Fantasy Literature as a genre of Popular Culture. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings

Diploma Thesis, 2014

57 Pages, Grade: 10/10


Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Cultural Studies and Popular Culture
1.2 Fantasy Literature and Science Fiction
1.3 Fantasy and Children’s Literature
1.4 The appeal of fantasy

2 Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling: Why Harry Potter?
2.1 The author, the plot and the main characters
2.2 Magic
2.3 Society, Politics and Class
2.4 Discrimination: Race and Blood
2.5 Gender inHarry Potter
2.6 There’s something about Harry
2.7 Language Use inHarry Potter

3 Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: the author, the plot and the characters
3.1 On Fairy Stories: Recovery, Escapism, Consolation
3.2 The glow of the past: allusions and credibility
3.3 Narrative Techniques and Structure
3.4 Characters: Heroes and Villains
3.5 Themes and Religious perspectives

4 Epilogue

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

This thesis is a study of fantasy literature as a genre of popular contemporary literature; a genre usually considered as low culture, especially within the academic world. Being a fan of this literary genre myself, I try not only to defend it through this paper but also to argue for a general cultural democracy. In my opinion both low culture and high culture belong to the general notion of culture; whether they are liked and preferred by few or by many people, they deserve to be respected.

My aim is to examine fantasy literature from many angles in order to figure out how it makes its appeal and why. To be specific and explain my argument the best way possible, I analyze specific works of fantasy literature as examples. The books I chose to work with are J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Furthermore Science Fiction is briefly discussed in order to look into the differences and similarities between these two genres and clarify the controversial distinction between them. Before proceeding to the main body of the paper, I consider necessary a brief introduction to the blurred and controversial notions of cultural studies and popular culture.

1.1 Cultural Studies and Popular Culture

Cultural studies is not a notion that can be easily described by one single definition. On the contrary it is connected with the present, the past and the future, it has its own conjectures and trajectories and it had always being a terrain of conflicts, disagreements and contentions (Hall 278). Cultural studies touches upon many issues and fields but what is surely central to the project of cultural studies is popular culture. Stating it in simple words, as I understand it, popular culture is actually the texts and practices of everyday life; what makes it a controversial term is its social and political dimension.

The study of popular culture is closely related to Marxism. The Marxist idea about art and literature is that they cannot be separated from other kinds of social practices. Literature according to Marxists is ideologically and historically charged, made to give a message and have an impact on people and society; not only to express but also to create and change. As Raymond Williams points out: “The arts of writing and the arts of creation and performance, over their whole range, are parts of the cultural process in all the different ways, the different sectors that I have been seeking to describe. They contribute to the effective dominant culture and are a central articulation of it” (388). In other words, cultural texts and practices do not just reflect the already shaped dominant culture and society but they actually take part in shaping it. For this reason in our study of popular culture we must take into consideration its social and historical background.

We live in a capitalist society where the media are of major importance. According to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, our identity is not a finished thing but it is forged through an unconscious on-going process. Popular culture constitutes a combination of practices and ideologies changeable and adaptable to the needs and requirements of each era and society; it contributes to the forging of our view of the world and of our sense of selfhood. As Douglas Kellner puts it, “The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us about how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear and desire – and what not to.” (5). Popular culture wields a great power, given actually by ourselves, this is why we should develop a critical consciousness in order to be able to cope with it. It is thus apparent that popular culture is something more than a degraded culture imposed from above, it is something much deeper and essential; definitely worthy of study.

The importance of the social and political function of popular culture is undeniable. To be more specific, popular literature is inextricably linked with the social and historical background of the time during which it was written, creating in this way an association of content and form. But how has this content been created and received? The roles of author and reader in this process are equally important and must be evenly underlined. An enormous critical debate has occurred concerning these roles. Whilst in the past the author was seen as the divine unquestionable authority, modern literary criticism eliminated its function, either giving importance to the receiver of the text and the text itself or emphasizing the social rather than the personal dimension of it. For instance, Roland Barthes in his essay “The death of the author” asserts that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (311). Barthes’ radical essay introduced the loss of identity and gave importance to the text and the language itself. The reader, not the author, is the one that sets the limits of the text; “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (316).

