Ecoconscious: Skilful Sensing in Young Adult Fantasy Literature

Change log

As human-caused environmental crises worsen, many young people are anxious but alienated from nature, hardly perceiving the ecosystems in which they participate. This thesis reveals that, vitally, contemporary YA fantasy novels tend to represent the senses as skills and thereby convey human participation in nature with some optimism. Human characters who learn to sense skilfully value their humanimal embodiment and interact responsively with nonhumans, participating in their environments with an embodied awareness that one might call ecoconsciousness. Drawing from a corpus of 160 novels published between 1994 and 2021, I combine ecocriticism with sensory studies to analyse common sensory motifs that, when developed, model how humans can perceive and participate in the more-than-human world ecoconsciously. Literary portrayals of sensing require critical appraisal so that authors may avoid inadvertently perpetuating human exceptionalism and ecophobia through their sensory descriptions and instead encourage skilful embodied participation in nature.

The first chapter studies how focalisation can present sight as an embodied, relational skill. In J.K. Rowling’s "Harry Potter" series and Nnedi Okorafor’s "Nsibidi Scripts" trilogy, human–animal gazes define and conduct relationships, sometimes antagonistic and sometimes mutually beneficial, while the motif of magical invisibility reveals that wonder is an embodied visual skill requiring practice. Despite twentieth-century scholars’ claims that sight disembodies the perceiver and disempowers the perceived, descriptions of humans looking at animals in contemporary YA fantasy show that focalisers interact with nonhumans more skilfully when they remember their own humanimal embodiment and consider how they appear to those whom they sense.

The second chapter investigates how taste descriptions encapsulate perceivers’ attitudes to their embodiment and highlight their entanglement in naturecultures that produce and consume food in certain ways. Philip Pullman’s "His Dark Materials" exemplifies a motif in which young people renew naturecultures through taste pleasure, but "The Book of Dust" explores how repressive naturecultures inhibit skilful embodied pleasure. In Frances Hardinge’s "A Face Like Glass", more-than-human taste encounters lead the protagonist to reject the unjust natureculture that produces her food. Representations of taste consistently suggest that eaters should enjoy their embodiment but must not ignore others’ suffering. The third chapter critiques persistent portrayals of smell as an alarmingly instinctive animal reaction that threatens human rationality. The "Twilight" series by Stephenie Meyer exhibits the extent to which contemporary cultures fear smell, which her work links with violence and mortality through the central motif of predatory vampires smelling their prey, and Terry Pratchett’s "Tiffany Aching" series depicts smell as too emotional to inform rational thought. Unusually, P.M. Freestone’s "Shadowscent" books model human protagonists smelling skilfully, especially in how they use cultural context to interpret the significance of scents. We need more novels depicting skilful smell to counteract cultural attitudes that shame us into loathing, fearing, and repressing our humanimal embodiment.

The fourth chapter contends that a key part of skilful touch in YA fantasy is knowing when not to touch, being careful of ourselves, others, and the consequences of touching. Elizabeth Lim’s "Blood of Stars" duo extensively develops the motif of skin suffering as a punishment for human hands hubristically manipulating nature, and Natasha Ngan’s "Girls of Paper and Fire" demands respect for tactile pain, encouraging readers to trust their humanimal responses and escape painful touches rather than understanding pain as a necessary price for achieving their aims. Touch communicates across species boundaries and helps us act sensitively in the more-than-human world, sometimes by not touching.

Representations of kinaesthesia in contemporary YA fantasy position humans as bodyminds whose movements flow responsively from others’ movements, as I will show in the fifth chapter. Kristin Cashore’s "Graceling" books investigate the motif of movement as thought and ultimately celebrate integrated bodyminds moving with skilful responsiveness, both in fight scenes and metaphors of the body politic. Kinaesthetic descriptions in Sarah Beth Durst’s "Queens of Renthia" series show how human and nonhuman characters influence each other’s motions and together create more-than-human places.

In the final chapter, human characters (re)develop hearing skills appropriate for specific places, learning how to interpret their distinctive nonhuman voices. Garth Nix’s "Old Kingdom" series, Patrick Ness’s "Chaos Walking" trilogy, and Nicky Singer’s "Island" all depict protagonists learning almost-lost skills of listening needed to participate in certain places, partly through education by Indigenous cultures. The aural poetics of the texts reinforce these motifs and convey how hearing involves a perceiver’s bodymind in the movements that make place.

YA fantasy’s imaginative adjustments to what humans sense draw attention to how we sense. Characters who sense skilfully respect nonhuman needs and enjoy their humanimal bodyminds, participating ecoconsciously in a more-than-human world. The genre does vital work modelling how our senses could help us overcome cultural alienation from nature.

Coats, Karen
Whitley, David
Jaques, Zoe
Fantasy, Young Adult, Ecocriticism, Environment, Nature, Senses, Literature, Description, Skill, Animals, Nonhuman, Sight, Smell, Taste, Touch, Kinaesthesia, Hearing
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge