Black, White, and Shades of Grey: Morality in Fantasy Literature

Who wouldn’t want to hear their favorite authors speak together on the same stage?

Recently, I was inspired by staff at Eventbrite about putting together a dream panel of authors I’d like to see at a conference.  Eventbrite is an organization that helps people create and share events that bring communities together.  For more information about their conference management tool, check out their website.

I love attending conferences, but have sadly never been to one that is book-related.  (That is likely to change now that I’m working as a librarian.)  Still, I assume that most events follow similar structures and that there is a great deal of freedom in what goes on in a panel.  That being said, I spent some time brainstorming what group I should bring together.  There are so many genres that I love and so many topics that would be interesting to explore.  I ended up settling on…


My panel is thematic in nature, featuring fantasy writers whose work meditates on elements of morality.  I chose this idea because fantasy is one of my favorite genres and, the more of it I read, the more the classic tropes become nuanced from one writer’s work to another–especially as time goes by.

Fantasy, as a genre, often deals with morality on an epic scale.  There is usually a struggle between good and evil and the hero’s role is to save the world.  From older works to modern, many of these tropes are the same, but each writer wields them differently. I’m fascinated by the way modern fantasy authors can both pay homage to the fathers of the genre, while also deconstructing the key elements of the stories and crafting something new.

Bearing this topic in mind, I chose my writers.  Suspend your disbelief for a moment, because one of them is no longer living.  Here they are…

J.R.R. Tolkien

18tolkienpic-superjumboI feel like you can’t have a serious discussion of fantasy literature without Tolkien.  Widely regarded as the Father of Modern Fantasy, morality is at the heart of his work and plays a very traditional role.  The lines between good and evil usually clearly drawn.  One triumphs over the other.  This is certainly the case in the Lord of the Rings.  Recently, I listened to The Silmarillion on audiobook and every story grapples with these themes and, at times, the lines become blurred.  Not every tale is a happy one and, because of evil, good characters meet tragic ends.  Tolkien’s presence at my panel would be an interesting one because I know that, while nothing he writes is allegorical, it is deeply influenced by his Christian faith.  This sets him apart from the other authors I’ve chosen, which brings a unique perspective.

J.K. Rowling

rowling-jkRowling is a no-brainer for a fantasy panel on heroism.  Harry Potter is a classic example of the hero’s journey.  What I love about the books is that they become more complex as Harry ages.  The lines between good and evil are always clearly drawn, but there is a clear contrast in tone from the beginning of the series to the end.  In the first few books, there is a very clear contrast between good and evil and Harry idealizes both.  Anyone who follows Voldemort is automatically the epitome of evil and Dumbledore is placed on a moral pedestal so high that it isn’t knocked down until the final book.  As Harry grows and learns about the world, though, the lines become blurred.  There is still a clear sense of right and wrong, but characters from both sides of the morality spectrum become humanized and human beings are complicated.  Rowling writes, “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”  Rowling’s careful exploration of moral ambiguity while holding true to a clear sense of good and evil is why her voice is important in this panel.

George R.R. Martin

CS 67 26th October 2010I’m not as familiar with Martin’s work as I am with the first two authors I’ve chosen.  I’ve only read the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire and, even then, read one book every two years.  They’re not as fresh in my mind as the HBO show, which I have watched all the way through multiple times.  Still, I can’t ignore that Martin’s work is fascinating.  His take is definitely the most true-to-life on this list in the sense that, morally, his world is a complete mess.  Morality is a spectrum and, if you exist at one of the poles, your survival rate isn’t high.  All the truly good, moral characters (white) and all the truly evil characters (black) get killed off fairly quickly, leaving a world full of grey.  Morally ambiguous and dubious characters vie for survival and power.  The series isn’t over yet, so I don’t know if Martin will opt for a traditional ending with good triumphing or take a different route.  Still, you can’t deny that Martin throws morality to the wind, making him a valuable voice on my panel.

