The Soul in Popular Fiction: Introduction

My life just got insane, and I doubt I’ll be able to post anything new for a while, so here’s a preview of sorts for coming attractions to to last you until I get a chance to breathe. And yes, I know nobody actually cares that much about when I update.

I have now posted every paper that I have written in college pertaining to fiction and ethics or philosophy except my senior thesis. For about a year my thesis was my baby and greatly refined the way that I approach both fiction and ethics. Despite the fact that I have never stressed so much over another project before, I really enjoyed writing it. So much so that it came in at almost twice the required length (oops). Because it is so long I will be posting it in sections (probably 9). What follows is the introduction. I hope this piques your interest (possibly enough to comment? you know you want to). The next section is coming soon.

The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Introduction

It is a curiosity that the term “soul” holds so much significance in modern culture with so little agreement of its meaning. To some the word represents the hope of an afterlife, to some it is instead the animating force of the body, and to some it merely means good jazz. Nearly everyone appears to agree that, if such a thing as a soul exists, it must be very important, but exactly how and why that is so are open to debate.

Part of the problem in gaining a clear conception of the soul is that it cannot be empirically studied. Theories exist on the nature of the soul, but those theories are unverifiable (at least in this lifetime), and it can be difficult to draw connections between a theory of something so abstract and its practical applications. This dilemma is where fiction comes in handy. Although fiction cannot help in gaining an understanding of what the soul (if it exists) actually is, it can assist us in positing a scenario: if the soul did exist like x, y would be the ramification. By doing so, fiction enables us to gain a clearer grasp of the concept of the soul, even if not the reality of it.

One ramification that the conceptualization of the soul in fiction helps to clarify is the ethical structure of the universe. Because ethics depends a great deal upon how we view human beings, and because how we view human beings depends a great deal upon how we view their soul, tiny variances in a soul model can have massive ethical consequences. Although the soul is not traditionally studied or thought of in connection to ethics, it is related to many things which are, such as a person’s nature, her psychology, her faculties, and, of course, her status as a living being. Exactly how and to what extent these qualities are relevant in relation to the soul depends upon each soul model, but this variance only serves to underscore the fact that what we are matters a great deal in regard to what we ought to do. What is seen as valuable, whether there is life after death, how and if wrongdoing affects our nature, and where our desires come from all affect what is right or wrong, and all may be at least partially dependent upon the way the soul functions. It is this link between the soul and ethics that I would like to explore through the medium of fiction.

In order to do so, I have chosen to study the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel created by Joss Whedon, George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. All four of these stories are fantasy[1] popular fiction serials. The reason for choosing fantasy stories is simply because the genre is most apt for examining the soul directly, and the fact that all four stories are serials is merely coincidence, but the reason for choosing popular fiction (as opposed to, say, religious fiction) needs further explanation. My goal is not to examine sterilized, systematic soul models, as might be found in a religious tradition and from which simply follow the ethics proposed by that tradition. Rather, my goal is to examine the ways in which people in general think about the soul: possibly based upon a religious model, but not necessarily adhering to it at all points, and with associations made which might not have been made in a strictly religious context: folk beliefs, in other words. To this end, popular fiction is useful for two reasons. Firstly it is, by definition, popular: for some reason it resonates with the public. This could mean either that it is influenced by the dominant culture or that the dominant culture is influenced by it (or both), but whatever the case, studying popular fiction is a way of studying the populace.[2] Thus, although popular fiction holds no theological or scholarly authority, it is, in a sense, a cultural artifact which can be examined anthropologically. Secondly, popular fiction is often conceptually messy; it is a confluence of ideas which may or may not normally be associated. Thus, it is an excellent object for the study of various soul models which are not strictly religious. The connection between the soul and ethics certainly could be pursued through other genres and styles of fiction, but for the sake of length and the limits of time, I have chosen to limit myself to the above mentioned stories.

I have attempted in the following to take each story on its own terms, meaning that I have tried to respect the conventions, expectations, and limitations of the genre and of each medium. I have also tried to draw out any religious significance in each story without attempting to make it fit to any one particular religious mold. In other words, I am aware that these stories are not, and were never intended to be, religious or philosophical texts, and although I may point out some philosophical inconsistencies, such analysis is in no way meant to be a criticism of the work as a whole. However, inconsistencies in the soul model tend to translate into inconsistencies in ethics, making irregularities worth pointing out, if only to further explore the link between the two.

In looking at Harry Potter, I focus upon the soul’s connection to the body, as exemplified by Tom Riddle’s diary and the events at King’s Cross, bringing in concepts from Thomas Aquinas as well as Socrates. I link the soul’s structure to its ability to be damaged, which helps to create the definition of evil within the story. This definition is explored in relation to the house-elves and dementors. The insights gained in examining dementors have further application to ideas of virtue—courage, in particular.

The soul conception in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is much more difficult to define, but I narrow it down to a substance carrying the capacity for love, thus creating a conscience, which in turn shapes personal identity. This model of the soul carries certain similarities to the Islamic model, which I point out. The capacity to love is explored in relation to the character Angel, and then broadened to include all sexual relationships: both positive and negative. I then examine the conscience in relation to the killing of both souled and soulless beings, which brings me to the conclusion that Buffy and Angel are intentionally ethically incoherent.

In regards to His Dark Materials, I examine the role that the daemon (soul) plays in relation to the rest of the human and to their existence after death, comparing it to the models of ancient Egypt and Israel. I connect the daemon to a person’s animal nature, and especially their sexuality. This nature helps to create a value system for Pullman’s fictional universe in which desires and natural behavior are given great importance. I also explore the significance of the scene in which Lyra leaves her daemon behind her in another world.

For Star Wars, I look at the connection between the Force and the ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin, concluding that the Force functions as a universal soul, similar to the Hindu concept of Brahmin. I explore the tension between the ideas of finding balance in the Force, and of the two sides of the Force representing good and evil, both on a cosmic level, and on Luke’s personal level. I also consider the role of midi-clorians in achieving a connection to the Force, and how that in turn affects admittance into an afterlife.


[1] I count Star Wars as falling under the heading of both fantasy and science fiction.

[2] I am not by any means saying that popular fiction accurately reflects the public’s views; it is simply one method of study to which more should be added in order to say anything definitive.

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~ by ntertanedangel on July 30, 2010.

One Response to “The Soul in Popular Fiction: Introduction”

  1. Fascinating. I look forward to reading the whole series.

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