Book Review

Finding the magic in geeks’ fantasy, reality

By Eric Liebetrau
November 6, 2009

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In his debut, freelance journalist and “avowed, out-of-the-closet geek’’ Ethan Gilsdorf embraces his love of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons and all things fantasy, embarking on a quest to discover what motivates those who devote significant portions of their lives to what many others dismiss as escapist fantasies.

The book is also a journey of self-discovery borne of a certain amount of fear, as the author seeks to reconcile his many adult responsibilities with the not-always-latent desire to re-engage with D&D and other elements of his “geeky’’ adolescence.

The author’s obsession with Tolkien and D&D served as an escape from the increasingly erratic behavior of his mother, who suffered a brain aneurysm and never recovered her full mental or physical capacities. Retreating into a world of wizards and elves proved remarkably therapeutic, and Gilsdorf seeks here to recapture some of the magic he experienced as a teenager.

His global tour begins at Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor of medieval language and literature for more than 30 years. Oddly, his legacy as a pioneering fantasy writer is largely ignored at the university, a fact that does little to diminish the exuberance of the Tolkien Society.

After a précis of Tolkien’s significance, it’s on to Wisconsin for the Lake Geneva Gaming Convention, a gathering of D&D obsessives who come to play, trade gaming secrets, and pay tribute to the recently deceased creator of the game, E. Gary Gygax.

Though the author discusses the massive popularity and influence of video games, Gilsdorf seems to be after something more elemental, primitive, even medieval. One of the most engaging stops on his adventure is Guédelon, France, where he spends time with a group building a 13th-century castle using only traditional methods. The project’s director, Michel Guyot, acknowledges that he probably won’t even see the castle’s completion, and yet he and his fellow workers toil away contentedly, following a “primal desire . . . to measure one’s progress in wood and stone and sweat.’’

This nose-to-the-ground dedication to simpler times also characterizes a group with whom Gilsdorf actively connects: participants in live-action role-playing (LARPing). Christopher Tang, the cofounder of Forest of Doors outside of Atlanta, leads the author into battle, illustrating the intensity of focus and diligence of preparation demonstrated by each participant. Ditto the Society for Creative Anachronism, which stages the annual Pennsic War, a two-week medieval reenactment similar to a Renaissance Fair. “Best of all,’’ writes Gilsdorf, “no peasants, lepers, or persecuted Cathars - everyone was considered minor nobilit.’’

Finally, Gilsdorf travels across the world to the ultimate fictional universe, Middle-earth (i.e., New Zealand). With a “Lord of the Rings’’ guidebook in hand, he takes the tours and visits the sites made famous in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, ultimately discovering a very basic truth, embodied by the hobbits, who “stood in for us, representing what we might be able to do in an idyllic world - live in harmony with nature and each other, drink ale, share food, laugh, dance, and make music.’’

For many of the gaming geeks and fantasy freaks that populate these pages, it’s that simple. Not always so for Gilsdorf, who tends to overthink his research and indulges in a few unnecessary flights of needless psychologizing and strained metaphors. Nonetheless, his stories - mostly engaging, occasionally poignant and emotional - frequently lead to edifying conclusions.

“Call it regression to childhood,’’ he writes, “but these infinite hero stories . . . involve villains, heroes, and monsters for good reason: so we can face and overcome our fears in a good-guy, bad-guy, clear-cut world.’’

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.

FANTASY FREAKS AND GAMING GEEKS: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms By Ethan Gilsdorf

Lyons, 336 pp., $24.95

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