Christ Would Not Be Pleased: Religion in Fantasy

A few days ago, Christians all over America celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ through an odd combination of church-going, egg-hunting, chocolate-eating, and rabbit-venerating. It’s not really news to anyone, of course, that a number of Christian holidays have subsumed elements of earlier, pagan worship, that Easter is also a celebration of spring and fertility, that Santa Claus wasn’t one of the three kings. In fact, the syncretic nature of Christianity, its ability to assimilate and adapt diverse and divergent traditions to its own ends, is often cited as an important factor in its broad appeal. In political parlance, Christianity has a “big tent” that shelters all manner of bunnies, saints, reindeer, and polar dwellers. You need not (outside of the strictest communities) put aside your celebrations of spring in order to worship Christ’s resurrection.

It’s not just Christianity, of course. Over the centuries, the Japanese have fused their traditional Shinto with Buddhism (imported to the islands in the 6th century) to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one ends off and the other begins. Buddhism, of course, originated in India, as a reform movement within Hinduism, which then, in a fascinating move, re-amalgamated Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. This mixing and blending, borrowing and re-appropriation, are important sources for the richness and variety in the world’s religions today.

Oddly, fantasy writers have largely overlooked this fact. The gods and goddesses of fantasy, however vivid, tend to be monochromatic; they usually have a single (or limited) function or association, and, as a result, the iconography and worship regarding these gods tends to be relatively predictable.

Take, R’hllor, from Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. R’hllor is a god of light and fire, and so it’s no shock to discover that his priests and priestesses wear red, that they read the future in the flames, and that they like to burn shit. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like R’hllor. I like the stories of  Azor Ahai. I think it’s a nice touch that Martin points out that the god of flame is also, by logical extension, the god of shadow.

It’s instructive, however, to compare R’hllor with Agni, from the Hindu tradition. Agni is also a fire god, (his name is cognate with the Latin ignus, from which we derive our English word, ignite), but he’s a lot more than that. He’s also two-headed and three-legged. He is a messenger god. According to the Rg Veda, he arose from and abides in the water, an odd characteristic for a fire god. In some traditions, Agni is a god of sex and virility. In others, he’s not his own god at all, but an incarnation of Brahma, or maybe Shiva. Clearly, Martin’s conception of R’hllor is far tidier, far more explicable.

Or take the pantheon of DragonLance. It’s a complex and exciting collection of characters. Each god and goddess has her own interests, motives, and adherents. There are quite a few names to learn, but it’s still strikingly simple to sum up these deities. A glance at this wiki shows that they are easily categorized. Branchala is the god of inspiration, Sirrion is the god of flame, Reorx is the god of the forge, etc. Moreover, the pantheon itself is rigidly organized with an eye to balance: “Each group of gods has seven members, with one major god, five lesser ones, and a god of magic.” Very neat. Very tidy. I like systems, and so I appreciate the thought went into ordering the Dragonlance pantheon. There is pleasure to be found in structure. Nonetheless, this careful structure is utterly unlike the hodge-podge pantheons of other religions (Norse, Greek, Hindu) with their messiness and contradictions.

A quick glance at the dodekatheon, the twelve Olympic deities of Greek tradition, should illustrate what I mean by messiness and contradiction. These gods and goddesses were the big ones, the heavies, the ones who beat the Titans, the relations of Zeus abiding on the mountaintop. Except there’s no real agreement on which ones make the list. Sometimes Hades is there. Sometimes not. Or Persephone. Or not. Heracles? Hestia? Asclepius? Maybe. Depends who you talk to, and where, and when. The same is true of Christ’s twelve apostles; the list of names varies from gospel to gospel. I imagine Christ would not be pleased that we have bungled this detail, but bungled it we have, and that is the point.

The reasons for these discrepancies are clear: unlike the pantheons of fantasy, which are the products of a single mind (or two minds, in the case of Dragonlance) working toward a specific goal, the religions of our real world developed over centuries, under the pressure of historical circumstance and the frailty of human communication and memory. The question, for the writer of fantasy, is whether or not it would enrich a novel to create a “messier” religion. Would the confusions and contradictions of the real world make for a richer imagined setting, or is this the sort of thing we’re trying to get away from when we read fantasy?

7 thoughts on “Christ Would Not Be Pleased: Religion in Fantasy

  1. Hmmm… the cynic in me is saying that the diversity of real-world religions is because they have no actual reference point whereas fantasy religions do, which allows less room for interpretation when you WILL get a thunderbolt in the skull (or similar) if you get it wrong, to a degree that won’t happen in the real world. That said, even if things like the Bible are taken at face value, there’s debate and disagreement on what the extent of the gods actually is, as the golden calf shows.

    One of the things I like about ASOIAF is that they retain some of that ambiguity with the religions; there’s no real hint so far as to which out of the Lord of Light, the Seven, the Drowned God, Him of Many Faces or the various other religions of Essos has the “right answer”.

    There’s also the various pantheons of the Elder Scrolls series of computer games, with the gods that actually shift ad change throughout the course of history. Where a phrase like “Alduin is the son of Akatosh, who has always existed, but Alduin and Auriel were Akatosh before he always existed” makes perfect cosmological sense. Within this, there are several traditions and systems of veneration, that are different, mutually exclusive facets of the same overarching pantheon. There is a “truth” to be found, but it can only be got at through comparison and extrapolation of certain in-game texts, and it’s not a complete truth. It’s the closest thing to a real-world religion that I’ve seen in a fictional setting.

    As to whether this enriches the fantasy setting, I’d say definitely. There’s nothing that annoys me more in an alternate world setting than a shallow treatment of religion, which treats it as a social appendage that is barely thought about. The more thought goes into it, the richer it feels, the more it hooks up with the fabric of the world (whether social, metaphysical or both), which is correspondingly enriched.

    • A lot of great points here! I loved Elder Scrolls III and IV, but never thought too much about the handling of religion in the games. This might be a good excuse to go back and play through them again. You’re definitely right that the storylines/mythologies/etc in some of the best games are as complex and carefully thought out as in any novel.

      I’d like to agree with you about ASOIF, but don’t you think the title is a give-away? Maybe it’s a red herring, but it seems to me as though the dualistic, quasi-Manichean suggestion of the title fits perfectly with the Dragons/Fire/R’hllor team fighting, in the end, against the Others/Ice/Darkness team. Maybe it’s not that simple, though. There’s certainly Bran’s plot line to consider here…

      At any rate, thanks for the good ideas. This post occasioned a lot of comment (not so much here, but on G+), and I’m working up a couple of follow-ups. Lots to say on this subject!

  2. Five years later, I found this beautiful post, and want to reply. Please, don’t get mad at me. xD

    That said, I agree with Crucible of Words that in most fantasy (most, not all) religion is much more involved. At some fantasy worlds, the gods wander the world at the population view. In most D&D-like settings, most gods are accessible to high level characters (at first, by active communion sought by the character himself, but at sufficiently high levels, physically at the divine realm), and any low level divine caster character can know if he deviated too much from his god doctrine by losing his favour (and his divine spells and other divine benefits).
    It helps that these gods, more often than not, are simply ridiculously powerful entities, not the ontological ground of being itself.
    In the Real World ™, on the other hand, the Divine isn’t so visible (at least, nowadays), and maybe never was really visible. Also, in many if not most religions, the Divine is ineffable and inconceivable, except by virtue of His own disclosure to the feeble minds of mankind.

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