In the course of a single generation, one of the most denigrated cultural institutions has risen to the top of the popularity hierarchy, influencing a new era of TV, cinema and literature.

We speak, of course, of fantasy. For the longest time, merely speaking the word aloud was enough to earn you a wedgie. But the literary genre, long the vestige of dice-rolling basement dwellers, has, in the past decade and a half, fully emerged from its (dragon) shell, capturing a more mainstream audience — and, in turn, a more mainstream cash flow.

If, in early 1997, you had predicted the growth of the maligned genre on the back of a bespectacled British wizard, you probably would have been stuffed into a locker faster than you could not say Voldemort.

Yet this improbable hero stands as the face of a brand worth a net $4 billion worldwide, establishing his creator, JK Rowling, as the first — and only — billionaire writer, and firmly legitimizing practices and standards ranging from cosplay (organized dress-up) to a general acceptance of fantasy fiction.

According to Brad Ricca, a university professor and author of the forthcoming book Super Boys, this “subtle but

important shift in popular culture” can be explained as a reaction to an increasingly chaotic present.

“College-age people who grew up reading Harry flock to the movies with wands and robes in an attempt to recapture the past,” Ricca says.

How fortunate for George RR Martin.

The Hollywood screenwriter turned fantasist wrote a series of novels that, set in a medieval era on some imaginary, magic-infused continent, for years languished only in the deepest recesses of nerddom. (Where, full disclosure, this author has long dwelt.)

All that has changed, however, with HBO’s TV adaptation of his seminal work; A Game of Thrones, has inspired a new appreciation for his escapist oeuvre at a time when it seems — impending debt crisis, promise of European collapse, depressing summer TV lineup — the whole world is coming to pieces.

“In watching these shows,” Ricca says, “we may just be acknowledging the importance and romance of the imaginative past as it affects us in times of uncertain future.”

Considering our present uncertainty, we predict a continuation of the growing trend in mainstream fantasy literature.

Latest From ...