Monday, January 2, 2012

Of Gods and Prophecy

Fantasy and religion just go together. Whether we, as readers or writers, claim spiritual faith or a decided lack thereof, there's no getting around the fact that fantasy fiction often relies heavily upon some form of religion. (David Eddings, The Belgariad and The Mallorean come quickly to mind.)
Magical systems are often religion-based. Gods are invoked, sacrificed to, avoided at all costs and petitioned to for aid. In Finder, the "ornery desert gods" are often called upon as a curse, but there is little in the way of gods or religion in that book. Still, they are there if only implied. In A Time Never Lived, gods play a huge role in the story. The first book didn't need gods; the second book did. That's just the way it rolled. And it made me wonder...

It is interesting to me, more as a reader than a writer, to realize how I respond to religion in novels. I expect it. I enjoy it. It gives depth to the culture/s and thus the worldbuilding. I look for the parallels to "Earth" world religions, and enjoy a good dose of Norse or Celtic, African or Native American etc, lore--as long as it doesn't get too close. Once it does, it becomes preaching. It breaks that "fourth wall" as they say in theater. It's author intrusion when an author's views become so blatantly clear, and, for me, totally blows the story. (And now Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials comes to mind!)

I started wondering how others feel about this, if they think of it at all. For example--much as I loved the Narnia books as a kid, once I figured out all the Christian allegory--ugh--might as well have put worms and goop and other icky things inside for all I'd want to open them again. I'll admit--I'm agnostic on the best of days, but it's really not about being anti-religion. I love CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, as well, Till We Have Faces. Both of these by a super-religious writer, writing super-religious themes; so why did Narnia bug the crap out of me while the others didn't?

I have a theory--because with the latter two books, I went in knowing what they were. With Narnia, I was duped!

Anyway, before I go on and on about Lewis* and all he tried (and mostly succeeded) to do with is writing, I ask you--how do you feel about gods and religion in fiction? Does fantasy fiction need them to be authentic? Does it bother you because you are a religious person, and the notion of any other god than yours unsettles you? Do you prefer a magic system that doesn't rely on a divine presence? What books? Tell me! I'm a curious oyster by nature, and once I get to wondering, it hurts my brain until I have answers.
*I happen to LOVE CS Lewis, as a writer and also, from what I've learned, as a person. I think Jack and I would have been great friends! ~Terri


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Good morning, Terri! What a fun post.

So. We're starting 2012 by talking religion, and we'll probably finish it by talking politics. Let's just call it, the Year of Living Dangerously. ;)

Religion is not something I think about too much in the context of fantasy, though I do expect to see it because, for better or for worse, religion plays a central role in our own society. I don't always expect the gods to be real; and even when god-like characters appear, I rarely consider them true gods, but rather entities that are somehow beyond human understanding.

I suppose that begs the question: How do you define a "god"?

In Eolyn's world -- specifically, the kingdom of Moisehen, because once we step outside of that culture we run into other situations -- the Gods are considered distant entities that prefer to leave humans to their own devices. One can pray to the Gods, and their gifts are honored at the High Holidays, but there is very little expectation of real intervention. Once every millenium or so, when the Gods do intervene, they do so not directly but through 'messengers' such as Dragon or Thunder.

It seems I saw a discussion somewhere once about the lack of religion in Tolkien's world.

Religion comes into play in Martin's world, of course, but there's very little evidence of real gods behind it all.

When you think about it, it's kind of an anomaly, really, to write a medieval/epic fantasy in which religion does not play a central role in structuring society. I say that because, for all appearances, medieval Europe was completely entrenched in religious thought and philosophy. So if we're going for authenticity, it would almost seem that some nod toward organized religion needs to be there.

On the other hand, it's just fun to imagine a medieval world with a pagan belief structure.

Lots of interesting threads of thought, here. I'm curious to see where this week's discussion goes.

Clint said...

