Religion in Fantasy Worldbuilding

Anne C. Miles > worldbuilding > Religion in Fantasy Worldbuilding

I got in a discussion yesterday about Christianity in fantasy. The blogger I talked to had proposed Tolkien didn’t introduce Christianity in his work and wondered why then it was the default in so many fantasy works.

So anyhow, in the course of the discussion I basically concluded that a lot of the early fantasy writers were Christian. The roots of fantasy lie in Arthurian legends, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Fantasy is unique in that its very use of myth leads one to explore different faiths. I know I explore my ideas about the world and God etc through my writing, though I’m not trying to write “Christian” fiction. Those stories make me twitch generally and are usually pablum. But yes. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and there is much symbolism in his work that’s Christian (the ring is sin!), not to mention a creation story and set-up of gods that hearkens back to Genesis. His work was edited by his son, a priest. When writers are Christian, they’re going to write through that lens.

CS Lewis. Charles Williams, all of the Inklings really, were Christians. George MacDonald. GK Chesterton. You have a fine tradition in the UK especially of Christian men writing fantasy. Robert Jordan was a devout believer who took mass daily and his Children of the Light and indeed, Masema, were a scathing rebuke to dogmatic Christian fundamentalists. I don’t know about Tad Williams. I’ll look him up, but my bet is yes, he’s a Christian. Tad Williams studies theology. My new friend brought up Eddings. Eddings was writing about pantheons but it wouldn’t surprise me if he were a Christian. His Elene Church was based on Catholicism. Rothfuss is emphatically not a Christian but then he’s using Hebrew (ruach) in his descriptors of the spirit creatures and there are priests and what have you (though they in general aren’t to be trusted. Except for the one that takes care of the children.) He’s from the Midwest which is why I think he handles religion reasonably well. He’s likely been exposed to church a lot. But arguably it is the worst-written part of his story. And he’s drawing again on Judeo-Christian ideas though he denies it. Which I find really annoying. Mr. Rothfuss is much too educated to give credit to Jesus. Bless his heart.

In terms of the wider mythology for your world, do we detect Christian influences?
What it has is the archetype of the self-sacrificing god. But honestly, by the time Jesus did that, it was old news. A bunch of people did it before Jesus—and, to be fair, some people did it better

Madeleine L’Engle? Christian.

The thing the blogger objected to was the trappings. Priests. Robes, Clergy, symbols. No new ideas. I guess I can understand that. But then I heard Gavin Ashendon’s homily today and a new thought struck me. Two new thoughts. The bit in his homily that applies to worldbuilding is in the beginning.

TLDW: Basically he says religions the world over have 3 sources.

People ascribe names and personalities to energies they see in nature. This is Anthropomorphism or in religious terms…animism and results in faiths like Hinduism. (I always loved that old spelling, Hindoo. It reads as if it is very cheerful.) Then you have faiths where men (gurus) sit and try to figure out the right way to be. This would be Buddhism, for example. Confucianism, Sikhism. Then we have something a little more creative than animism…just making up gods and telling stories about them, which is what the Greeks and Norse and Romans did. But don’t ALL of these have priests/priestesses?

(And if pantheons are all made up then why are they all so similar the world over? But that’s another blog post. I have a wonderful conspiracy theory about it that will likely turn into a story someday.)

Then you have the religions where the one true God spoke to men and revealed himself. The three that claim this are of course, Christianity and its little cousin Mormonism, Judaism and Islam. Again …we have priests.

So, if you want to do something different (ie. NOT CHRISTIAN, doesn’t even smell Christian), these seem to be the options. I’d add in one more: ancestor worship that could turn into a pantheon. And again, they all have some sort of priest even when you call him a shaman. You have animism, some sort of philosophy, or a pantheon. If you go to one God you shall of course be obliged to not have any trappings of priesthood etc to be different. And even then you’ll likely be put in a category of “Christian that is carefully not Christian.”

There are only so many options though. Really. Anthony Ryan has done a bang-up job with his religions and he threw in ancestor worship contrasted with the “Father.” Dyrk Ashton and Neil Gaiman use pantheon gods as characters. Those are the only really well-done examples I know of.

My other thought is that in a world where secular thought and post-modernist culture denies the supernatural completely and rejects anything (or scoffs if it doesn’t reject) as old-fashioned as God, miracles and the real wonder one feels in worship…where else do you explore such things but in fantasy fiction? We’ve done away with fairies and dragons and God, so of course they are in fantasy. And shouldnt they be? Don’t we read it for wonder and majesty and awe that is missing from this grim day-to-day existence? just a little bit? Isn’t it comforting to find it there? Perhaps there people can dust off religion, receive comfort from it safely, while they live their real lives as agnostics or what have you.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

But then, I’m a Christian. And I think it is good and ok for anyone, of any faith to explore their beliefs within their writing. No matter what genre. I think as old Screwtape said, an atheist cannot be too careful of his reading and I’d say the same applies to his writing. Because just as one discovers the reality of that old Dragon (Evil) when they write fantasy without hiding from difficult questions, one will also, if he is honest, soon brush up against God. The writer might not admit it or even call it that, but they do run into Him eventually. What they do with their own beliefs is not always honest or what I might think of as good and healthy, but they have to deal with it somehow.

