Monday, May 28, 2012

Religions in Fantasy

Our blog tour topic this time:  Religions in Fantasy. My post is first. The posts from other writers. Happy read!

Religions in Fantasy

Fantastical stories were born in Religion. We humans have always wanted to explore who we are, what/who  caused us to be, and what the nature of the world might be. Thus the belief in the supernatural has always been with us. From the days of Homer and Moses, the Hindu myths, the Norse myths, the exploration of nature and the shadings of existence have been turned into oral or printed texts.

But moving past religious texts (but not entirely removing them from our reality) let's deal with fantasy as religious literature.  There are many. Some religious writers write fantasies for fellow believers. To teach, to exhort, to explore, or as in the Arthurian Cycle, as  backdrop. Depending on the skill of the author, the patience of the reader, and the originality of the treatment -- a religious fantasy can lift the soul or fail miserably. Nowadays the topic of religion is so highly -fraught that many fantasy readers fear books with religion for fear they will be preached at. It's also hard for folks to read a text that challenges their political, social, or racial views. Spiritual matters, after all, is involved in all such matters. It's also cultural or trendy to hate certain religions.  Thus a person with a religion or a religious worldview that is considered "favorable" or who has no religion at all already has an edge in writing about spiritual matters because readers will pre- suppose open-mindedness and cultural likemindedness on his/her part.

What's worse is: one of the basic tenets of Christianity is this:  the real truth about the world is unpalatable, illogical, or offensive to the human mind (its sense of justice, reality, science, truth whatnot.) The idea that a religion must be "acceptable" to the reasonings of the human mind or "accepting" of the desires of the human flesh is a major hurdle to the modern western mind. Thus, a lot of religious 20th century writings are wish-fullfillment parables. A world accustomed to the idea that religion must be palatable will find true Christian fantasy quite offensive. Christian writers who fall in line with today's more liberal ideas or who praise some historical peculiar offshoot of Christian thought will be accepted and be able to write freely but those who stick with traditional/Biblical Christianity must learn, like Emily Dickinson, to "tell the truth and tell it slant."

The religious writer, of an unpopular religion therefore, has to decide how far he/she should go...and also how honest they should be with themselves and their readers. They have to have an ambassadorial gift if they are aiming for a wide audience. Fortunately, most people who habitually write spiritual/religious stories actually believe what they write. For instance, it is possible that George Lucas' Star Wars theology isn't too far from Lucas' own spirituality...but is George Herbert's vaguely Islamic vaguely secular take in the Dune series a reflection of his own beliefs? Obviously, whatever his beliefs were, he has placed them neatly in a story that doesn't challenge those who might be inclined to reject be oppressed by religious writing.

Christianity is a combination of moral views, worldview and cosmology therefore writing Christian fantasy is complicated. Moreover, Christian Fantasy is often linked to the European type of Christianity, with European concerns, politics, denominations. So a writer of Christian fiction, which is what I often write, has to separate Christian morality from Christian worldview, Christian history, and Christian cosmology.

Christianity has so many far-out ideas with almost every other verse of the Bible, so there are many opportunities for fantasists to mine and explore.

For instance:
A) How DOES a God rewire the ears and tongues of all peoples of a world to suddennly speak different languages, for instance? By what mechanism did that happen?

B)  That this planet is a theater, a microcosm, created with its own unique strange physical laws? That one day the heavens and the sky will be ripped open like a torn paper, and will roll away like a scroll, and all eyes will see reality as it is?

C) The interplay of Sound and silence being used as a weapon along with human joy and faith could cause a great wall to come down?

D) The first homo sapien being on earth was both male and female, and then something female was taken from him and the DNA and what else from his rib was used to create a body for this female aspect of that first being?

E) All of humanity has a great enemy skilled in deception, thus the world which "cannot receive truth"?

F) A ritual that causes people to identify with the death of one man and --who because of that death-- those people become strange new creatures who have power of death, disease, + devils?

G)  A fruit that is both mutagenic to one's descendants, and brain-altering to such a degree -- not hallucinatory like LSD but more dangerous-- that a different kind of consciousness is achieved?

H) That the world works is utterly different from how humans generally works?

