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Speaking Through Sacrifice: Rhetorical and Social Functions of Sacrifice within Long-Form Contemporary Fantasy Literature

Long-form contemporary fantasy narratives present the opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in worlds both different from and resonant with our own. These narratives are fundamentally invested in questions of how societies change and how they persist. Long-form fantasy works to take readers on a journey away from the old world and towards the new. The scope of these narratives is large, both in terms of the length of the written works, and the scale of time passing within the fiction itself. They create meaning by layering imagery and perspective in pursuit of a resonant affect. This thesis posits that due to fantasy’s fundamental investment in change, and because change requires sacrifice, looking to instances of sacrifice within the literature provides useful handholds with which the reader can grasp and manipulate the text. The discussion explores four modes of sacrifice—Martyrdom, Self-Denial, Scapegoating, and Self-Erosion—divided along dual axes of individually chosen/societally mandated sacrifice, and individual act/on-going act sacrifice. Each mode is investigated through a case-study of a single long-form contemporary fantasy text: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files; Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle; and N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth. The case-studies draw on sociological, cultural, theological, and literary theory to understand the social nature of these acts of sacrifice, and this framework is then applied to the acts playing out in the imagined societies. From this combination of theory and textual example, the thesis arrives at a model of the rhetorical function of each of these modes of sacrifice; essentially, how they communicate ideas to the reader, and how they contribute to the texts’ overall meaning-making. One of the core ways that fantasy achieves the inter-related ends of critiquing problems and proposing solutions is by speaking through acts of sacrifice. Contemporary life is a challenging blend of rapid innovation and entrenched ideologies. The influence of societal systems over individuals is complex, and the research that this thesis undertakes dives into defining questions of how marginalised individuals can come to be complicit with oppressive systems, and how individual choice can be coerced and thus undermined. The texts that are emerging from the current socio-political climate seem to be searching for ways to articulate this struggle to both resist and change harmful, dominant systems. This thesis investigates the radical potential of sacrifice as a driver of positive social change.
Type of thesis
Elder, M. J. (2021). Speaking Through Sacrifice: Rhetorical and Social Functions of Sacrifice within Long-Form Contemporary Fantasy Literature (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/14582
The University of Waikato
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