Christianity is written as fantasy. Read Revelations. It reads like one. There are dragons and unicorns and witches and spirits in the Bible. I’d argue every really successful story contains the gospel in some form, whether the author intends it or not. What is the Hero’s Journey, after all?

I think if you want to get away from it completely you’d have to make an atheist fantasy world. For me, that defeats the purpose of writing fantasy. I want the catch of the breath, the transcendence that comes with mysterious powerful beings in my world. It’s why I read fantasy. I’ll wager that’s true for many readers.

But anyhow, there are some things to explore. Hope it helps.

ETA: Husband comments, “But if you hate religion in any form, you really don’t have to mention it. The LOTR doesn’t, as the blogger said. If you don’t read the Silmarillion you won’t know Tolkien has one. So define it to build your world and then don’t talk about it. ”

ok, I’ll give you that.

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2 thoughts on “Religion in Fantasy Worldbuilding

  1. This is really interesting! And thoughtful!

    I think there’s two things here:

    A lot of authors have used fantasy to explore their faith, and their faith as a vehicle for great fantasy. The Inklings, as you mention. I think this is fantastic (no pun intended), and long may it continue. Fantasy as sandbox for discussion of big ideas = the best use of fantasy, in my eyes.

    My issue – my challenge to the genre, I suppose – is more cultural than religious. The language and culture of Christianity is often used as the default stand-in for the religious language and culture of many secondary worlds (we talked about Eddings, Jordan, Williams, amongst others).

    It is a shortcut, but it isn’t as ‘universal’ or ‘generic’ as I think it is intended to be. This is, to me, similar to the assumption that all fantasy worlds are European, white, straight or male. Even if the author means it as wallpaper, it actually has significant (and often unintended) meaning to a lot of readers.

    Basically, I don’t have any issue with faith in fantasy (or vice versa). And I think I agree about the (separate issue of?) transcendence and sense of wonder in fantasy. My challenge is more about the cultural significance of the aesthetics alone – not on the thematic level.

    1. With all due respect. I understand what you’re saying and it’s the wave right now. Inclusive multicultural diversity. To me the ideas embraced in it are nearly as dogmatic as fundamentalist rhetoric. Of course we must Have Diverse Books. But to me that happens when diverse folk write not when I in my Whiteness try to make sure I have all boxes checked so that I don’t upset anyone. The problem is I will get it wrong and not only expose my ignorance but will likely offend those very people I sought to include. So I try to get to know those diverse peoples better and as I do then I can write them. There are no shortcuts and I will not pander. My first thought is to not describe characters and leave the ethnicity etc open for interpretation by the reader. But then that feels dishonest. It’s a thorny problem.

      Example. I have a group in my book called the Fell folk and I’m fairly certain they’re Sikh-like so I’ve been devouring all I can about the Sikh. I don’t have to get them exactly right because it is fantasy and I can take some Liberty with my made up races and cultures. So in fantasy we do have that going for us. More leeway than other genres. But I am reminded of the horrified reaction to JarJar Binks and the accusations leveled at Mr Lucas. It’s a minefield, this road. Perhaps it might be wise to assume that authors are just trying to tell stories. We’ve seen the end of the rom com in Hollywood. Because? Could there be fear of offense to the lgbt community? Heck I get upset about the many fails I’ve seen in portrayals of Kentucky. How would a Buddhist feel if I tried to show their culture and flubbed it? No. I’d need immersion to get it really right. So I’m left with much research and travel. Much easier to write Kentucky as I know it. Without toothless neoNazi rednecks. (It’s acceptable to stereotype some things isn’t it? Isn’t that interesting?)

      The only way to not offend someone is to remain silent.

      To quote a very smart man, “Blessed is he who isn’t offended in me.”

      He meant that one way and I’m tearing it out of context for my own purposes and applying it to myself here but it does have some merit. If someone wants to find fault or offense they will. It takes very very little to begin the process of judgment. Because of my experience with sanctified hatred in the church I’m sensitive to it in other arenas. I fear that until bitterness anger and envy not to mention pride and thoughtlessness are vanquished in each individual the problem will stay with us.

      That doesn’t mean I disagree with you. I don’t. But I’m also going to write what I want to read from my experience, worldview and culture. Yes fantasy has been born from (mostly) white euro Christian roots. Yes there is room for more. I know we shall see it unfold. I just dearly hope that happens out of real interest in and love for diverse peoples and from diverse writers and not from some guilt-ridden sense of duty and shame. To me the latter exacerbates the problem rather than solves it. People tend to know when they are being placated and it has the opposite effect, stoking the fires of anger rather than quenching them. Quite rightly so.

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