Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Mahound is in his paradise: religion in fantasy

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

--G.K. Chesterton, Lepanto, second stanza


A tourist visits Gondor at the end of the Third Age, on the eve of the War of the Ring. What does he see in its capital? More or less what Pippin does before Sauron's armies cross the Anduin: the black outer wall of the city, the lesser walls of its upper circles, houses and arches of white stone, a tall tower atop the central stone keel of the city, and, around the dead, white tree before it, the soldiers of the Tower Guard in their sable uniforms.

Now, imagine being a tourist in Rome during the reign of Nero. What would you see? Again, buildings of marble, arches, perhaps not soldiers (forbidden, in theory, within the city's sacred boundary). And what else? Statues, aqueducts, columns, and, scattered throughout the city, one other kind of building that Pippin does not: temples. From the grand edifices of the forum to the little shrines on the street-corners, Rome was a city full of gods in "a world full of gods." Minas Tirith is not.

Only a few passing traces hint at worship of any kind in The Lord of The Rings: hymns to Elbereth the Star-Kindler, Denethor's self-immolation "like the heathen kings of old," the worship of Sauron by the men of the mountains, the "hallow" on Mountain Mindoluin, in which Aragorn finds the new sapling of the White Tree. The many drafts that made up, or could have made up, The Silmarillion have little to add, at least as I recollect: more allusions to the veneration (not quite worship, perhaps) of the Valar and, above all, an account of the annual offering of first-fruits by the Númenoreans to the One.

The Númenorean festival is, perhaps, the closest Tolkien's fiction comes to the Christianity he embraced or to the Hebraic religion out of which it grew. It is still not very close. In the Ainulindalë, Tolkien offers a narrative meditation on good, evil, and the will of God, but his characters have no temples, no churches (not quite the same thing!), no priesthoods, no sacrifices, and few hymns or prayers. Though Middle-Earth is laden with mythology, with magic, and even with theology, it is a world with very little religion.


The absence of religious ritual is a famous feature of Tolkien's works. It is also a good place to start in thinking about how a fantasy writer might (or might not) incorporate religion into his own writing. We may, in broad terms, distinguish three things to keep in mind: what "religion" is, religion as world-building, and religion as sub-creation.

The first is simple enough. Not every people has, or has had, a concept that corresponds to our "religion," and not every "religion" has the same set of features. Hinduism is not the same kind of thing as Judaism, nor Shintoism as any of the branches of Buddhism, though we, by a quirk of our own language, refer to all of them using abstract nouns ending in -ism.

Roman paganism, for example, was a set of observances, including games, public spectacles, and, above all, sacrifices, offered to the gods on behalf of the Roman people by magistrates at the advice of politicians who had been appointed to priestly boards. There was no teaching, and no congregation; the observances did not aim at personal betterment or spiritual salvation, but at preventing natural disasters, defeat in war, and other catastrophes.

This does not mean that there were no ideas about the gods. For a Roman pagan such as Varro, the most learned man of the Republic, mythology, philosophical speculation, and public worship were all branches of "theology," but they were distinct in method, accuracy, and aims. They were three different ways of thinking about or dealing with the gods that did not form a unified system.

Ancient Christianity, by contrast, was a network of assemblies ("churches") headed by local overseers ("bishops") into which people entered by an initiatory washing; it did not include sacrifices in the usual sense, and it did have theological doctrines, sacred stories, and moral teachings. Its churches prayed for the public well-being, but their main aim was the salvation, after death, of the individual members and of the Church as a whole.

Two endeavors could hardly be more different than Roman paganism and early Christianity, yet each can still be called a "religion," as each involves humans showing honor to, and communicating with, divine powers. It's this dimension that is largely lacking in Tolkien's stories--no doubt in part because of the particular relationships among Men, Elves, and the Valar, the created, quasi-divine powers who rule the world (more on this in another post)--and that I mean when I talk about "religion in fantasy."