I don't mind religion in things I read, but I don't like being preached to. I think with C.S. Lewis, the Narnia stories got very preachy, whereas "Til We Have Faces" was done so masterfully, with the idea of the world of gods verging into our own that made it so perfect. The protag seemed very much agnostic, but was confronted with the supernatural in such a way that it didn't turn out necessarily positive either. Her sister was gone and her outlook was shaken.

I think atheism can get preachy too. With Pullman's novels, I thought they were unnecessarily preachy and turned out to be a major downer. Plus, as was done with Narnia, it was thinly veiled preachiness for kids and I don't like that anymore than I liked when George Orwell made "1984 for Kids" aka "Animal Farm."

So, there's your politics right there, while we are on the subject of topics not to be discussed in polite company. ;)

Barbara A. Barnett said...

I definitely dislike preachiness (even when I agree with what's being preached), but otherwise I find religion to be a fascinating topic for exploration in fantasy, whether the deities in the story are real or not. Given the prevalence of religion in most real-world cultures, I think it can add a certain level of depth and richness to the portrayal of a fantasy world, even if the religion is something that sort of hovers in the background without taking center stage. And also as with the real world, religion can be a huge source of conflict. One more reason for my characters to beat the crap out of each other? Bring it on!

In the novel I'm working on, I have mages serving an omniscient force. To set up a major plot element further down the road, I very specifically do not have the mages refer to that force as god, and when another character does the mages get all "if that's how you need to think of it." Yet when I had the early chapters critiqued, almost all of my crit partners kept tossing out the "god" word without second thought. I found it fascinating that most of them defaulted to the same assumptions of divinity that most of my non-mage characters did, despite the mages saying otherwise.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I often feel like magic in faqntasy depends upon some sort of deity intervention. It's by no means ALWAYS, but maybe the sort I read, the kind that typically involves "earth" copied lore, does tend to have that spiritual element.

I found the spirituality in Eolyn really effective. I never got the sense that there were higher powers prancing about, dictating outcomes and prophesizing the future. I LOVE playing with the whole notion of chance vs. destiny, free will vs. divine manipulation.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--I felt the same way about Pullman's novels as I did about the Narnia novels--they were preaching a specific "agenda" that was not quite visible at the outset, but became more and more apparent as you got further in. Vexing.

Terri-Lynne said...

Barbara--that is so cool. I love it that your readers responded that way!

I studied all sorts of religions over the course of 12 years. I find them fascinating as a history. The Bible, when not taken literally, is ridiculously full of love, lust, magic, treachery, compassion--you name it, it's in there--and it's because it's a history of human developement over the course of thousands of years.

I love the old pagan faiths, the ways they are the same and how they are different. I play with this in A Time Never Lived--how a people will bring their belief systems with them as they migrate, how they evolve into something different while retaining some core that remains the same. It's in these similarties that we find kin.

Anonymous said...

I confess I thoroughly enjoyed Pullman putting the boots to religion (what I didn't like was his 'world-hopping' plot device in the later books, but that's by the by). Lewis' allegory rather passsed me by when I was a child, I just though Aslan going as a willing sacrifice then coming back from the dead a bit crap really. And actually I think it's a bit crap as allegory too. Mind you the strong Catholic message of LotR passed me by for years too, so I may just be obtuse. But I think Tolkien actually did it much better because he wasn't writing or trying to write allegory, he just put his message into the fibre of the book with no allegory needed.

I think though there's a difference between allusion (or the generally terrible allegory a la Lewis) to our religions in fantasy and including more or less made up religions in fantasy worlds without trying to say anything important about religion or morals - ie as background. Few fantasies do not benefit from some good old-fashioned (and thoroughly vile) Celtic- or Aztec-style human sacrifice to capricious gods, or perhaps something akin to the Carthaginian ritual mass baby roastings. The latter are things that add flavour, the former tend to be more intrusive and hence often more irritating.

Sue Blalock said...

Unlike the rest of y'all, I knew that the Chronicles of Narnia were Christian allegory before I ever started reading them. Since I was a fairly devout Christian at the time, it didn't bother me one bit. It helps that I have a lot of fond childhood memories of reading them out loud to my grandmother.

