Best-selling ethics: A literary analysis of the ethical dimension of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Lykke H. Guanio-Uluru

I have an interest especially in the collective dimension of ethics, moral choice and literature, and I have therefore chosen to work primarily with popular literature, a definition of which is that it is the choice of the many, and thus may be said to be indicative of a collective preference. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings - that has been translated into over 40 languages, sold many million copies worldwide, and later been made into an equally popular film version - is interesting because it is a great piece of literature, but also because of the phenomenal public interest it has generated. The latest of such literary success phenomena is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which has been translated into a phenomenal 65 languages, been made into a successful series of films and has impacted the lives of millions of children, teenagers and adults alike.
The Harry Potter series especially has spawned intense ethical debate and has suffered bans by Christian groups on the grounds of moral philosophy. What are the underlying ethical propositions of these series? That is the subject of this inquiry.

Criticism of The Lord of the Rings has been focussed mainly on discussing its symbolic contents and its invented languages. Less attention has been paid to its ethical propositions, though in my opinion these too warrant a closer look. Tolkien himself firmly denounced that the story is infused with any inner meaning or “message” by authorial intention. This does not mean that inner meaning is lacking: Narrative theorists such as Wayne C. Booth and later James Phelan discuss text as communication and claim that value systems may be read out of a text because they are enfolded in the terms used, the questions posed and in the culture and language that produced it. Thus the conscious intention of the author is but an element of the communication any text constitutes.

The texts will be analysed and compared in terms of their underlying ethical propositions as revealed through the parameters of genre, themes, narrative techniques (with an emphasis on Booth’s concept of “implied author” and Wolfgang Iser’s concept of “the implied reader”), the connotative meaning of names and symbolic messages, as well as through the ideas of certain ethical theorists, prominent of whom might be Martha Nussbaum, Arne Næss and Alasdair MacIntyre. Due to the thematic of the literary works, I will also draw on Just War theory and environmental ethics in my analysis. 

The methodological questions I will have to solve is to consistently bridge the theoretical gap between the narrative and ethical discussions in my project, as well as find or develop tools that meaningfully capture and display the social and collective dimension of the ethical emphasis disclosed. Here Iser’s reader-response theories and his concept of literary recodification are useful, as are the ideas of Jonathan Haith who has theorized that moral judgement is interpersonal. He stresses the social role played in the shaping of moral judgement and claims that people tend to give socially acceptable and culturally supplied explanations to their moral judgements. Thus narrative and ethical analysis of popular literature seems an interesting avenue in order to gain a better understanding of the collective nature of ethical values and their shaping.

Lykke harmony Guanio-uluru

Master, Engelsk litteratur, Universitetet i Oslo

Assosiert PhD-stipendiat ved Etikkprogrammet
1. januar 2009 til 4. juli 2012


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