Lev Grossman

grossmanThis past December, I read Grossman’s Magicians trilogy and, while I didn’t exactly enjoy them, I found them fascinating.  He leans heavily on the Chronicles of Narnia series, but turns Lewis’s clear-cut moral allegory on its head.  The series centers around the main character’s personal journey of discovering what it means to be a hero.  Quentin spends the series searching for some kind of meaning and higher calling.  He looks everywhere for meaning in life–education, magical prowess, sex, drugs, kingship of a magical world, questing, etc.–and almost always comes up empty.  He longs for the satisfaction of being a great hero in a great work of fantasy literature, but isn’t necessarily prepared for the sacrifices and cost that heroism requires.  Grossman’s series doesn’t focus on morality in the way that my other authors do, but his postmodern deconstruction of heroism is really interesting and why I have chosen to bring him to the discussion.

As for the discussion, I would spark it by asking each author to talk about how morality influences their storytelling and let the conversation flow from there.  There is such a variety of approaches within this group and many have influenced each other.  I’d love to hear them respond to each other’s work and talk about how their ideas converge and diverge.  If there is time, I’d have a quick Q&A where the audience can ask the writers questions… but I’d like the bulk of the time to be dedicated to the discussion.  What can I say?  I have an English degree and love ideas.

What do you think? What fantasy authors would you like to hear from in my discussion? If you could come up with a dream panel of authors, who would you pick and what would they talk about?

Thank you so much for stopping by to read about my dream book conference panel.  If you like what you see here, be sure to check out some of my other bookish writing:

Like books?  Like travel?  They come together in my Literary Pilgrimages series.

Check out my biweekly Inbox//Outbox to find out what I’ve been reading.

For more of my reading adventures, add me on Goodreads


5 thoughts on “Black, White, and Shades of Grey: Morality in Fantasy Literature

  1. imaginativeworks January 30, 2017 / 1:25 pm

    I love this idea, sort of like if you could invite 5 people to dinner (dead or living) who would it be and why? I think my Conference Authors, if I was staying in the fantasy genre, would be similar to yours: Tolkien, Rowling, and Martin but then I would add Robert Jordan (deceased) with Brandon Saunderson and Marion Zimmer Bradley (deceased). Great post, thanks for sharing.

    • Amelia February 4, 2017 / 9:25 am

      Yes, it is very similar to the dinner party question. It’s so much fun to think about these things–about what people to put in a room together and how they would interact. I completely agree with you–Jordan, Sanderson, and Bradley are fantastic choices to add to a fantasy panel. I’ve never read any by Jordan (too intimidated by the sheer volume of his work), but love the other two. 🙂

  2. aafrias February 7, 2017 / 4:46 pm

    Great read! I noticed growing up that fantasy and morality were inescapably intertwined. I also noticed that my friends who read fantasy tended to be more heavily invested in matters of morality and justice than friends who did not read fantasy or did not read much at all. It’s interesting because most would have you believe that readers of fantasy are removed from the real world, hiding away from real problems in their own little fantasy lands but I’ve found that to be completely untrue. The opposite, in fact. Fantasy stirs in us a desire to see the wrongs of the world put right and lays the responsibility on our shoulders to be the ones to right those wrongs in whatever ways that we can.

    I believe fantasy readers are going to change the world for the better and fantasy authors are going to give them to tools to do it.

    • Amelia February 8, 2017 / 9:31 am

      Thank you so much for the fantastic and insightful comment! “Fantasy stirs in us a desire to see the wrongs of the world put right”–I LOVE this. I recently found an interview with Lev Grossman where he says, “The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. …Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.” Reading fantasy stretches your imagination and empathy and also puts you face to face with very real problems and offers possibilities for how to rise above it. These skills are so needed in the world, especially with current events. I agree with you–fantasy readers are going to change the world. 🙂

      • aafrias February 8, 2017 / 6:23 pm

        I’m so flattered that you think I’m quotable, ha! I feel like there’s a certain safety in fantasy. It gives writers the freedom to address controversial topics in a setting removed from reality, which protects them from harsh scrutiny, in a way. Sometimes, that’s needed; a way to reflect on real problems through an alternate lens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s