Fantasy Fiction: Beyond Good and Evil? (2002)

The Lord of The Rings has returned. Thirty years after it was last in fashion, Tolkien's fable about a multicultural alliance facing down an evil dictator is being read and watched around the world. Once, much to the old don's chagrin, his epic supplied the sixties counterculture with an elegant (and simple) ethico-political allegory. Sauron's nihilism, polluting heavy industry, feverish productivism and alienated Asiatic hordes of jackbooted minions made him a shoe-in for The Man. Even you had too much to dream last night, you could still decode the Shire as an organic pastoral community under threat. This time, the fantasy has a different meaning, and Tolkien is only part of the story. In the last eighteen months, speculative literature seems to have staged a full-scale breakout from its home in the airbrush/metalhead underground. JK Rowling's Harry Potter and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy are both enjoying mainstream success, and the perpetrators of a host of other multi-book epics are following in their wake. There appears to be a hunger for alternate worlds, visionary romance, and noble characters in situations of clearly drawn conflict.

The fantasy boom seems to draw its energy from a contemporary desire for moral clarity, and resonates with the wider political context. The Bush speech-machine phrase 'axis of evil' surely arises as much out of college-campus Tolkien as from the metaphorics of world war two. Post 9/11, the US administration has informed the world that it can choose to be 'either with us or against us, there is no middle ground'. Tony Blair claims 'there is no moral ambiguity' in the war against terrorism. Whether one considers this rhetoric cynical or sincere, its aim is to persuade us to authorise maximum force against an idealised and highly-simplified enemy. Terrorist, orc. Bin Laden, Voldemort. Azbakhan, Camp X-Ray. As in politics, so in literature. Out go ambiguity and irony, the defining tropes of the affectless eighties and nineties. In come comfort-stories, and worlds which, unlike our own, come equipped with ethical GPS systems for accurate moral route-planning.

Writing about the collapse of the WTC towers, Slavoj Zizek (the left's millennial Gandalf) links the event to a scene in The Matrix, where an appalled Keanu Reeves is shown that the world he has inhabited all his life is in fact a vast consensual hallucination, a spectacle designed to screen him from the true horror of his condition. As he wakes into a place of desolation and terror, his guide Morpheus bids him 'welcome to the desert of the real.' This, says Zizek, is where we find ourselves today. If the current fantasy vogue is fulfilling the same desires as the crusading rhetoric of our political leaders, it is acting as a kind of cultural band-aid, a mythical analogue to the fantasy of global capitalist consensus ruptured by the WTC attacks. If you believe as hard as you can, you might see Harry Potter waving his wand in an attempt to mend the end-of-history spectacle. A pair of mile-high beams of light have recently replaced the twin towers, a reconstruction of the missing buildings in angelic, ethereal form.

With the social field saturated by the terminology of good and evil, we would do well to assess what meanings our popular fantasists are asigning to these terms. Tolkien's depiction of moral conflict is generally analysed in terms of the dictatorship whose baleful eye was turned towards England as he composed his trilogy. Fifty years on, both Rowling and Pullman's work are informed by a displaced Christianity, and the one-time monopolists of the definition of good and evil have reacted angrily. Rowling's depiction of a notably church-less world ruled by magic and witchcraft have made her books the most-banned in America for the last two years, and currently the Harry Potter series stands seventh in the American Library Association list of the most-banned books of the last decade http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top100bannedbooks.html Pullman's trilogy, currently far less well-known, is likely to outstrip Potter, once the religious right discover their children are reading a version of Paradise Lost rewritten in terms of a deviant gnosticism, with the rebel angels as the good guys, and God as a corrupt, absent presence, ruling over a totalitarian church.

Rowling and Pullman reveal their moral coordinates to be those of secular liberalism. Lord Voldemort and The Authority are figures for a fundamentalist (and in Pullman's case, specifically religious) evil, which denies difference, stifles debate and seeks to exert absolute control over the bodies and minds of its subjects. By contrast, the sexual, social and intellectual liberty represented by Pullman's child-heroes and the multi-ethnic communitarianism of Rowling's Hogwarts depend on a celebration of multiplicity - across an infinity of parallel worlds in Pullman's version, or within the established bounds of institutional tradition in Rowling's more conservative formulation.

In Rowling's world, wise and tolerant headmaster Dumbledore reports to The Ministry of Magic, an inefficient but ultimately benevolent institution which spends its time dealing with libertarian renegades - both transgressors of the various laws governing correct magical usage and the evil Death Eaters, responsible for various horrific terrorist atrocities. The Ministry has dealt with terrorism in the past, through the Rumsfeldian mechanism of the Council of Magical Law, a tribunal which employed the sanction of imprisonment in Azbakhan, and psycho-spiritual torture by the morally-dubious Dementors. This justice is administered in the name of good citizens such as Harry, Hermione and Ron, all of whom come from recognisably middle-class backgrounds. However Ron's family lacks money and Hermione's lacks caste, since her parents are 'muggles', non-magical people who are looked down on by certain 'pure blood' wizards.

Goodness, for Rowling, seems to be a matter of equality of opportunity, while evil takes the form of a program of aristocratic eugenics. Voldemort, the murderer of Harry's parents, is a Lord, and Harry's main Hogwarts enemy is Draco Malfoy, whose Spenserian name and contempt for 'mudblood' muggles points to the possibility of a magical final solution, conducted in the name of a collection of disaffected great Norman families (Crabbes, Malfoys and Goyles), angry at the rise to power of the middle-English bourgeoisie of Potters, Grangers and Weasleys. The picture is, however, complicated by the question of Harry's birth. His magical parentage and the scar which marks him as the chosen one are 'old order' signs, and the much commented-on social conservatism of Rowling's milieu points to an uneasy yearning for the hierarchical verities of the past.

Pullman's narration of the struggle of rebel angels versus 'The Authority' across the parallel worlds of quantum physics, centres on the search for the possible physical source of sin, found in the 'dust' which hovers around all conscious entities, and all substances which intentional agency has shaped. The church is prepared to kill and torture to combat heresy and keep 'experimental theology' under its control. Evil here has to do with the restriction of desire. It is also specifically corporate, while good is a matter of personal integrity, bravery and willingness to reject orthodoxies. The boundaries of right and wrong are found to coincide with physical laws, often beyond human knowledge or control. Goodness ultimately emerges as a spiritualised scientific rationalism - an ethic of openness and curiosity combines with diligence, persistence and a sense of wonder to combat the evils of empty ritual, ignorance and authoritarianism.

However, secular fantasy's control over the definition of moral terms is far from complete. Last year the top-selling hardback work of fiction in the US (2,969,458 copies) was Desecration, the ninth of the 'Left Behind' books, by preacher/journalist co-writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The Left Behind story deals with the aftermath of the Rapture, when all true Christian believers are spirited up to heaven, leaving behind chaos in their wake. During the Tribulation, 'the Trib force' a group of left-behind agnostics (on their way to believerhood), have to combat the antichrist, the Romanian-sounding Nicolae Carpathia, who takes over the UN, and uses biometrics to put the mark of the beast on his followers. In our new moral landscape, not everyone equates fundamentalism with evil.

This piece first appeared in Mute.

The picture shows Gavin Turk performing on The Lawn at the Port Eliot Literary Festival 2003