Middle-earth is in Seattle.
Or, you know, close enough.
A few weeks ago, I headed up I-5 to check out Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic, the latest permanent exhibit at the EMP. The museum—formerly the Experience Music Project, and a really elaborate storage unit where Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen hoards his collectibles—has ventured down more and more pop-cultural avenues. First there was a science-fiction exhibit, featuring a slew of literary and filmic artifacts, then a horror films exhibit, and videogames, and now fantasy. The grand opening boasted sword-fighting demonstrations, talks from the likes of fantasy author Terry Brooks, and women walking around in pastel fairy wings while guys clanked around in armor. In addition to the butterbeer, there was mead and cider, the consumption of which possibly contributed to my purchase of not one but two souvenir T-shirts (in my defense, they both feature some really fucking majestic dragons) and certainly contributed to my decision to have my picture taken on a replica of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones. This is the photograph that I would like to be printed out as large as possible and prominently displayed at my funeral.
The EMP's exhibit is slick, with an impressive array of real-world and fantastical relics: In addition to that Iron Throne, there are things like J.R.R. Tolkien's original manuscripts and drawings from The Lord of the Rings. Pan's disembodied head from Pan's Labyrinth sits there, being all creepy, while an animatronic dragon sleeps nearby, waking up whenever some crappy little kid yanks on her tail. Filmed interviews feature the likes of writers like George R.R. Martin and Jane Espenson near a display of Ursula K. Le Guin's handwritten Earthsea notebooks. There's Lyra's alethiometer from The Golden Compass, and Sirius Black's tattered outfit from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There's Inigo Montoya's sword, and Xena's bustier, and Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal scribbles. And David Bowie's Goblin King costume from Labyrinth, the tights featuring a not inconsiderable bulge.
A decade ago—hell, even a few years ago—an exhibit like this would've been unimaginable.
GENRE has always lurked on the edges of pop culture—from Star Trek to The Wheel of Time, it's always lent itself more to cult popularity than mainstream acceptance. In the past few years, that's started to change, most noticeably with fantasy: From The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey making over a billion dollars to Game of Thrones doubling Mad Men's ratings, fantasy—once the territory of the nerdiest of nerds—has started to seep into the everyday world.
"If fantasy's seeing a resurgence, it seems likely due to the mainstreaming of geek culture as a whole," says Kenna Conklin, the founder of geekportland.com, a calendar that tracks all things nerdy in Portland, from Patton Oswalt stand-up shows to Magic: The Gathering tournaments. Conklin points out that the 1980s were "awash in fantasy movies" like The Princess Bride, Willow, Legend, Labyrinth, and The NeverEnding Story—and now the children of the '80s are coming of age, introducing their children to the things they liked as kids, and spending disposable income. "Hollywood is more than happy to provide monetization," Conklin says, "especially now that it's socially acceptable to revisit those childhood loves."
"Fantasy is definitely undergoing a renaissance," says Jim Zubkavich, the Toronto-based comic book writer of two fantasy comics—the action-comedy Skullkickers and Pathfinder, the latter based on a roleplaying game that's all but replaced Dungeons & Dragons. "As we move into a high-tech world that's starting to resemble science fiction, I think there's a pushback to things on the other end of the fantastic spectrum—escapism that exemplifies mythology, magic, and the supernatural."
As far as the average person is concerned? That pushback started with a couple of movies.
THE BILLION dollars raked in by The Hobbit—and the three billion by The Lord of the Rings movies, and the nearly eight billion by the Harry Potter movies—is hardly the end of it. (And not just because Peter Jackson's got two more Hobbit films up his sleeve—assuming he doesn't stretch them out even more.) Warner Bros. is tweaking a script for a planned Dungeons & Dragons movie, eager to, as Deadline puts it, "create a world around a well-established brand, which has generated north of $1 billion in books and merchandise since it was launched in 1974." And while hardcore gamers are abandoning World of Warcraft—a game that once boasted 12 million players—Legendary Pictures is pushing it into multiplexes, with Moon and Source Code director Duncan Jones heading up a World of Warcraft movie.
But while cultural shifts frequently start with blockbusters, they rarely stop there. Even as Universal Studios plans to raze their Gibson Amphitheatre to make room for a West Coast Harry Potter theme park, fantasy is burning things up closer to home.
"Fantasy has outsold science fiction for a while, but in the past 12 years or so, that trend has gotten even more pronounced," says MaryJo Schimelpfenig, who's worked at Powell's City of Books for the better part of two decades. For the last 14 years, she's ordered books for the store's Gold Room, where sci-fi and fantasy books are shelved. "Around 2000, when The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters, is when fantasy sales really began to spike," Schimelpfenig says. "Combine that with Harry Potter, and things started getting really crazy." Characterizing George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series—the books that inspired Game of Thrones—as "a juggernaut," Schimelpfenig remembers a "sales spike when HBO announced Game of Thrones was going into production, and an even bigger sales spike when the first season began airing."
"Looking at the past 15 bestsellers in the Gold Room over the last four years," she says, "only two are science fiction, one is horror/fantasy, and the rest are fantasy."
IT USED TO be that if you wanted to see fantasy on TV, you were stuck with syndicated camp like Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, or the Dungeons & Dragons episode of Freaks and Geeks. ("Greetings, princess!" a young James Franco proclaimed in July of 2000, surrounded by pretzels, Faygo, and 20-sided dice. "It is I, Carlos the Dwarf. The dragon has been slain and you're free to rule your kingdom!") That's no longer the case—the Dungeons & Dragons-influenced Adventure Time is a multimedia smash for Cartoon Network, and then there's Grimm, Once Upon a Time, and Supernatural. And, of course, Game of Thrones, which has addicted more viewers, inspired more conversation, and garnered more critical attention with each season. Now standing alongside Girls and Boardwalk Empire in HBO's prestige efforts, Thrones is also the world's most pirated show—last month, its third-season premiere shattered torrenting records, with over a million illegal downloads in 24 hours. A fourth season's already in the works.
"More people than you might expect are getting into Game of Thrones, and might be out to enjoy the rest of the fantasy world—getting into the vocabulary and visiting Renaissance fairs," says Portlander Angela Webber, who, along with her sister Aubrey, performs nationwide as the witty nerdfolk duo the Doubleclicks. When I talked to Webber, she'd recently attended the Faire in the Grove, an annual Renaissance fair put on by Forest Grove's Pacific University and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). "Most of the attendees seemed to be old-guard nerds, or the intense SCA roleplaying hobbyists," she says. But she adds that there were "also families with kids. There were fights to watch, there was a little ring where kids could hit each other with foam swords, there were participatory demonstrations of dancing, fighting, and crafting."
"I THINK we've hit a point where special effects have finally caught up with our imaginations," Zubkavich says after I ask him why fantasy's catching on. "Films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter have pushed past previous limitations, and now the full creative scope of fantasy is being unleashed in the mainstream. I think we're going to see even more ambitious fantasy media as people realize what a potent genre it really is."
And that, he says, is a good thing. "I think people want to experience wonderment, and fantasy does that better than any other escapist genre," Zubkavich says. "The best fantasy stories are bursting with imaginative landscapes, creatures, and characters that sweep us away from a mundane life. How could you not want more of that?"