I) A world built when sound created light. God said "Light Be!"

J) That the root cause of human sorrow is knowing "evil."

K) A religion that promises a people its God would be in each person and the person would be in God and each adherent of that religion will be in each other.

L) A religion that declares there is a greater Being within us who is able to live through us and who does all our good works?

And on and on and on...

But often Christian fantasists only barely touch on these many, multitudinous possibilities presented in the Bible. Often, they focus on mimicking C S Lewis's Narnia, the elven world of Tolkein, and apocalyptical stories such as The Left Behind series. Mercifully, some, like Frank Peretti, have written about the spiritual war in the universe. A few have also been influenced by C S Lewis' Perelandra scifi series. Most fantasy in the west follows the notion of the "horribly-gone wrong world." So very often, a Holy or Unique Thing needs to be found, honored, recognized for the world to be set right . . .whether it be Arthur's Sword or a Golden Child.This concept of fantasy as something we innately already deeply know is captured in C S Lewis' work Surprised by Joy, in which he details that all his love of the beauty of fantasy was really his first stirring toward a belief in the God, that when he read the Scriptures and studied Christianity, he realized that he was surprised at the fantastical joy he had found. . But for the most part, most Christian fantasy have left much of the wondrous possibility of the Bible unexplored.

For me, the greatest Christian fantasy book of all time has to be Flatland.It doesn't use the science of evolution as its premise...which is a science that is kinda overdone in most religious and scientific books. And it doesn't use Madeleine L'Engle's Quantum Physics, for instance, to show that the world was made Light which was made from Sound (And God SAID, LIGHT be!)   It is a book that approaches religion from a mathematical perspective. That is, its worldbuilding is based on the science of math. A religion that uses the ideas of higher math (God is three-in-one, 1x1x1=1) versus everyday math such as (1+1+1=3) is rife for a mathematician's mind.  And Edwin Abbott was a mathematician par excellence. Flatland is a tough read for some because it explores in a fantastical (yet scientific) way the idea that different lifeforms can exist in different dimensions. In this way, it's a fantasy that accepts the religious premise that other worlds exist and that certain denizens of higher different worlds can not be understood by those in a lesser world.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

  • by Edwin Abbott
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Dover Publications; Unabridged edition (September 21, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 048627263X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0486272634

In short... the question this book poses for fantasy writers is this: if you believe in different ways and modes of being, is it not possible that you're blind to a specific kind of Being or Creator or world all around you because your eyes and minds (creations of this reality) are unable to see into the other worlds? True Science is Fantasy, and setting is truly metaphor.

Because religions affect culture and cultures affect religion, I've always liked making a setting (or the many settings) in a novel a metaphor for aspects of spirituality. It's better than spelling it out. Consider the history of the effect of fertility religions: often in religions/cultures that worship the goddess of fertility -- India's Devidasi, for instance-- the end result is that women are abused, impregnated, deserted, and there is often a great deal of infanticide, especially female infanticide.

In Wind Follower I dealt with how religion and setting work together. First the cultural:
A) Religions merged into, colored, affected each other and warred against each other.
B) The subtle difference among believers -- Adherents could be found along the spectrum: from the "traditional" monklike believers in Blade Castle, to those who don't care about religion (those in the Therpa's Blue Fortress), to those who uphold or ignore parts of their religion depending on societal, personal, or class factors, to (those in Taer's Golden House) to those who were the "remnant": who truly loved God and understood the meaning of the religion  (The Called-Out ones.)
C) Those who had a true religion but who allowed racism to affect their peaceful religion.  

In the Constant Tower, I used "setting as metaphor" not to show the differences between religions/cultures/cuts but I used it to show one particular Christian concept. The idea of a pentecost where the out of whack world awaits the jubilee of the 50th day -- the NEW day the creator would make, mixed with a little bit of the Tower of Babel. The Christianity stand-in religion (and culture) are not mentioned in this book, however. In Wind Follower the true religion had gotten tainted by cultural assimilation, deceived theologians, and demonic entities. In Constant Tower, the question is: is there something wrong with the world or not? (On Earth, there are religions which presume the world is quite all right because man is progressing towards an evolutionary spiritual growth.) In Wind Follower I explored the many primal folklore themes of blood sacrifices and a Coming Savior. In Constant Tower, there is a savior but he creates the New Day. Both are Christian but Wind Follower is more obviously so. In my story, A Cry for Hire, published in the anthology Fantastic Stories or the Imagination ( and also published in my own kindle fiction collection Spirit Fruit) I imagined a world in which I simply did not have a deliverer --a constant in Earth folklore-- or a loving God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. So one can write about a certain religious motif in a kind of slanted way and highlight something by its mere absence.