These days, I go back and forth between atheism and militant agnosticism. That said, I still don't mind religion in my fantasy novels as long as it is relevant to the plot, and it has some kind of internal consistency.

As far as invented religions go, my favorite has to be the one Bujold created in the Chalion series. The second book, Paladin of Souls, is about a religious pilgrimage taken by the main character, and how she winds up becoming a god-ridden saint. It was such a refreshing change from the usual thinly disguised Celtic-inspired paganism I'd grown accustomed to finding in many fantasy novels.

That last is a big turn-off for me. Even when I was still a practicing pagan, I was irked by all the fantasy novels that seemed to have based their religions on Starhawk's The Spiral Dance and other treatises on Wicca popular in the 1980s. It was especially irksome when authors tried to shoehorn modern Wiccan and New Age philosophy into historical settings where it had no business being. Then again, I have a very low tolerance for anachronisms in my historical fiction in general.

These days, that sort of thing will make me run screaming from a book. Recently, I tried reading the first book in a historical fantasy series that was recommended to me by a friend. The depth and richness of the historical detail was excellent ... until I got to the witches. Given the historical accuracy of the rest of the book, I was expecting the witches to practice the real folk magic traditions of the period. What I got was a bunch of modern New Age philosophy that kicked me right straight out of the book.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Again,

You know, I totally did not get the supposed 'atheist agenda' of Pullman's novels when I first read them. I thought it was just a very clever story featuring an awesome female protagonist.

I found it really fun the way he imagined power struggles between supernatural beings vying for the position of 'God', and the consequences of that struggle for humanity. In a way, it's not all that far fetched from standard Christian mythology, which also proposes an epic ongoing struggle between God and the 'fallen' angels. Pullman just puts it in a different context, and puts forward some new ideas on the implications of such a struggle for lesser mortals like ourselves.

It wasn't until years after I read the novels, when the movie was about to come out and Pullman was banned from my nephew's Catholic school library, that I learned he was an atheist and that his work could be interpreted as 'atheist propaganda'.

But Pullman himself has said in interviews that while he is an atheist, it was never his intention to push an atheist agenda with his novels.

Lewis, on the other hand, was very clear about the Christian agenda he wanted to push with the Narnia series.

Tolkien had a Catholic message?? Boy, that's news to me. And I'm uber sensitive about Catholic stuff, in general.

ps -- My world verification is PRAYE, which can only mean God is listening...

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Sue -

"The second book, Paladin of Souls, is about a religious pilgrimage taken by the main character, and how she winds up becoming a god-ridden saint."

This sounds like a lot of fun. I've heard (but haven't bothered to verify) that one possible explanation for the high frequency of saints reporting visions in the Middle Ages is chronic vitamin deficiency, one of the symptoms of which is hallucinations.

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, such interesting discussion while I was gone! I'm glad to see everyone playing nicely. :)

anonymous--I have to admit that at the time I read His Dark Materials, I was in the highest level of spiritual searching, and extremely...negative about Christianity in general. NOT what Christianity was supposed to be, but what it became. The more I studied, the more I learned that so much of what happened had to do with politics (the other taboo subject) but that's for another time.

Sue--I think you and I followed the same path to atheist/agnostic. I was raised Catholic, did a whole lot of searching (including Wicca) and ended up an agnostic who wavers closer to atheist more often than not.

I love that you read the Narnia books aloud to your grandmother. That has to be one of the greatest things I've ever heard.

Karin--I can't remember if it's in the second or third book of His Dark Materials, but Pullman has one of his characters absolutely STATE: Christianity is the biggest mistake and fraud in history. Whatever he might have played at until then, there was NO mistaking it after that! And, to that I say, if Mr. Pullman had no intention to "push an agenda" that might have been left out. :)

Anonymous said...

Ah, now I don't think that because a character says something one can take that in any way as reliable evidence of opinion on the part of the author (otherwise we must assume that Patrick O'Brian could find no moral objection to paedophilia - because Stephen Maturin could not...).

