Reviews 2016

Ethics and Form in Fantasy Literature: Tolkien, Rowling and Meyer

Ethics and Form in Fantasy Literature: Tolkien, Rowling and Meyer. Lykke Guanio-Uluru. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 261 pages. €74.99 (hardback).

Fantasy in its different subgeneric incarnations has long dominated best-seller lists. While some scholars dismiss the phenomenon as another fad, others believe that it demands close scrutiny precisely because of its immense popularity. Among the latter is Lykke Guanio-Uluru, whose monograph entitled Ethics and Form in Fantasy Literature examines three of the most successful fantasy series: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (henceforth, LOTR), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (HP) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (TW).

Partly based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, this detailed and well-researched monograph combines rhetorical analysis and ethical theory in an attempt to examine "the ethical 'patterns of meaning' embedded in best-selling literature" (1). Its primary goal is, thus, to explore links between ethics and aesthetics (form), ethical arguments and structures of valuing in the three select series (both individually and in relation to each other), especially the ways in which they portray good and evil, and characters’ ethical deliberations. The discussion is divided into six chapters, organized into two parts and followed by a bibliography and index.

The introductory chapter presents the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of the research as well as the novels selected for close scrutiny. It also provides definitions of relevant narratological concepts utilized in the analyses (narrator, implied author, etc.) and a brief overview of the fantasy genre, with special emphasis on its current popularity. Based on the close readings of the novels, discussions of each series develop along three axes: analysing individual narrative universes with the aim of identifying ethical issues (informed by James Phelan’s rhetorical theory of narrative), linking these individual universes into a wider, contemporary ethical context (informed by philosophical ethical theory), and addressing specific ethical issues (e.g., relationship between good and evil).

The three chapters that constitute the first part of the book deal with two quest fantasy series: LOTR and HP. In chapter two, the central conflict between good and evil in LOTR is viewed against the backdrop of Old Norse mythology (which sees evil as primary and powerful) and Judeo-Christian beliefs (in which good is primary, while evil is powerless). Special attention is given to the images of trees (relationship to trees and nature in general is an important means of characterization), as well as the character of Tom Bombadil, who is seen as the embodiment of many of the values promoted by the text (self-mastery, pacifism, respect for nature, etc.). In chapter three, the author turns to J.K. Rowling’s seven novel series about the wizarding world. Given the controversy stirred by the series’ alleged occultist, anti-Christian undercurrent, the discussion is situated within the study of religion in popular culture. The author brings into question the seemingly clear-cut distinction between good and evil, the problematization of which, she claims, is most notable in the interconnectedness between the hero and villain, the character of Severus Snape and the discrepancy between Dumbledore’s words and actions, which ultimately leads to the deconstruction of his normative authority. The series, Guanio-Uluru concludes, "displays a 'hybrid-ethic'" (87) created through the blending of New Testament ethics and secular philosophy.

Concluding this section of the book, chapter four brings together the analyses and observations presented in the previous two chapters in an attempt to draw conclusions about ethics and form in the genre of quest fantasy. Much of the comparisons revolve around implied narrators, prophecies and the guiding figures of wise men (Gandalf and Dumbledore). While the two series differ significantly in terms of their representations of good and evil – established through links with nature (LOTR) or interpersonal relationships (HP) – the dominant symbol or archetype in each of them (a tree in LOTR and a shape-shifter in HP) proves to have a crucial role in shaping their individual forms.

In the second part of the book, the discussion turns to the genre of paranormal romance, which is examined through the example of Stephanie Meyer’s TW saga. Chapter five opens with an overview of the said genre, as well as fan and academic responses (focused largely on representations of gender and race) to Meyer’s series. While acknowledging some of the problems typically identified by critics, especially the way romantic inevitability undermines the importance and validity of the heroine’s choices, Guanio-Uluru identifies a certain degree of ironic distance in the text, as well as instances of narrative discouraging of readers’ identification with Bella. The shift of narrative voice from the heroine to one of the male characters, the author argues, "allows for a questioning of Bella’s values" (193), thus opening the text up to various interpretations. Reading the novels side by side with their intertextual companions such as Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Guanio-Uluru proposes that Bella’s transformation into a vampire can be read as a gender change. The sixth and final chapter brings together all the novels, reading them side by side. In each of these "gendered coming-of-age stories" (2) the central archetype is seen as playing a crucial part in synthesizing "ethical concern with narrative form" (219). The author concludes that each novel provides a markedly different ethical vision; thus, they show that despite the presumed formulaic nature of genre texts, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in them is by no means formulaic or predictable.

There is much to recommend this highly engaging and stimulating book. The author navigates the extensive corpus of primary texts as well as the copious secondary sources in a seemingly effortless manner. The meticulous analyses encompass not only the novels and their plots, but also paratextual elements such as the design of the book cover (in the case of HP, different for adult and child/young readers), front matter, etc. Guanio-Uluru’s thorough knowledge of the field lends an additional note of persuasiveness to her already convincing line of argumentation. Providing a wealth of truly close readings – those that focus on individual words and sentences – and illuminating conclusions, Ethics and Form in Fantasy Literature presents a most valuable contribution to the study of literature in general and fantasy in particular.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia