Quite a fight has broken out on Spleenville over the merits of Tolkien and whether reading fantasy is a good thing. I stayed out of this one largely because the main person keeping the argument going, one A.C. Douglas, reminds me of some of the most head-bangingly annoying people I used to encounter when I frequented message boards. The main error these people make is to think that if you are sufficiently cynical, you don't need to support your arguments. The evil of the world is self-evident, and if you question it, you're hopelessly blind and naive. Truth is always dark, so dark is always truth.
But in fact, a lot of popular cynical pronouncement are not supported by evidence. Teresa Nielsen Hayden points out an example in the comments section of her post on the subject:
Lamenting the decline of literacy is another gimme, a double-platinum cliche; and what's more, it's wrong. Good news: More people are reading more books about history, languages, and mythology (plus every other subject you can think of) than ever before. Next time you're in one of the better sort of airport bookstores -- you know, the ones with all the good trade paperbacks -- notice how many of them are about history. Or go to a Barnes & Noble, go check out the History section. Not only does it have its own turf, but that section is expanding.
Right. When was the Golden Age of Literacy, anyway? In fact, that was another anachronism I thought of after writing my own Tolkien post: everyone in his books seems to be able to read. Or at least, their illiteracy never comes up. This is the great irony of a bestselling book celebrating the world before the printing press.
The greater irony is that Tolkien's decriers are falling for the same myth that he was -- as I described in the earlier post, the paganish belief in an ideal past that has degenerated into the present. The article that set off the whole argument makes the bizarre assertion that fantasy lets us avoid the fact that "we have made no moral or intellectual progress for thousands of years and have grown most in our capacity to do ill. We flee to fantasy in recoil from truth." And yet, that was exactly the point that Tolkien was making.