Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Child, Morality, and HDM

Morality and the justification for character's actions is something that most creative writing students learn within the first week of the introduction class. Every action the character has must be believable in the grand scheme of things. Whether the story is fantasy, science fiction, realism, magical realism, whatever the genre, the decisions the character makes must be justifiable in order for the piece to be believable. This is where the author really shines. He/she can write the story in such a way that those actions are not only justified but are within the character's characteristics.

With children as main characters, the problem becomes complicated. Most of the time children haven't reached the point where they are able to see even the most basic consequences behind their actions, let alone those that are polysemous in nature. This applies not just to the main characters but to the readers who are most likely children readers, drawn to characters most like them. So a decision to steal food, for example, is seen as wrong but justified as being necessary for the survival of the character. Both the reader, who is of the same developmental mindset as the main character, and the child character are subject to the authors views on morality, which even in the most lay adults are much more highly developed than an adolescents'. Thus when the character and the adolescent reader encounters the consequences of the characters mistakes they learn his/her lesson and gain a sense of right and wrong.

Yet what happens when those consequences are not fully present? What happens if the consequences never catch up to the character? A sense of morality is never established in the character and a wrong sense of morality is instilled in the reader, believing that these actions have no consequences. Thus we arrive at Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. As much ridicule this series has been subject to, very rarely do we see any directed toward morality. Many believe that Lyra learns from her moral misgivings, and yes we see Lyra encounter the consequences of her lies toward the middle of The Amber Spyglass, a full 600 pages after her first lie.

For all of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife the reader watches Lyra weasel her way out of consequences and walk away none the wiser. She learns how to nurture through Will's missing fingers, how to be a "proper lady" through Coulter, and is told the direction to fulfill her quest through the Golden Compass. She literally grows up in front of our eyes throughout the series without even knowing that her lying, stealing, and hiding are not the right things to do. Yes she has moments of clarity, and boy do they last a long time (about 100 pages through Subtle Knife she is a submissive, comment-less blob with a compass), and yes she does hold the ultimate "truth teller" in her hands that gives her a sense of right and wrong. But these moments are rather lame and few. For all the fantastic writing of Pullman, I believe he guides and establishes reader's, especially those of adolescent mindset, into morally grey if not black territory.

While I could carry on with this post for another three or four days, here is where I will stop and submit to you to email me if you want to see my finished thought…

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