Now I grant you in the case of Pullum his emphasis was most certainly anti-church as an Authority, and the character's remark may in this instance be a genuine reflection of author-opinion, but really I think HDM's anti-Authority generally, the beating up of religion is just an amusing part of that. I mean his principal character, a girl of 11, smokes, gets vomitously drunk and accepts money from strange men and nothing bad happens in consequence. All blatantly contradicting the message of Authority as embodied by British primary schools.

Rita: The catholic message in LoTR is that Mercy (most clearly Frodo's sparing of Gollum when they catch him, but also Bilbo not having killed him - Gandalf spells that out at one point - and the elves treating him kindly when he was their prisoner) can be the agent of a Higher Power; and also that human endeavour (or in this case hobbit endeavour) cannot of itself be sure to defeat evil (Frodo claims the ring for himself at the end, giving in to temptation, and is then 'delivered' by the Higher Power acting through Gollum whom Frodo's Mercy had previously spared - hence no Mercy, no triumph over evil).

I hadn't noticed it myself until reading Tolkien's letters where he deals with the subject at some length whilst dismissing allegory utterly.

Religion isn't wholly absent from Tolkien's cultures, but it's so low key as to be almost invisible. Certainly none of the western cultures have formal places of worship and there's no praying before battle or other obvious manifestations of belief. But Sauron is worshipped (as was Morgoth before him) by his minions (though again there are no details) and the good guys seem to have a sort of spiritual strength from their 'inner communion' or whatever with the Arda. Mind you, the difference is that in Middle-earth the 'gods' (or angelic beings as Tolkien referred to them) were real...

Terri-Lynne said...

Very true (anonymous) one can't make assumptions about an author's views through what his character says/does. I will say this though--there would be only two compelling enough reasons to blatantly say such a thing about one of the most powerful religions in the world, and in history: either his feeling was that great, or publicity. In the case of Pullman, I would lean towards his feeling being that great. But you re right--never assume!

Anonymous said...

As I recall Pullman has written a book called something like 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' (Christ being a sort of 'evil twin brother' as I understand it), which lends some weight to the idea that he is is not really anti-religious belief as such (in the sort of 'evangelical' manner of Dawkins), rather anti-church (as part of wider anti-establishment views).

Anyway, I was pondering religion in some of the fantasies I've read and I think it is quite rare to find a hero or heroine of any serious religious belief (wherein religion plays a prominent role in their attitude or in their daily acts as t does say in many of the Arthurian Romances both medieval and modern) in them. Mind you, most of that is fantasy written over twenty or thirty years ago. But even where there is religion, it tends to be the focus of lesser characters or something of an 'occasional thing' that leading characters indulge in (as in Martin).

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah--that sounds like a book I would like to read. I'll go on record as saying I've never had a problem with Jesus, only with Christianity. For me, they are two separate entities that far too often have nothing in common. Not always! But too often.

Anyway--I'm again reminded of Eddings and his Belgariad/Mallorean series. The gods are very present, and actually interact with the world and the characters most specifically. There was a character in...gads, the first Dragonlance series--Riverwind or something like that--for whom faith/devotions were part of her every day. I wonder if that was a seventies/eighties thing, since both these series were from "way back when," or I've simply not read as much fantasy as I did back then.

Gustavo said...

I think fantasy does need some kind of god concept to be successful, especially fantasy based in societies that are still at a lower level of technology than we are. Religion is always a great way of explaining things we don't understand (even in the modern world, the discussion about god/not god is moving ever more to the initial causes for the Universe - one of the things science is struggling with today).

Of course, if the gods are actually walking around and doing things (especially highly antisocial things)... that makes it even better!

Terri-Lynne said...

Gustavo--I love, love, love when the gods interact with the people. Maybe that's why I love Greek mythology so much. I played with this in A Time Never Lived, but only skimmed along it a bit without out diving in headlong.

I agree that when dealing with more "primative" societies, gods play a big part simply because of human nature. Perhaps that's why it's less common in science fiction? I can't actually even make that assumption, because I don't read much scifi.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri - I'm still not convinced Pullman was trying to 'push' atheism with his novels, for reasons already pointed out by Anonymous.