Among many critical views, the most suitable for the approach of this thesis is the one formulated by Wolfgang Iser. Iser’s approach is a balanced one; for Iser reading is not a monolithic process but a combination of functions and dynamics. The text, the author and the reader do not have an actual existence separated from each other; it is “the convergence of text and reader” that “brings the literary work into existence” (295). According to Iser:

…the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text, but in fact must lie halfway between the two. The work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized, and furthermore the realization is by no means independent of the individual disposition of the reader – though this in turn is acted upon by the different patterns of the text (295).

E.D. Hirsch’s view resembles that of Iser, focusing more on the function of the author. In “In defense of the author” he argues: “There is no magic land of meanings outside human consciousness”, and he continues “Whenever meaning is attached to a sequence of words it is impossible to escape an author.” (267). The author exists as well as the textual meaning; it cannot be changed or erased but differentiated from era to era and reading to reading.

Following Iser’s view and reception theory generally we come in contradiction to the Marxist belief in literature as a type of militant art. If the meaning and hence the power of the text lies not only in the hands of the author but also in each reader’s interpretation, it cannot be controlled. What can be controlled though is us, the readers, and our understanding of the world around us. Fredric Jameson in his article “Reification and Utopia in Mass culture” rethinks the Marxist’s, and specifically the Frankfurt school’s, view on popular culture. He considers the idea of instrumentalization, meaning “the unexpected and imperceptible introduction of commodity structure into the very form and content of the work of art itself”, a paradoxical one (132). It is not clear how a piece of literature can be consumed as a common commodity.

We may accept that our society is definitely a commodified one, everything gains its value only at the moment of its use and aesthetics and especially the image almost define us; but when it comes to art, and this applies to any kind of art, we should keep in mind that it is immanent to itself, as Kant suggested “a finality without an end”. If we are to put somewhere the blame for the manipulation of the masses, this would not be art itself but the capitalistic system which aims at the reification of everything that can be consumed (Jameson 131-132).

Many times popular culture is characterized as a product of steer consumerism and propaganda created to deceive the masses; an easily digested culture intended for passive receivers. I cannot deny these designations, sometimes they are actually true. To use Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s terms, culture is an “industry” which aims at “mass deception”. Nevertheless, if we look at popular culture only under the aspect of political and social marketing, a stance usually held by the Marxists, we may fall into the false perception of our life as a sheer business society where culture is of minor importance, “a non-serious activity” (Jameson 139). What I would like to emphasize here is that in our study of popular culture we shall be conciliatory, take into consideration many factors and avoid extreme views. Each text is potentially capable of several readings that may influence the reader or not. Furthermore the popularity of a work does not necessarily set its literary value. We cannot criticize a popular work as propagandistic or of a bad quality relying just on its popularity; in fact to be attractive to so many people it must have something appealing in it.

In the study of popular culture one deals with the trite division between high and low culture; a division that has always troubled me and actually one of the motives that made me write this thesis. Highly respected artists against low degraded ones were always components of a dispute, especially within the academic world. Any expression of enjoyment of a ‘bourgeois’ work of art would mean an academic suicide, especially in the past; still today though the preference for any kind of popular culture may be criticized.

This controversy is still taking place. Is any kind of authority capable of judging a good or bad piece of art? To cite an example, Paul Grey on the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s birthday reported:

And then there is Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravagant adaptation of Eliot’s book of light verse, Old Possum’s book of Practical Cats (1993). The smash show has been seen by some 25 million people in 15 countries and contributed more than $ 2 million in royalties to the Eliot estate. Purists shudder at such commercial success and its spin-offs. Says critic Hugh Kenner, ‘Eliot wanted to connect with a popular audience, but Cats wasn’t what he had in mind’ (Time magazine, 26 September 1998, p. 55).

Harriet Hawkins insightfully comments upon this statement: “How does he know? And why on earth wouldn’t any author, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’, be delighted by a popular success of this magnitude?”(14). We should reconsider the division between high and mass culture and look at them objectively as “dialectically independent phenomena, as twin and inseparable forms of the fission of aesthetic production under late capitalism” (Jameson 133). It seems to me that all forms of art have a common denominator, their aim is to be attractive and create pleasure. Art is made to be shared and if it is shared among many people then that means it is also successful.

