From Hobbits to Harry Potter: How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Roffey
Once upon a time, fantasy was a niche genre, and passionate fans were often pigeonholed. But these days, wizards, dragons and elves are pop culture staples! Gather around Bagginses and Boffins, Tooks and Brandybucks, for the second episode in our series "How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture", where we look at fantasy's epic journey over the last 100 years. Our story starts with pulp fiction writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, sojourns in Middle-earth and Narnia, before stopping by Hogwarts, as the road goes ever on! How the wheel of time turns eh? Tell us how YOU first got into fantasy in the comments!
Once upon a time, if you even knew what a 20-sided die was for, you could expect a lot of this … Today, dragons, wizards, and elves are ... part of our everyday lives! So how did fantasy go from THIS to THIS?

Welcome to WatchMojo and our series How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture, and today we’re looking at how fantasy became mainstream!

It’s tempting to begin our story with a hole in the ground - and a certain Bilbo Baggins. Buuut fantasy has of course been around for a long time. Gilgamesh ... King Arthur ... Aladdin … these are all heroes whose stories involve fantastic, otherworldly elements. The same can be said of folk and fairy tales.

Like sci-fi, however, fantasy’s journey into modern pop culture owes a lot to the pulp magazines of the 1920s ... in particular “Weird Tales”. Before this magazine debuted in 1923, fantasy was associated with children’s books - think “Alice in Wonderland”, “Peter Pan” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. The stories in “Weird Tales” challenged that notion - from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series. The latter is especially notable for establishing the sword and sorcery subgenre - and (much later) making Arnie a movie star! It was a set of much smaller, shyer heroes, though, that most shaped modern fantasy.

In 1917, as the First World War ravaged Europe, a lovestruck young soldier named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien gazed at his wife Edith as she danced in a woodland glade. This moment would inspire the tale of Beren, a mortal man, and the elf-maiden Lúthien - a cornerstone in the world he had begun to create in poems, stories and fragments. Tolkien had been sent back to garrisons in England after falling ill at the bloody Battle of the Somme. By the war’s end, almost all his friends were dead. But the memory of their fellowship stayed with him. And he would go on to form a new fellowship as an Oxford professor: the legendary Inklings!

Among this circle of friends, Tolkien continued working on what he saw as a new mythology for England. As a philologist, new languages came first: then people to speak them and a world for them to live in. In the 1930s Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit”; and in the mid 50s came the novel that earned him his nickname as the father of modern fantasy literature: “The Lord of the Rings”.

Tolkien was inspired by British polymath William Morris’ attempt in the 1800s to revive medieval romances. Following Morris cue, Middle Earth existed as a completely standalone world - unlike, say, Narnia, the world created by Tolkien’s fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis. Narnia was connected to our own through portals of a sort, as well as thick layers of Christian allegory - a quality Tolkien despised. Mind you, Lewis’ portal fantasy would ALSO prove influential …But it was Tolkien’s high fantasy epic that would set the bar for the genre.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that suddenly in the 1950s, EVERYONE was reading fantasy! However, a notable milestone came in the 60s with the publication of “The Lord of the Rings” in affordable paperback in the US. In its wake, the declaration “Frodo lives!” became a popular slogan of the counterculture, graffitied on walls and printed on buttons. With a small change in medium, Middle Earth had gone viral! “The Lord of the Rings” would go on to sell over 150 million copies!

Inspired by Tolkien came a slew of imitators and agitators, eager to create their own fantasy worlds. Some, like Terry Brooks, followed in his footsteps, while others, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Stephen R. Donaldson, struck out in new directions. “The Lord of the Rings” also influenced the tabletop RPG “Dungeons & Dragons”, published in 1974 - which in turn inspired “Dragonlance”, a sprawling shared universe of fantasy novels.

This expansion gave fantasy fans a lot to read ... but definitely did not make them less geeky to outsiders. D&D fans explored exciting new worlds by night ... but were harried in high school corridors. In fact, a moral panic even linked them to suicide and demon worship! In general, the more passionate you were about the genre, the more ostracized.

Which of course brings us to live-action roleplayers. Taking off in the 70s and 80s, LARPing allowed fans to live out their fantasies. Despite all the fun they were having, people thought that, well, it all looked pretty silly.