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.  

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Let's see what else our roundtable has to say about this month's topic.

Religion in Fantasy

I first started reading fantasy because it took me back imaginatively to a time when the religion of the goddess was still practiced. It was the high tide of the feminist movement and Marion Zimmer Bradley had just boldly reimagined Morgan le Fey in the monumental best seller The Mists of Avalon. Bradley changed the infamous witch sister of King Arthur, the good king who brought Christianity to England, into the staunch defender of the old faith, worshiper of the goddess and protector of female power. It was thrilling.

This rewriting of Morgan unleashed a flood of goddess literature with women untainted by Eve’s acceptance of Knowledge from the Tree of Life—err, evil from the serpent on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Women who were comfortable in their sexuality, untouched by the teachings that sex was a sin and women the temptress of all men. Women who hadn’t heard that they were less than men, were considered amongst the chattel of a man’s household to be bargained over in marriage, more dominated by the physical, less able to think clearly. Women who spoke up, taught spiritual truths, led religious rituals because they hadn’t been told by Peter, the rock of the church, to keep quiet and obey.

I reveled in the retelling of the Inquisition in many different imaginings, how the earth religion of the Druids had been repressed through trickery, torture and death. In many books, the old ways survived in cultures that successfully fought back or in secret subcultures. Later I discovered the legend that Joseph of Arimathea had brought Christianity to England and planted it with his staff that grew into the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. The Druids and Christians peacefully co-existed and compared the truths of their spiritual teachings.

Then other spiritual traditions that had been repressed by the one interpretation of Christianity that had politically dominated Europe began to be represented. The story of the Cathars was told. People wrote about the Templars, Freemasons and Rosicrucians as keeping Gnostic Christianity and Jewish Cabbalism alive and hidden from the Inquisitors. Dan Brown made millions. Others had been writing similar books all the while, and I discovered them.

Then one day it all came full circle. I picked up a book entitled William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision—an intriguing title I thought—and discovered that Blake’s mother had belonged to the small Protestant church I’d been raised in, the Unitas Fratrum called the Moravian Church in America. I discovered that during Blake’s childhood, my church had taught sacred sexuality. I stopped dead in my tracks. Why had nobody told my grandfather about this? I read more. It taught the genders were equal. In the 18th century, they arranged their lives so women’s work was shared and women had free time for spiritual development. I discovered that my straight-laced church had taught mysticism and a Gnostic connection with Christ. This wasn’t the Christianity I’d been raised in. It was the spirituality I’d discovered by leaving that church. But here it was, hidden away, tucked away inside my own tradition. The spirituality I’d found had been there all along.

So I wrote a novel about it, which I’m now revising for publication:  The Star Family. Two men from my old church are reading it, a minister and a church historian. I held my breath. I’d be accused of grievous error. They’d send the Christian hit squad after me to put me back in my place. But none of that happened. One enthused, then sent me a six page list of historical corrections and suggestions. Another called it a supernatural thriller, like War in Heaven by the Inkling Charles Williams. “You should read Williams,” he said. You’d like him.”

Life is amazing.

Theresa Crater has published two contemporary fantasies, Beneath the Hallowed Hill & Under the Stone Paw and several short stories, most recently “White Moon” in Riding the Moon and “Bringing the Waters” in The Aether Age:  Helios. She’s also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Colorado with her Egyptologist partner and their two cats. Visit her website at 
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Religion in Fantasy

There is always a theory of creation.  Out of chaos, out of nothing, from an egg, from Creator-parents.  The Big Bang.  These are all explanations.