Of course my intention is neither to consider every kind of art the same nor to underestimate the importance of criticism. Art is governed by a beautiful diversity that actually makes it such a miscellaneous and unique notion. Different groups of people are attracted by different types of art and this is absolutely normal and healthy since art mirrors society; both are an ongoing process, not a monolithic body of ideas and practices, but an ongoing process that is criticized and must be criticized. Criticism is respectable, it goes deep into art and most of the time gives light, explanation and meaning to it. Nevertheless what I want to underline here is that, as criticism, individual preference in art and literature must be equally respected and not persecuted by any kind of authority or elitism, either by the critical tradition or by the artists themselves.

Art must be enjoyed freely without canons and restrictions. Using literature to speak about literature: “According to his powers each may give; / Only on varied diet can we live. / The pious fable and the dirty story/ Share in the total literary glory” (W. H. Auden).

1.2 Fantasy Literature and Science Fiction

The field of popular culture is vast, especially in this day and age; it contains not only literature but also music, cinema, television, etc. In a thesis of this length the focus will be on a part of contemporary popular literature, that is Fantasy literature. To introduce the notion of Fantasy I could do no better than to cite the felicitous words of Rosemarie Jackson:

Fantasy, both in literature and out of it, is an enormous and seductive subject. Its association with imagination and with desire has made it an area difficult to articulate or to define, and indeed the value of fantasy has seemed to reside in precisely this resistance to definition, in its free-floating and escapist qualities. Literary fantasies have appeared to be ‘free’ from many of the conventions and restraints of more realistic texts: they have refused to observe unities of time, space and character, doing away with chronology, three dimensionality and with rigid distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, self and other, life and death (1).

Fantasy literature mainly draws its inspiration from the past; either referring to ancient worlds or borrowing elements of these worlds and myths to create new imaginary environments. The fantasy literature that is examined in this thesis, the fantastic worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, have more to do with the well-known notion of fairytale or else fairy-story. In these stories one can meet not only elves and fays but also witches, dwarfs, dragons, trolls or giants; mythical creatures, enchanted mortal men as well as the magic of nature and scenery, water, stone, sun. Fantasy is a gate to a realm of mystery, adventures and an alluring strangeness that the real world lacks.

It is probably the literary genre with the longest and richest heritage; in fact fantasy could be considered the progenitor from which the other literary forms came. Stories characterized by supernatural elements existed in spoken form before the advent of written literature. This oral tradition enabled many ancient myths and stories to be maintained, remembered and conveyed from generation to generation, altered or not. The same motifs and patterns travel throughout the years and the generations, creating new fairytales enriched and modified each time by each historical and social background; provoking a general feeling of repetition.

The expert in the field of fantasy, J.R.R Tolkien, borrowing Dasent’s words and adjusting them to his thoughts, gives an aptly shaped idea of fairy-stories and fantasy. According to Tolkien there is a “Cauldron of Story” which is continually boiling; throughout the years several cooks select bits dainty or undainty to put in it. The fairy-stories are likened to the soups coming out of this cauldron (125). Fantasy stories are complex mixtures of several elements realistic or supernatural which there is no need to figure out in detail. It is not the origins that plays the most important role but “the effect produced now by these old things in the stories. For one thing they are now old and antiquity has an appeal in itself” (128).

Tolkien’s work Lord of the Rings brought a revolution to the standards of fantasy literature concerning imagination and popularity. Fantasy novels sales benefited from the remarkable critical and popular success of both the books and the film adaptations. One example of a more recent, modern fantasy sequel is Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling which attracts a huge readership but lacks the critical acceptance and success of Tolkien’s books. I will look more closely at these works in the second part of the paper.

The term ‘fantasy’ has been applied to any literature that introduces realms and elements other than human, such as fairytales, myths, legends or science fiction stories. Fantasy is often jumbled with science fiction; the two genres may be considered close relatives but they are not one and the same thing. Some would argue that the difference between the two literary forms is minimal. Both explore other realities than our own, sharing the same base, imagination. Reading fantasy literature and science fiction the reader delves into various imaginary environments such as the ancient past, the distant future, lost worlds, other planets or fantasy Earths. Where Science fiction differentiates itself is the setting and the time that it uses. As Samuel Delany puts it “Fantasy treats what cannot happen, science fiction treats what has not happened” (qtd. in Bernardo and Murphy 14). Many writers have worked in both genres, while writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin have written works that tend to blur the boundaries between the two.