It was my impression that Pullman's supposed "atheist agenda" was invented around the time the movie came out, perhaps out of concern, perhaps to stir controversy. That's not to say he doesn't allow his worldview to influence his writing, but then again, don't we all do that to some extent?

I forgot to mention this earlier: "I found the spirituality in Eolyn really effective. I never got the sense that there were higher powers prancing about, dictating outcomes and prophesizing the future."

Thank you! That's the effect I was going for. Of course, the Gods of Eolyn's world do take an interest in human endeavors, but direct intervention is very rare.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Anonymous -

"The catholic message in LoTR is that Mercy...can be the agent of a Higher Power; and also that human endeavour...cannot of itself be sure to defeat evil."

Interesting. If only my junior high religion teacher had been aware of this; the assigned reading could have been so much more fun.

It always seemed to me the cultures of Tolkien's world had a rich spiritual life, but very little in terms of organized religion. Yet another thing I liked about his work.

Terri (again -- sorry; woke up this morning with a lot to catch up on here on HoF) - It sounds like you've had your fill of reading on Christianity, but you might check out Elaine Pagel's work, which chronicles the transition from Christianity as a revolutionary spiritual movement to Christianity as a dominant religious authority during the first few centuries AD.

I really don't have a problem with Christian thought or philosophy perse, but what 'the Good Man Jesus' taught is often at odds with the needs and nature of organized religion. But I digress from the original topic of your post...Maybe we can pick up this conversation again in March. ;)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Gustavo & Terri --

Interesting thought on the connection between technology & religion. Of course, if we take the US as an example, high levels of technology do not necessarily preclude a deeply religious society.

I'm not very well read in sci fi, but one of my favorite 'gods' is Q from Star Trek. I thought he was brilliantly conceived, and truly what one would expect in terms of character from an omnipotent all-powerful entity.

Would the Dune series qualify as a sci fi world in which religion plays an important role? It's been a long time since I read it, but it seems the one of the central ideas was the creation of a Messiah...

Clint said...

I have to say on the Pullman books, outside of religiosity, I really didn't like Lyra. So, I disagree with the notion that she was a strong character. Interesting, okay, but selling out her friend (and getting him killed) just to follow her stupid father into another world (great guy, btw, who posed as her uncle and basically wanted to offer her up as a sacrificial lamb to serve his own means--huh, yep, some religious undertones there already), I never really felt any empathy for her. Mostly, she was just a little psycho with daddy issues.

I think I'll stick with Jane Yolen for great YA characters

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--oh, please, diverge, digress, change tacks entirely! That's how all the best conversations go. Start talking about the Easter Bunny and end in a deep discussion about Spartan society--yup, that's how it goes!

Thanks for the Pagel rec. I will definitely check it out. I'm always looking for this sort of thing. Religion as a study intrigues me. I learn so much about human behavior through such study.

Q!!! Yes! Perfect call! I'd forgotten all about him, but what a great character, eh? And it's been mumblemumble years since I've read Dune, but I think you have a good point there, too.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--I love characters I actually have to work to love. Better are those characters we should really dislike, but somehow find ourselves rooting for. I always think of Rincewind as the ultimate non-hero-hero. He always does the wrong thing (in the earlier Discworld books, anyway) but somehow ends up doing the RIGHT thing. Cowardly yet corageous. I love him.

Lyra--yeah, I can see where she'd irk some. I looked on her more as, she's a child. Children don't necessarily understand the consequences of their actions, or correctly read those of others. The things she did were reactions to things that happened, and really, I didn't find much "contemplation" of what she was doing. Again--a child!

That being said--Jane Yolen is the QUEEN of the writing world, as far as I'm concerned. I would read the back of a matchbook if she wrote it.

Have you ever read Dove Isabeau to your kids?? It's a picture book, but ranks up in my top ten books of all time.

Asakiyume said...

So late coming to this interesting conversation. Thanks for a great post, Terri!