Explanations are a fundamental tool for intelligent beings negotiating a potentially dangerous world.  Why did lightning strike the walnut tree?  Why did the bear come?  Why do I feel sick?  Why did the crop fail?  What are the rules?

Lightning struck the tree because Nami did not bow his head before Marule. // When electrical energy builds in the atmosphere, it strikes tall objects.

The bear is a punishment brought by Sekkent because you are proud. //  The bear's usual hunting grounds were seared by fire.

You are sick because you ate the nerri-blossom sacred to Aslar.  // Nerri is poisonous.

The crop failed because you have not sacrificed to Denahl. // Continually using the same field for the same crop allows pests and diseases specific to that crop to build up.

Explanations and rules will accumulate over time, growing ever more complex and abstract.

When creating a fantasy world, a writer needs to keep in mind at least two explanations: how the world works, and how the people who live there think it works.  If there are many different people, there may be many different explanations, and some of those explanations will form religion, while others will not.

I have yet to see a fantasy world where all explanations are based on empirical evidence, but I have seen many fantasy worlds where the biggest explanations seem irrelevant to the characters.  The question of creation does not arise, the rules boil down to "might means right", and if the characters happen to name-drop a particular god while swearing, they rarely seem to give them more than a passing thought.

And yet, in many fantasy novels, the gods are more than a matter of faith and speculation, more than an explanation of the unknowable.  In worlds where gods are inclined to show up when you call upon them, where a failure to sacrifice has tangible and obvious consequences, religion is rarely shown to be of such pre-eminent importance to daily life as it was even one hundred years ago.

In preparing this post, I spent some time considering my own treatment of religion when writing fantasy.

In Medair's world, the invaded Palladian Empire and the invading Ibisians have differing explanations.  The Palladians practice land worship, while the Ibisians believe in a Creator-God.  There are glimpses of festival-related practices of these religions – and the story revolves around an artefact believed to carry the land goddess' power – but the characters spend no time in daily worship.  They believe implicitly that their gods exist, and the artefact certainly appears to be of immense power, but there is no appearance by a god.

Stained Glass Monsters mentions several gods, a myth is recounted, and we see a temple, but again none of the characters are depicted in daily practice.  There is no evidence one way or the other as to the actual existence of these gods – and given the existence of many "other beings" of varying levels of power, it's entirely possible that the true explanation of those considered gods in that world is that they were the same order of creature my characters fought as monsters – merely a powerful sub-variety which at some time in the past had gained worshippers.

Champion of the Rose does show one of my characters offering thanks to one of that world's pair of gods, and that faith is world-wide.  Those who make offerings relieve a tangible, if subtle, response.  There is little doubt that the gods are there, in that world, but they do not seem to be a focus of daily life.

I will be tackling more 'present' gods in my upcoming YA Fantasy release, Hunting, where a failure of observance has direct consequences, and the gods have a fundamental impact on governance, daily lives and the plot.  But even in that world, religion is something which is simply part of life, not a core or focus of living.

Could the reason religion is so by-the-way in worlds where gods (or, at the least, higher beings) offer tangible evidence of existence simply because those gods have clearly communicated the amount, or not, of worship they require?  Because the rules are known?

