Colin Duriez, the most knowledgeable person on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien I know, interviews 'the Tolkien Professor', Corey Olsen, for Festival in the Shire Journal. Here's one question which particularly interests me. You can read the rest here, but you'll need to go to the Festival in the Shire home page to access anything else in this splendid resource for Tolkien fans.
2. Why does the medieval world have such an appeal today? How much is the appeal of Tolkien part of this wider medieval appeal?
On the one hand, I would certainly say, as I just said above, that Tolkien does tend to inspire or nourish an interest in medieval things in his readers. There are also indirect effects, as well: Tolkien’s role in helping to bring “fantastic literature” back into the mainstream in modern culture has paved the way not only for the fantasy genre in literature but for the fantastic (and the archaic) in modern films.
But the question of the appeal of medieval stories and figures in modern pop culture is a rather more complicated one. The popular enjoyment of movies involving a medieval story or a medieval setting is very different from the sympathy with medieval literature that reading Tolkien can help to build. I spoke above of the big gap between the medieval and the modern worldviews; almost all medieval films are firmly entrenched in a modern way of looking at the world. Modern audiences aren’t really encountering the medieval world in any substantive way in most of these productions; they are encountering the modern world in fancy dress (or, as is more common in recent films, covered in mud).
And yet, there is clearly something that makes these stories (especially those of King Arthur and Robin Hood) compelling, or they would not be so continually retold. One factor I would point to is the emphasis on heroism. Medieval stories are attractive because the heroes have fewer resources at their disposal. The greatest warrior is the one who is strongest, most skilled, most resourceful, and most clever, rather than just the one with the biggest gun or the most bombs. Personal achievement looms larger when you remove the technology. But Aragorn defying the armies of Saruman from the walls of the Hornburg or unfurling his royal banner at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields has a lot more in common with medieval heroes than does any film character I’ve ever seen.