Science fiction has its origins in the idea of extrapolating society in the future. It is maybe the most socially reflective genre, this is the reason why literary scholars are more familiar with it. They are interested in the deep meanings hidden in the high-tech future. Science fiction gets its inspiration from the past, the present and the future; sets its imaginary world in the future; but comments mainly on the present time and society. As Joanna Russ defined it “Science fiction is ‘what if”- literature. Science fiction shows things not as they characteristically and habitually are but as they might be, and for that ‘might be’ the author must offer a rational, serious, consistent explanation” (qtd. in Landon 6).

Science fiction is everywhere today, cinema, literature, video games, television but also in contemporary architecture and the press. We see science fiction around us, in the modern lines of the buildings which resembles the ones of future films, in the stories about mysterious flying objects in the press and even in music and the arts generally. As fantasy literature, many times science fiction has been blamed for being a light and escapist kind of literature which functions as commercial brainwashing. Yet, science fiction is in another sense still respected by the academic world.

Science fiction stories are not set in the future only for the sake of escaping the restraints of reality; they constitute a kind of metaphor or allegory and should be read accordingly. Science fiction is a an outlandish literary genre that poses questions on many controversial and notorious issues about humanity, such as cloning, robots, cyborgs, aliens etc. In this way it articulates contemporary fears as well as plays out ideological tensions around class, race, gender and sexuality.

It is evident that Science Fiction and Fantasy are similar but also different. My main concern at this point is not to make clear the distinction between the two or give a workable definition, this would result in an extensive disquisition, but to look into the interesting points that come out of this comparison. Magic or Technology, myth or science, Science fiction and Fantasy are adored or scorned for the same reasons: the imaginary elements, the questioning on controversial issues and of course the escapist atmosphere.

Despite all the tradition that fantasy carries and the social commenting of science fiction, both genres retain today an image of literary inconsequence dangling between adult fiction and fiction for children. Moreover they are occasionally blamed for provoking passive escapism and insulting religious beliefs. Fantasy - as well as science fiction - are more frequently lumped in with romance novels than taken seriously, or even at times considered pernicious literary genres. The fact that a remarkable number of readers actually enjoy fantasy and science fiction, as well as the reasons of their appeal, are usually overlooked and disregarded. I am going to deal with what makes fantasy so attractive briefly below and in more detail further on when analyzing the books; but before moving on to this, I must stress a crucial point. I would like to question the role of fantasy as a genre mainly addressed to children.

1.3 Fantasy and Children’s Literature

Fantasy literature is often misperceived as a literary genre naturally appropriate for children. The reason why this idea has appeared is the connection of the genre with the common fairytales. Indeed fantasy literature resembles the patterns and form of fairytales but they are not the same; the notions are confused and fantasy literature is once more labelled less serious, childish kind of literature.

To prove my point let me hypothetically assume that fantasy literature is indeed addressed mainly to children. The argument for this is that children’s credulity as well as the lack of experience and knowledge makes them an easier readership. They can believe in the existence of dragons, elves or aliens while reading a story, without needing the willing suspension of disbelief. The connection of the nursery with fantasy literature and fairytales is another cause of this misconception. Nurses usually choose folktales or folklore to narrate to children either because everybody is familiar with them through oral tradition, or because these tales are indeed exciting. After all everything supernatural seems extraordinary not only to children’s but also to adult’s eyes.

Thus, if we consider children a special group of human beings with different qualities and needs, we may argue that they need a completely different treatment and a certain kind of literature to read as well; but is this so? Partially it is; children need help and care to grow up but growing up means also introducing them to the world of adults. They should receive not only a partial knowledge but controlled multilateral input. Fantasy literature is a genre rich in symbolism, through imagination it expresses and comments on various issues of human society. Its aim is not only to escape from everyday reality but mostly to see reality and society from a different angle. There are many hidden meanings in the mysterious worlds of the past and the future, meanings difficult to comprehend even for adults.

As far as credulity is concerned, the attribute that adults are supposed to lack, it is not needed in an imaginary environment created by a skillful writer. The art of the story maker creates worlds that, as J.R.R. Tolkien asserts, make the reader a “subcreator”. The willing suspension of disbelief is easily achieved in a successful imaginary environment; the reader delves into a world where everything is real because the reader him/herself wants it to be so, everything is believable. If the feeling of disbelief arises the reader stops being a “subcreator” and watches the story from the outside (Tolkien, 132).

