoch of weak monarchs, locally based political authorities, and intersecting and sometimes conflicting ties to church, local landholder, township, guild, and king was more conducive to personal liberty than was a later, apparently more uniform and "progressive" era of strong centralized government, universal suffrage, and mass politics. In any case, when Frodo and his companions return to the Shire after the destruction of Sauron, they find that the traditional "medieval" world of village life has changed for the worse.

In the adventurers' absence, the Shire has fallen under the dominion of Saruman. Prosperity has been replaced by shortages and rationing. Personal property is seized by the new government for the sake of "fair distribution," though most of these goods end up in the hands of corrupt officials. Old family homes have been destroyed to make way for shabbier public housing. The old mill has been replaced by several larger ones that are "always a-hammering and a-letting out a smoke and a stench." Beautiful old trees have been cut down and the river polluted. Political corruption is rampant, as is physical intimidation by newly established public officials. Most significantly, the personal liberties of the hobbits have been sharply curtailed under an intrusive and alien form of government. As old Farmer Cotton puts it, "everything except Rules got shorter and shorter."

One of Frodo's exasperated companions proclaims, "This is worse than Mordor!" In fact, as the critic Shippey has astutely noted, Tolkien's postwar Shire, much like Orwell's Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four, most closely resembles postwar Britain under the Labour government of the mid- and late 1940s.

In Tolkien's fantasy, Frodo and his friends manage to restore the old village life of the Shire, though the expulsion of Saruman and his cronies requires a pitched battle in which several hobbits lose their lives. Afterward, the fate of the Shire mirrors that of the rest of Middle Earth. Frodo's only memorable political act as deputy mayor is to "reduce the Shirriffs to their proper functions and numbers."

Restored to the throne of Gondor, Aragorn frees the slaves of Mordor and restores to the wild men of the Forests of Druadan (his former allies against Mordor) their lands and political independence. Given the late imperial context in which Tolkien completed his trilogy, Aragorn's magnanimity hints at the necessity of extending liberty not only to those abject souls formerly enslaved by totalitarian regimes but also to "primitive" and politically subject peoples (i.e., colonized nations) more generally. Most significantly, Aragorn issues an edict that makes the Shire "a free Land under the protection of the Northern Sceptre." The hobbits of the Shire are guaranteed the right to elect their own mayors, run their own farms and small businesses, carry on their trade, and govern their own communities as they deem fit.

But this restoration of the traditional way of life is haunted by a pervasive sense of historical finitude. The rebirth of the Shire takes place against a grand historical narrative that witnesses the decline and fall of the great civilization of the elves in Middle Earth and the gradual and inevitable loss of their magical influence on the lives of men, dwarves, and hobbits. Like postwar Britain, the Shire survives, but only in diminished form, the quaint and picturesque relic of a once-glorious Elvish past that shall come no more. The Shire serves chiefly as a holiday stop for old wizards and displaced elves who indulge in one final nostalgic visit before heading "to the West" and to oblivion.

Tolkien's epic narrative turns on a single, stark moral choice: Those who would defeat Mordor must themselves refuse the Ring of Power. The great temptation for the books' and films' heroes is to believe that they can command that Ring for good. Tolkien's fantasy is deeply conservative insofar as this moral choice implies a rejection of the modern project: To preserve the good life, men must relinquish their efforts to acquire power, particularly technological and economic power over nature, for their own ends. But if Tolkien's Luddite fantasy is consonant with anti-modern environmentalism, it also embodies a desire for political liberties and personal freedoms increasingly imperiled by the expanded authority of modern nation-states, which is itself supported by many environmentalists through instruments such as the Kyoto protocols.

Mr. Butterbur, an innkeeper in Tolkien's trilogy, speaks for many lovers of fantasy, hobbit and human alike, when he expresses a deeply felt if often frustrated desire: "We want to be let alone." And yet the desire to be left alone, at least for the great majority of readers and viewers of contemporary science fiction and fantasy, is often inextricably combined with a contrary desire to arrange the future for the better, to direct the lives and welfare of others, if only generations yet to be born. The deepest utopian appeal of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter is not to an adolescent yearning for a world inhabited by wizards, hobbits, and Jedi knights, but to a modern consciousness torn by mutually contradictory desires. In divine fashion we would redesign the entire cosmos according to our individual whims and throw off the chains of all external authority. We wish at once to be free and to be a god to others. We would return to an idyllic past and progress forward to an unbounded future. The truly magical power of these films and stories is that they allow us, if only for the brief moment in which we are enthralled by their spell, to believe that as modern individuals we can be both at home in the world and at one with ourselves.