Ethics and Form in Fantasy Literature: Tolkien, Rowling, and Meyer grew out of an interest in how fantasy reflects ethical values, and in particular, what Lykke Guanio-Uluru calls “‘best selling ethics’: the ethical ‘patterns of meaning’ embedded in best-selling literature” (1). The aim, she says, is “to give a literary analysis of the ethical arguments and structures of valuing in the three widely popular fantasy texts [identified in her title] and to compare them to each other” (6).
The thesis underlying the book is that fantasy literature’s narrative structure, or form, is innately tied to an author’s ethical world view and values system, and that in turn, how a reader responds to either the form or the ethics or both is reflective of the reader’s worldview and values. This theory may seem obvious at first to some fantasy scholars, but Guanio-Uluru’s exploration of these assumptions nevertheless is thought-provoking and informative, as she takes the seeming obvious to a deeper level through a detailed application of theories of narrative and of ethics, combined with close literary analysis.
Guanio-Uluru lays out her theoretical foundation in chapter 1, giving an overall brief history of each series under examination here as well as of fantasy as a genre, before setting forth her theoretical contexts and approaches. Her study is especially influenced by critical approaches to narratology, namely James Phelan’s study of narrative progression and focalization and Wayne C. Booth’s and Dan Shen’s discussions of the implied author.
This introductory chapter is followed by Part 1, her study of the two quest fantasies, The Lord of the Rings (chapter 2) and the Harry Potter series (chapter 3), ending with a summation of her findings on those two sets of texts in chapter 4. She includes The Silmarillion and The Hobbit in her analysis of Tolkien’s works because, she says, they are interconnected in terms of narrative development, and she includes The Tales of Beedle the Bard in her analysis of Rowling’s series in her exploration of Dumbledore’s moral code. These two ancillary works do indeed shed further light on the respective main texts, though she does quite little with the wizarding fairy tales in The Tales, and the analysis of the ethics underlying Tolkien’s and Rowling’s series in this section is thorough and thoughtful.
In the analysis of Tolkien, she argues that there is a tension underlying the presentation of good and evil in the series that stems from the “two divergent world views,” which underlie the creation of Middle Earth: “the values expressed in Old Norse mythology and the beliefs upheld by the Judeo-Christian tradition” (41). A good bit of the basic literary analysis in this chapter is devoted to exploring how those mythologies, especially the Norse mythology, are at work in the series, and she sees the archetype of the [End Page 234] tree as an overriding symbol that connects both world views (Yggdrasil and the Trees of Life and of Knowledge in Norse and Judeo-Christian mythology, respectively). Light is another recurrent major symbol, and Guanio-Uluru argues that emotional responses to the images of trees and light are integral to the reader’s reaction to the work and thus to its ethical influences. Two characters that she feels encapsulate the ethical system underpinning the series are Tom Bombadil, who represents the ecological ethics of the text (80), and Frodo as he moves toward a pacifist stance and a deeper understanding of compassion. The Judeo-Christian outlook that dominates by the end of the series is evident in the implied author’s desire “to develop in the reader a yearning for what lies ‘beyond’ the worldly and political concerns of the 3rd age of Middle Earth, and, by extension, our own” (84).
Regarding Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Guanio-Uluru sees it as an increasingly complex text that involves “several narrative schemata and thereby several layers of reader expectation simultaneously” (87). Since the books are character driven, she argues, the moral codes...