I never minded the religion in the Narnia books. My parents were not religious, but I recognized the religious overtones of the stories. But I didn't think of it so much as a **Christian** message (even though, I realize, that's what it was) as a message of a good way to live, etc.--and I liked it. I **liked** Aslan a whole lot. Narnia provided my religious comfort, I suppose.

But I think of the sort of direct allegory that was in the Narnia books as being different from religions as plot elements in fantasy stories. What I like in fantasy stories depends on the type of story and how much religion is a feature in the story, but by and large, I like a nuanced portrayal of religion and religious systems. I don't like them made out to be either the Big Bad or the Saving Grace.

Terri-Lynne said...

Francesca~I think if I were Christian, and knew they were Christian allegory, I would feel way different about the Narnia books. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was A. Maz. Ing. The rest??? Meh. I remembered loving The Dawn Treader as a kid, but when I tried to read it again when the movie came out...lost it's alure.

I don't like the big bad or the saving grace either. I like when you don't quite know who is the force of good, and who's evil. Oh! Did you see, by any chance, Bedazzled?? Silly, fun movie, but did up the "who's good and who's not" really nicely.

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

Well, I may be in for a spot of discussion when Poets finally hits the stands...part of my motivation for the novel was the erosion I sensed in my own orthodoxy.

I read extensively in early church history as a young grad student--an outgrowth of my fascination with all things Arthur and the Dark Ages. Then came Umberto Eco and the name of the rose, and I was hooked on my own progressive slippery slope. Thus, in Poets folks will find oblique references to two faith systems--one blatantly false and one subtle and folksy. Perhaps the book in part became my own attempt to reconcile Pelagius and expose Augustine. Then again, maybe not. Everyone but Terri will have to wait until June to decide. :)

Pagels' work has always intrigued me. I really liked her Lost Years of Jesus and the Gospel of Judas (I think that was the title). Her deconstructionist take on dogma (kinda like a non-humorous Moore) has always hit me on my irreverent bone.

I, too, don't like to be preached to at or over in my fiction. Pullman's work paled for my by the end. It seemed like an "attempt"--too obviously so--to retain that verisimilitude that allows us to build our temporal and secular fiction as we will. I have always preferred the happy medium. I think that is why Tolkien has never ceased to resonate with me. I get it, and I never feel like I have been beaten over the head or insulted.
Combined with what I saw as a centuries long progression from an expression of faith to an application of political power,

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

Don't know why I that last bit found its way there. I meant to say that over the years I have observed, as purely a personal take, the combination of theology with political power. Here, there, everywhere--and I don't like it. I guess I am off the keep it simple, stupid, persuasion.

I'm out. As you were.


Terri-Lynne said...

Mark, having worked with you AND gotten to know you over the months, your response (and insights) don't surprise me. It comes through in the story--of which only I am privy to. Mwhahahahaa!

I'm going to have to read Pagel.

I'm going to also recommend Lamb--The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's childhood pal. Christopher Moore. I think you (all) would appreciate it, even if you're not partial to Moore.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Everytime we get a really good discussion going, my reading list gets longer. I'm not familiar with Jane Yolen's work, but I'll have to check her out now.

Perhaps Lyra would qualify as an anti-heroine?

Mark - Oh, I luuuved Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose".

"I meant to say that over the years I have observed, as purely a personal take, the combination of theology with political power. Here, there, everywhere--and I don't like it."

Me too. While religion is not all that prevalent in Eolyn's world, the idea of keeping religion and politics separate is loosely reflected in a longstanding prohibition against allowing members of noble families to learn magic. It's the violation of this prohibition (by one of the princes of the realm) that sets off a civil war about a generation before Eolyn's story starts.

The more I hear about your work, the more excited I am to read it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--Dove Isabeau is a children's picture/read aloud book. When you come here in March, I'll make sure I get it out so you can read it. It's brilliant. And signed!

(Mark's kind of brilliant too, but don't tell him I said so. His ego is too big already.)

Kim Vandervort said...

I tend to come late to these parties; usually by the time I'm awake, most of the fun has already happened! Drawback of living on the sunny west coast, I suppose (although I'll take my 85 degree January sunshine, thanks!).

