Moral uncertainty and contemporary children's fantasy fiction : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English at Massey University, Albany Campus, New Zealand
This thesis studies the interplay between mythos (story) and ethos (ethical character) in
contemporary children’s fantasy fiction. In recent decades, this relationship has been complicated
by two contradictory, but related, ethical tendencies. Postmodernism characteristically resists
unitary accounts of morality, celebrating pluralism. Within the last twenty years, however, there
has been a groundswell of interest in rethinking ethics and retrieving values from endemic moral
uncertainty, often referred to as an ethical turn. This thesis contends that children’s fantasy fiction
has evolved into a literature that creatively engages with this contradiction, simultaneously
refusing moral certainties and demanding unflinching ethical values.
This evolution is explored by comparing a selection of children’s fantasy fiction
published from 1995 to 2012 with earlier exponents of this genre as well as other literary texts.
The analysis is conducted through a framework of expanding ethical horizons, starting with a
focus on personal contexts and then progressing to the social, political, and ideological. The
thesis employs an inter-textual method. Ethical concepts are teased out by bringing literary texts
into dialogue with each other and exploring links between them. Ideas from critical theory are
then used to extend the trajectory of the ethical themes suggested by the fictions. Through this
method, themes and texts are woven into an ethical narrative about children’s fantasy.
This thesis approaches storytelling as a portal into the imagination where writers, readers
and protagonists actively forge moral meaning. Traditionally, stories rich in symbol not only
entertained their audiences, but also encapsulated their societies’ moral values. When society is
presented metaphorically, familiar assumptions are estranged, enabling readers to see the world
anew and imaginatively reconstruct their worldviews. In recent children’s fantasies, both child
protagonists and child readers are required to be moral thinkers. This demonstrates a shift, not
only in how ethical dilemmas are contended with today, but, by addressing children as ethical
subjects, in how much moral agency is attributed to children.
Children’s fantasy is a rich and layered genre particularly suited to engaging with
contemporary ethical dilemmas and uncertainties. This thesis affirms its role in exploring ethical
meaning and action and transmitting positive values in a climate of moral uncertainty. Emerging
from this fiction, and incongruous to both postmodern consumerist society and postmodern
suspicion of categorical moral imperatives, is an ethics of self-transcendent love.