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Tolkien expert explains reality of fantasy

The fantasy genre has seen a resurgence of popularity, mostly due to the accessibility and success of cinematic adaptations of canonical fantasy novels.

Tom Shippey, author of such books as J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, lectured on this popularity and the source of people’s interest in fantasy Thursday evening in Traditions Hall at the Alumni Center.

Last year, Shippey met USF professor of mass communications Rick Wilber at a conference and initiated a connection with William Scheuerle, the USF Humanities Institute Director, which led to Thursday’s lecture.

He changed his lecture title from “Narnia and Middle-Earth: Lewis, Tolkien, the Magic Art” to “Narnia, Middle Earth and Hogwarts,” since according to him, the films The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series will be the three most successful movie sequences in the world.

“It’s that fact where appeal of fantasy lies,” said Shippey, who is also the Walter J. Ong chair of humanities for Saint Louis University. “It’s in that universe full of magical beauty and fizzing with life, and that is one of the charms of the movies.”

The focus of the entire lecture was set on why fantasy was so popular.

“The success of fantasy derives from and draws its energy from the working out of the long and difficult intellectual argument going back at least 100 years and connected with deep contemporized anxieties,” Shippey said. “Well, I am sure you realize that is very boring. It’s also wildly improbable. I mean, the kids in the mall going into the cinema to work out the long and difficult. … Are they?

“Let me give an ancient proverb that I made up a few days ago: ‘You don’t have to know what is in the recipe to enjoy the cake.’ So maybe they are responding, (but) they just don’t know it.”

Nearly the entire hall was packed. After the lecture, Shippey opened the floor to questions, and people asked him about working on the Lord of the Rings movies, the inspiration of Lewis’ characters and so many more. To finish the event, he signed copies of his books.

Shippey also spent Wednesday and Thursday afternoons talking to three classes, including Wilber’s Mass Communications in Society and Magazine Feature Writing classes, as well as a Doctorial Seminar on Tolkien.

“It was so exciting to listen to him,” said Ann Basso, an English graduate student. “He’s so easy to talk to and easy to listen to. To me it was very exciting since he is a top Tolkien scholar in the world.”