Great post, Terri, and great comments all! So much to think about, some of which has already been said.

What it comes down to, for me, is that religion, whether we like it or not, believe in it or not, is humanity's way of explaining the world's mysteries. The Greeks, the Romans, the Norse-- I've always been fascinated by how the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses was used to explain everything from thunder to love, from life to death, Spring, Winter, and everything in between. It's innately human to try to find ways to explain how the world works.

I think it's also part of the human condition to question those belief systems, sometimes even while we practice them. This is why I think fantasy that incorporates some kind of spiritual belief system-- even if it isn't part of the main story, but a background mention of faith or gods or belief-- helps enrich a fantasy world.

That isn't to say a story is bad if it doesn't have religion, or even if it hits us over the head with it. Narnia makes me roll my eyes now, but I LOVED those books as a child, and I can't help but feel that I am a better reader-- and a better person-- for having read them, even if I didn't catch a single one of the religious allegories or references until I was an adult. Pullman I read as an adult, and I found his blatant atheism preachy and off-putting (I don't believe for a minute his agenda was unintentional).

One of my favorite recent books is N.K. Jemisen's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. AWESOME treatment of gods, religion, and the real world. I found it a bit refreshing, actually, to see some recent fantasy that brings back the gods; it seems to me that in much of modern fantasy religion seems curiously absent. I'm not terribly religious, but I find that I do miss seeing that aspect of our humanity represented.

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim, I agree completely--the utter LACK of religion really deflates the worldbuilding for me. Despite my own views on religion, and as you say, humanity largely lays claim to a variety of religious beliefs. In a world without them, it just doesn't seem authentic.

I'm with you on Pullman's intent. I read several interviews, and saw one on...gads I don't remember which of the talk shows...back when the movie came out. I think he wanted to make a statement, and he made it. I also think his statement got misinterpreted because that's just what humans do. Why his books resounded with me was mostly because he seems to feel the same way about Christianity that I do--let's say Jesus was a real man, and let's say he did and stood for all those things reported in the Bible. What CAME from all that isn't anything like what it now is, at least on the surface.

I know a lot of people I consider Christians in the purest sense of the word. Unfortunately, in my experience, most of those I know who call themselves Christian really aren't.

Asakiyume said...

Terri, it's off-topic, but I also wanted to say I love the image I guess of Pele, here on this post, dancing with, and being, Hawaii. Really nice.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Kim, I really like what you said about religion and fantasy. Very eloquently put.

I'm beginning to wonder if I'm a dunce for not have seen Pullman's 'atheist agenda' (whether intended or not) when I read those books? Honestly, I just thought it was a very well imagined story.

Ah! Another one for the list -- N.K. Jemisen.

Terri-Lynne said...

Francesca--I don't think it's supposed to be Pele. It's called Dance of All Seasons.
I think that's the one you mean, yes?

Asakiyume said...

Yes, that's the one! I love it. And it's equally beautiful, maybe more beautiful, as the dance of all seasons.

Sue Blalock said...

Wow! There are lots of new messages since the last time I popped by this discussion.

Karin: I can't recommend Paladin of Souls enough. It had me grinning from ear to ear the entire time I was reading it.

I had not heard that about chronic vitamin deficiency being proposed as an explanation for visions of saints. Fascinating. I know ergot poisoning has been suggested as the culprit behind various historical supernatural events, including the Salem witch trials.


"I think you and I followed the same path to atheist/agnostic."

Very similar, yes! I had a Southern Baptist father, and an Episcopalian mother. The compromise they reached was sending me and my brother to an Episcopalian grade school during the school year, and Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School during the summer. I started questioning in my late teens, and became a full-on pagan in college. Even then I had a strong skeptical bent, so it really wasn't that big of a stretch to transition from there into agnostic/atheist.

My grandmother was bedridden, so I used to come over and read to her a lot. I picked the Narnia books in particular because I thought she would enjoy the Christian allegory. I'll also cop to a certain amount of enlightened self-interest in the choice, as she had become quite worried about my love of fantasy, thanks to all the "fantasy is a gateway drug to Satanism!" hysteria that was all over the news at the time.

