I often find myself in the middle of a conversation about Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, and don’t know what to do. I do my best to keep up—it is, I gather, the duty of every American citizen, certainly that of every American citizen who attends cocktail parties or breakfast clubs. Otherwise we might have to talk about reality.
Each new parallel universe becomes another Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative setting came with its own geography and demographics and created a cultish pseudoscience. Years before the movies came out, enthusiasts talked about this alternate universe in great detail, of Mordor and Rhovanion, as seriously as if it were real. There were even maps of that fictional landscape, and people framed them and hung them on dorm walls. If you knew something about the River Anduin or the sea called Rhun, it put you in an interesting minority.
In our century, of course, even the Tolkien cult has become a multi-billion dollar franchise, and it would do you well to know your way around. As much as I’ve enjoyed my visits, I’ll always be lost there.
A few years ago, I was lost by Lost. The effort to pay close enough attention to a long-running TV show—and then to remember it long enough to care what happens next week—well, for me that’s a challenge; perhaps a learning disability.
Maybe it’s something that has set in my middle age. There was a time in my life when once a month wasn’t nearly often enough to buy a Batman comic book for 12 cents at Long’s Drugstore. I’d take it to the soda-fountain counter and read it thoroughly before I even took it out the door. I knew Superman’s extraterrestrial background in some detail, of Krypton and the not-so-subtle differences between green and red kryptonite, and rare white kryptonite. I remember sixth grade, the first time I surveyed a periodic table, seeing the word Krypton as an unexpected confirmation that it was all real. An actual element, symbol Kr. That couldn’t be just coincidence. There was at least something real behind Superman. I dragged friends into that classroom to show it to them, just to watch their jaws drop.
Can any of us ever return to that thrill? Do adults with jobs and families ever allow themselves to get immersed in a fantasy? The evidence of Game of Thrones is that many try, perhaps with success. Somehow it still eludes me.
Twenty-odd years ago, I had friends who were making a good living in the computer-gaming industry. At one point I was even enlisted as a consultant and helped write some detail for a historical narrative in one particularly immersive game. It was sort of realistic, and at the time I thought, This is the way we’ll be spending our time in the future.
Somehow I never caught the fever. The computer game I helped write was the last one I ever played.
I’m not sure what it says about dissatisfaction with the modern world. Everything’s reputedly safer, easier, quicker, healthier than it ever was for our ancestors. We want to pretend that we’re still striving, in violent life-or-death situations, every time we turn on a screen.
Sometimes our whole complex of fantasies just seems like reality gone off the rails. But then again, my grandmother fascinated me with the fact that she was conversant in a comparable alternate reality, Greek mythology, with its tales of revenge and greed and adultery and murder. Athens was populated with antiheroes.
As frustrated as I can be if I find myself in a thicket of Walking Dead scholars, if I ever criticize, I’m a hypocrite. I live in my own Middle Earth. I walk through it every day, whether I’m in the mood for it or not. It’s Knoxville, a few generations ago. Knoxville before, say, 1938 offers just enough of the exotic that people seek when they pull up Netflix, or when they go on expensive vacations, without the fuss of changing currency. It’s like a dream where everything’s sort of familiar, but very different. (Postwar Knoxville is still interesting enough, but earlier periods offer more of the spark of surprise and esoteric paradox, the sort of thing you look for when you’re traveling.)
Middle Knoxville is populated with strange creatures called Know-Nothings, Radical Republicans, prohibitionists, Plymouth Brethren, Whigs. In Middle Knoxville you might encounter a petrified giant displayed as a saloon attraction, or a chunk of ancient Troy in the possession of a retired ambassador on Main Street, or a dead whale on a flatcar off Magnolia. A German who eats glass beer steins to show off, a pipe-smoking Italian sailor who lived to 106 and told tales of his service to the British Navy in the War of 1812, an Irish revolutionary Unitarian secessionist. In this fantasy land, a freed slave can become a millionaire philanthropist; three prominent gentlemen in three-piece suits can slay each other at once, for reasons none of them lived to tell; a charismatic young general, shot in a city under siege, may be buried secretly, at night so his men won’t guess he’s dead. A little girl can sell wild grapes for postage and become a world-famous author; a mysterious woman can bestow a life-changing gift to a potato-selling immigrant, allowing him to start a durable business.
Creeks, once drivers of industry and deadly terrors when they flood, can be buried underground and forgotten, but still there, forces to contend with. Forests disappear and become paved villages. Quarries disappear and become forests. Here, a bakery turns into a hotel, a hotel into a theater, a hat factory into a coffee factory into an apartment building.
It could be a fantasy series, or a computer game. The only thing that makes me different is a mundane prejudice: that stories are more vivid when they’re probably true. And also when they allow me to walk around in their setting. Knoxville’s streets are the scene of this distinctive Middle Earth every day.
Knoxville’s long tale has successfully besieged my mind. I’m not sure fiction’s still an option for me.