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
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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.
Fantastic fiction, Children's literature, Fantasy fiction, History and criticism, Ethical criticism, Moral uncertainty, Contemporary children's fantasy fiction