Re Pullman: The atheist agenda of His Dark Materials was never an issue for me; in fact, I barely noticed it. The problem I had was the fact I found Lyra thoroughly unsympathetic as a protagonist. That's a personal quirk of mine: I don't enjoy reading books about people I don't like.

Another problem I have with religion in both fantasy and science fiction is that it is so often this one giant monolithic religion or magical system that everyone follows. People are messy, and they often believe many different and contradictory things. I like seeing that reflected in fictional cultures.

Give me diversity! Give me belief systems that are as many and varied as the people who follow them! Yeah, I know, it means more work for the writer, but life is a diverse, complex thing, and the worlds we create should reflect that.

Terri-Lynne said...

Sue--you were a smart little cookie, choosing the Narnia books that way. Woohoo! I love it!

Sue Blalock said...

Terri-Lynne: Well, there's a reason every Hogwarts Sorting test I've ever taken has put me in Slytherin House, lol!

Speaking of Hogwarts (and to keep this post vaguely on-topic) it's interesting to note how carefully Rowling avoided religion in the Potter books. They do celebrate Christmas--and also Halloween, though even in the real world, nobody really remembers that Halloween = All Hallows Eve, aka the night before All Saints Day. But otherwise? It's pretty much free of overt religious content. There are dragons and trolls, giants, werewolves, and vampires, but no demons or devils. Dark magic is defined as magic that kills, causes serious physical harm to others, or destroys free will. What the Wizarding World believes about god, or even if they believe in god, is kept entirely out of it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Sue--I was waiting for someone to mention that! It was brilliantly done in every sense of the word, because not only was it fabulous, it was SMART! The lady is a lot more savvy than she gets credit for. Whether everything in the book was put there by design or happy accident, SHE is the one who put it together. SHE is the one who saw, created, or otherwise tripped into every one of those details that made the books so smashing.

I am usually Hufflepuff, but once in a while, I get Ravenclaw. :)

Ok...I'm foaming at the mouth. And off topic. What was it again? Oh, RELIGION!

Patricia J. Esposito said...

This has all been fascinating to read, and I wish I'd read more of the works used as examples here so that I could chime in, but I've read very little in fantasy. I have noticed, however, that I'll accept most of the religious aspects of the world created if, as many have said here, it feels like part of the world authentically and not part of the author's agenda. And also if the spirituality or religion grows organically with the piece.

I immediately thought of the Greek myths, and how readily I accepted the gods' intervention in lives, though I might or might not believe gods intervene in my own beliefs.

Outside the fantasy genre, I read a novel in which a character was struggling with a spouse's illness, and it wasn't until midway through that he began blaming his god. I didn't believe it because there'd been no indication of spirituality or religion earlier on. And while I understood that issues of religion didn't come up for the character until that midway point (which might happen in real life), in a fictional world (that I need to believe in), I was taken aback--I didn't have the same god; I didn't expect it.

I imagine it could be very difficult to create believable fantastical worlds, and even more so to establish religious traditions and values in that world, without ostracizing readers. Perhaps the belief in magic that fantasy readers might all share is a basis that helps make slight variations in different stories palatable. Is there a basic belief system underlying all the variations in fantasy?

Terri-Lynne said...

Pat, I think you nailed it right on the head--it has to be authentic. It can't just crop up when convenient. Isn't that true of every detail we add into our stories?! With religion, because it has to come across as established--and even if there is a new, usurping relgion, the old one has to be in place, right?--it has to be really organic--a part of the woodwork, so to speak.

Mark chimed in up there someplace (Pevanapoet.) His story really establishes the old religion being usurped by the new. Because the old was such an ingrained, organic part of the story, it didn't have to BLARE when convenient. It just was. I may be a bit biased (he's MY author!) but he did a really good job of integrating religion into the novel without it being preachy.

I think when it comes to fantasy, people are ok with whatever religious structure is in place as long as it's not EARTH. It's once a writer puts it in the familiar rather than another world that people tend to get squicky about it.