It was another shift in medium that would extend fantasy’s reach … with mixed results. In 1978, Ralph Bakshi tried to adapt “The Lord of the Rings”, but struggled to capture the grandeur of Middle Earth. Nonetheless, fantasy films EXPLODED in the 80s. And like everything in the 80s, there was the amazing, and the ridiculous.

On one hand, you had classics like “The Dark Crystal”, “The NeverEnding Story”, and “The Princess Bride”! But on the other, you had a slew of campy shockers that, sure, make for fun nostalgia trips, but weren’t exactly groundbreaking films with mass appeal. A few other gems, like “Labyrinth”, did also make an impact. Heck, Bowie’s crotch alone in that movie is still famous! But, Bowie or not, these films, with their mysticism and puppets, reinforced the idea that fantasy was for kids. By now, sci-fi fans had “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” … fantasy fans were still waiting.

Fortunately, fantasy was maturing. Yes, previous fantasy writers had touched on sex and death and social and political themes. But in the 90s, new series, like Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” and George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” combined high fantasy with a much more modern sensibility. Martin’s books in particular were definitely NOT aimed at kids...

The winds were changing for fantasy, as the wheel turned and a new age came around. And it wasn’t just for adult fantasy. The 90s also brought us a fantasy hero for a NEW generation - the boy who lived.

Famously, J. K. Rowling’s novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” was rejected by twelve publishers before going on to become the best selling book series of all time. Man, must they be kicking themselves. Like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series involved a parallel magical world - although this time, a world within and on the same plane as our own. Its titular hero was a relatable underdog and Hogwarts was the ultimate fantasy for school kids … and adults. Because who doesn’t want to learn magic? Having said that, there were grumbles from stuffy types that while it was getting kids to read, it wasn’t Shakespeare, damn it. In the US, it was alleged that the books celebrated witchcraft and therefore Satan. Fortunately, Harry Potter flew on over these objections, with much better things to do ... like hitting the big screen.

2001 was arguably the most important date in this story, when fantasy made the biggest impact in popular culture. It brought us two film franchise titans: “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” aka Sorcerer's Stone. Both blew audiences away with their vivid visuals and sense of adventure. Peter Jackson’s live-action trilogy went on to sweep the Oscars and make almost three billion dollars at the Box Office. The Harry Potter series more than doubled that. Both spawned new series, with “The Hobbit” and “Fantastic Beasts”. They also expanded into other media, such as stage productions, and of course video games - where fantasy has proven especially durable.

Their success opened the floodgates for fantasy franchises like “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and “How to Train Your Dragon”. And let’s not forget beloved films like “Spirited Away”, “Stardust”, and “Enchanted”. Meanwhile, games like “World of Warcraft” and “Skyrim” immersed fans in fantastic worlds like never before.

Fantasy was officially big business. But it had one final step to take in its epic journey from niche to pop: into our living rooms.

In the 2000s, TV entered a new Golden Age thanks to quality shows like “The Sopranos”, “The Wire”, and “The Shield”, which had high production values and told complex stories. It was thanks to this wave that in 2011 Martin’s unfinished “A Song of Ice and Fire” was adapted into the HBO runaway hit “Game of Thrones”.

There had been successful fantasy shows before - “Hercules”, “Xena”, and in animation the beloved “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. But nothing quite like “Game of Thrones”.

Featuring nudity and blood galore, this was not a stroll around the Shire or even into Mordor. It was gritty, brutal, political, unpredictable, and at times funny. In short, Martin took the rules for fantasy and said “dracarys!”, creating something that felt more like an historical epic ... OK, yeah, with dragons. The last season might have felt rushed, but “Game of Thrones” set viewership records around the world.

Its success has paved the way for new series, such as Netflix’s “The Witcher” and “Dark Crystal” prequel, and upcoming adaptations, like Amazon’s planned “The Wheel of Time” series.

Today, those kids playing D&D in the basement are actually the heroes on TV. And not even the sort of nerd heroes that we’re also supposed to laugh at - just regular kids who happen to like casting fireballs.

Admittedly, it’s not clear where fantasy goes from here. Will there ever be anything to match Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones? As science fiction becomes daily reality, how will fantasy remain relevant? Fortunately, when it comes to fantasy and innovation, the sky really is the limit. After all, creating new worlds with new rules is part of the genre. And while fantasy still has a diversity issue, new voices are slowly changing up the genre. So, we think we can say with Bilbo, that the road goes ever on...

Make sure to tune in for our next episode of How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture, where we’ll be talking video games!