Adam Gopnik's, "The Dragon's Egg," in the A Critic At Large section of The New Yorker, makes some observations about "High fantasy for young adults."
Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”What did Tolkien do to this stale stuff to make it so potent?
It’s true that [Tolkien's] fantasies are uniquely “thought through”: every creature has its own origin story, script, or grammar; nothing is gratuitous. But even more compelling was his arranged marriage between...big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by “The Lord of the Rings” is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied.
Great, as if hearing "Kill the Wabbit!" during Wagner wasn't bad enough. Now, it'll be Elmer, Bugs, and the gang from Toad Hall.
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien.
What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and [followers of his formula] is...an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss.
Gopnik speculates that kids read these stories as mythologies (unbenownst to them, probably). Kids are draw into The Lord of the Rings, Eragon, and even those books that aren't necessarily high fantasy or "Tol-clones" (not a term Gopnik uses), such as the Twilight series, not by the story but by "the symbols and their slow unfolding." It's a drama with domestic touches set in a grand fictional history. Which, I would argue, is more or less what the old myths themselves are--the "real myths," if you will--except not as readable, too foreign in their purposes grounded in perpetuating tribal identities: tales told too long ago--before English, widespread literacy, or the emergance of the novel--to an audience too unlike us despite what we see in the ancient myths of characteristics common to humanity throughout history, the realities of love, hate, self-interest, betrayal, sacrifice, fear, misunderstanding, competition, jealousy, pride, sacrifice, and wonder. Would the old myths born of pre-modern times have any currency today at all if not for modern fantasies that reinvent, repackage, and repurpose them, but in doing so also further the understanding of readers--many of them adolescents or young adults--that there is always in every moment of life, be it your life, another's, a people's, a place's, an institution's, or an idea's--a living historical context.
From Gopnik's conclusion:
One might mock—one does mock—the mastery of what is, after all, mere mock history. But the fantasy readers’ learned habit of thinking historically is an acquisition as profound in its way as the old novelistic training in thinking about life as a series of moral lessons. Becoming an adult means learning a huge body of lore as much as it means learning to know right from wrong. We mostly learn that lore in the form of conventions.... Learning in symbolic form that the past can be mastered is as important as learning in dramatic form that your choices resonate; being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade. Fantasy fiction tells you that history is available, that the past counts. As the boring old professor knew, the backstory is the biggest one of all.