In contrast to children readers, adults consciously choose to read Fantasy or Science fiction because they are attracted to it or interested in it. Children (at least of young age) cannot choose what they read, they read what is imposed on them by the adults in order to enrich their knowledge. The fact that this kind of literature is imposed on children by adults does not necessarily mean that all children enjoy fantasy; some do and some others do not. As happens with adults, the preference for imaginary stories and narratives is more a matter of individual taste than a matter of age. Children who are fond of fantasy and science fiction will most probably turn to adults of the same taste.

In a nutshell, I believe that we should neither categorize literature according to age appropriateness nor confuse fantasy literature with fairytales. Imagination applies to everybody. I am not saying of course that fantasy literature is not a genre suitable for children, most of the times it actually is. The key point that I want to stress here is that it is not a genre addressed only to children and it is not going to be considered as such in this thesis.

1.4 The appeal of fantasy

Finally let us turn to the question stated above, which constitutes one of the main themes of this paper: why fantasy literature is so appealing? What makes it popular? If we are to speak generally about this kind of literature (both fantasy and science fiction) and its appeal, we can locate some common characteristics responsible for this popularity. Both genres are based on imagination, meaning mental image-making or in other words ‘unreality’. This notion of the unreal gives a feeling of freedom from the dominant fact and reality; it is the extraordinary, the unusual that takes the reader by surprise and allures him. As J.R.R. Tolkien argues “That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue not a vice” (139). Imagination and fantasy are natural human needs and appealing by nature.

As has been mentioned oftentimes, fantasy literature and science fiction are two everyday literary genres that do not deal with the everyday at all. The heroes and protagonists in these stories are nonrealistic exceptional characters, the scenery is an imaginary one that cannot be found in the real world and the plot resembles the one of the happy-ending myth. How is it then possible for the reader to identify; to feel a part of the narrative and not be bored? Although a fantasy work does not deal with real facts it is not totally imaginary either. Every imaginary world in order to be effective and have an impact on the reader must have a correspondence with the real one. Fantasy is deliberately taking real-life situations and introducing them into a world where unexpected things happen. In other words, the imaginary environments introduced in science fiction and fantasy literature are a kind of fantastic simulations of reality, shaped in this way deliberately. Thus, the reader can become a part of the narrative and can identify as well, since s/he functions as a sub-creator.

The controversial phenomenon of escapism that characterizes the literature of the fantastic is definitely one of the reasons which contributes to its rising popularity. Considered either as a negative or as a positive phenomenon, escapism is the main lure in this kind of literature. People today seek for a way to take a break from the everyday world that they live in and reading fantasy provides one. As it has been mentioned above, not everyone is well disposed to escapism. Many scholars have described it as a degraded form of fiction addressed to a shallow readership. In this paper though the opposite view will be supported; as Rosemary Jackson insightfully puts it: “Fantasy is not to do with inventing another non-human world: it is not transcendental. It has to do with inverting elements of this world, re-combining its constitutive features in new relations to produce something strange, unfamiliar and apparently ‘new’, absolutely ‘other’ and different.” (8).

Everything stated above will be supported with examples in the following chapters. Of course not every literary work based on fantastic elements is equally valuable. Every work is going to be analyzed separately and every author individually. Apart from the general feeling of escapism and the element of the unreal and the extraordinary that is noticed throughout these books, the writing style of each author, the attitude towards religious matters, the social commenting as well as the symbolism used, are essential elements that determine the popularity of each literary work and makes it appealing or unappealing to the reader.

2 Potter, by J.K. Rowling: Why Harry Potter?

Jack Zipes has stated about the Harry Potter books: “Phenomena such as the Harry Potter series are driven by commodity consumption that at the same time sets the parameters of reading and aesthetic taste” (172); Pennington called them “fundamentally failed fantasy” (79) and Anthony Holden “derivative, traditional and not particularly well written” (qtd. in Lyall 17). Harry Potter has aroused legal disputes, religious debates and of course much literary criticism. Taking these into consideration, a reasonable question may arise: Is Harry Potter worthy of an analysis like this, will it not be tedious to deal with these books? In my opinion certainly yes, the Harry Potter books deserve a serious analysis.


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Fantasy Literature as a genre of Popular Culture. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
English Literature and Popular Culture
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fantasyliterature, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Literature, Diploma Thesis Sample, Popular Culture, Literary theories, Literary Criticism, Academic, Aristotle University, Analysis of Fantasy, Supernatural in Literature
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Magdalini Choleva (Author), 2014, Fantasy Literature as a genre of Popular Culture. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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