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia.  She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.  See:
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Religion in Fantasy
How is religion expressed or used or woven into fantastic literature? Pondering this question took me to two of the genre’s masters, Tolkien and Lewis, and what I found to be two differing ways to use religion in fantasy. Tolkien and Lewis developed a “literary philosophy of mythopoeics, of mythmaking, which led them to the writing of popular fiction” as a vehicle not only for storytelling but for expressing their faith. As Jason Boffeti explains in his November 2001 Crisis essay, “If God used narrative to communicate his revelation to man and man is called to bear God’s image on earth, then one of the most noble vocations is create ‘new secondary worlds’ in narrative.”
Tolkien describes Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” This may be, as Boffeti notes, something of a surprise to Tolkien’s fans as no gods or God are mentioned in the trilogy. The Silmarillion does have a creation myth and there is a pantheon of gods, including an all-father divinity—but they are gods, not God, and they are off-stage and only alluded to in The Hobbit and the trilogy. If one looks just a little more closely at the trilogy, the inspiration of his Catholic imagination becomes more apparent. For example, Galadriel parallels the Virgin Mary, the Holy Eucharist is echoed in lembas, the Elfish waybread, and Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf are all Christ-figures. Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for England, a mythology that would express the truth of another mythology, that of Christianity, “the perfect myth.” While he had a definite aversion to overt religiosity and evangelism, Tolkien still believed that fantasy, and The Lord of the Rings in particular, could and did teach good morals, and that his flawed heroes and characters who are good, bad, evil, and ambiguous, “were consistent with the moral world we know.” Even so, for Tolkien “it was more important that Middle-earth was successful as subcreation” (Boffeti). He saw Middle-earth as “divine praise.” The more closely his fantasy, his subcreation, could approach God’s own creation, the greater and purer the praise.
C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, is famously evangelistic. Narnia is meant to be a way to learn about Christianity. “Lewis, the evangelical Anglican, hoped his stories would bring the reader closer to the truth of Christian Gospel.” The Pevensies are told explicitly that Aslan brought them to Narnia so that they could know him better in our world. Aslan, the great Lion, is not just an allegorical Christ-figure, he is Christ as he would appear in the Narnian universe where animals are sentient and can talk and are the equal of the human Narnians. Narnia was made them, not us, after all. There is a creation story, a betrayal by a Judas-like traitor who is later redeemed and forgiven, and a slaying of the god and a resurrection, a divine Good, and deep, dark Evil. The Christian symbolism is evident, as are the “moments of overt moral and religious instruction” (Boffeti). As for the pagan gods in Narnia Lewis’s reply is that it is “only in God’s name that the spirits of nature can rule their domains with ‘beauty and security.’ Without God they would disappear or ‘become demons’” (Ford, Companion to Narnia 228-229).
It seems to me that Tolkien and Lewis, two of the masters of 20th century fantasy, represent two perhaps primary ways or addressing the issue of religion and fantasy: the implicit, and the overt, metaphor and allusion, and symbol and allegory, gods or God.  Is one more valid or more useful than another?  Is this question even necessary? Is religion an essential element of a fully realized secondary world?
And why? What is the role of religion and the religious in a fantastic universe—and this seems to me to be the bigger question: what is the author’s intent? The overt evangelical? The implied act of praise?  To make the numinous visible? For what purpose has the story—this other secondary universe—been imagined? What is the story the author is trying to tell through and in this other place?
I am not finding an answer that is definite other than mystery and making the numinous visible. To quote Le Guin in this fantasy roundtable blog again, storytelling is a tool for human understanding and that one of the key questions humans wrestle with is what and where is our place in the universe and what is our relation to this universe. And can we begin to explore such questions through including religion in an imagined world?
How do I answer these questions in my own fantasy? Before answering that it might be worth briefly describing—in the interest of full disclosure—my own personal religious context, the somewhat checkered history of my own religious beliefs as they have evolved over the years. I would describe myself as a believer. I have never doubted God’s existence or Jesus’s identity and purpose, although I would not call myself orthodox either. I am sure those who are truly orthodox, or those of a conservative bent, would probably find my particular beliefs an anathema at the very least, or even heretical.  So be it. I was raised a Presbyterian and have, at various points in my life, been involved with the Baha’is, Roman Catholicism, Unitarian Universalists, and Episcopalians.
And so my answers—well, my musings, actually—are imagined universes of gods and metaphor and allusion and symbol that, I hope, give the reader some hint of the numinous, the Great Mystery and the truth that God is Love. We tell stories to help us better understand what it means to be human in a mysterious universe. Sometimes, as Plato has argued, the only way to even get close to understanding, to get a flicker of the numinous, is through myth and metaphor and allusion and allegory, through fantasy. 

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.
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 I began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, and short stories in ASIMOV'S, F & SF, REALMS OF FANTASY and STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA'S PALACE. Now under my birth name, Ross, I am continuing the" Darkover" series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD. I'm a member of Book View Cafe. I've lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, and am active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.
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Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies. 


Andrea K Höst said...

Fascinating differences in approach here.

Carole McDonnell said...

wow, this really is a good little discussion of faith and fiction. Thanks for your contribution. -C

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