Because "religion" denotes no single set of practices or beliefs, we come swiftly to the practical question of world-building. Like invented languages such as Tolkien's own, the imagined cultures of a fantasy world are not going to have all of the features of any one real culture, but they will still (one hopes) be sketched within plausible outlines and filled out with some richness of detail. How are you, the writer, going to deal with the whole complex of practices and ideas that make up the religious side of your characters' lives, if there is one?

I mean to explore various facets of this question in more detail in the following posts. For now, let us simply observe that a fantasy religion can a. be a real-world religion in a world only somewhat different from our own, b. be explicitly modelled on a real-world religion in a world distinct from our own, or c. be invented more or less out of whole cloth, with perhaps some elements borrowed from real-world practices.

I'm not certain which of these is easier, actually. To be done well, each will have to involve some knowledge of actual religious beliefs and practices, some sympathy with those who hold to them, and a will to represent something in which a person might reasonably believe--even if the belief is nothing more than the conviction, handed down from one's ancestors, that these things are needed to keep the sun turning and the crops growing.

Otherwise, one risks producing a caricature of a real religion. Crystal dragon Christianity, the kind of fantasy construct that has churches and bishops and monks but worships a god nothing like the Christian one, is all too common. Even relatively well drawn fantasy religions don't always satisfy: take, for example, the worship of Jad in Kaye's Sarantium novels. Despite the beauty of its churches' mosaics, it lacks the vividness and power of the games and court intrigues of Sarantium. The result is a fantasy Constantinople in which the Christ analogue (himself a celestial charioteer) is less interesting than the chariot races. John Chrysostom might have been horrified, but also, one suspects, darkly amused.


The defect in the Jad-cult is that it lacks the theological and historical texture of the Christianity that it imitates: its Christ is a mythical rather than a historical person, and its god is the sun, not the "Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." It is hard to see how its doctrines could command the same devotion, and its disputes the same mortal seriousness, as Christianity.

The difference is there regardless of the truth of Christianity or any other religion, of course. All that matters, for the writing of a story, is what the characters believe and how well the story portrays it, not whether the author believes it to be true.

However, for the author who does believe in a God who is "maker of heaven and earth," an additional consideration arises. As Tolkien said, the writing of what we now call fantasy literature is an act of "sub-creation." A fantasy world does not exist unto itself; it exists within the real world, and the telling of its story is an imitation of the creation of the real world by God.

This explains why Tolkien did not, unlike his friend C.S. Lewis, portray any analogue to Jesus, and thus to Christianity, in his stories. As he himself said, "The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write." It is also why the angelic or divine beings that rule his fantasy Earth are themselves subordinated to an all-creating divine Father, who is associated with a mysterious live-giving principle, the Flame Imperishable, and who will someday, one of the Silmarillion-stories suggests, enter his creation to mend it. The material for Trinitarian Christianity is there, but it remains veiled.

Many Christian fantasy authors have been less circumspect than Tolkien. Lewis, of course, did not attempt to portray the Incarnation--his Aslan is not one person in two natures, Divine and leonine, but an attempt to show the character of Christ, as Christians know him, in a fairy-tale. Others have followed suit, but the result is usually flat (at least to my taste): fantasy Christianity lacks a history of revelation, a wider religious backdrop like that provided by all the ancient varieties of Judaism and of polytheism, or the sometimes brutally divisive disputes through which Christian doctrine and practice have taken shape. What one gets is either an imitation of Lewis's Aslan, or Trinitarian theology with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost switched out for invented names.

One can do better, I think, but there is no way of doing it perfectly. It is no more possible to invent a complete religion for a made-up world than it is to invent a complete language, and all the more so, if the author believes that a particular religion is actually the authoritative revelation of the God who made everything. Nevertheless, the fantasy author who believes in a transcendent God necessarily also believes that God rules over all possible worlds, as no world is possible without him. If there is any theological or religious truth in the story, it must point, however imperfectly, to the Truth--what, I believe, both Lewis and Tolkien were trying to do, in very different ways.

The author who believes in such a God may depict all kinds of invented religions or imaginary powers in heaven or on earth; he must not create a false God.


One final observation: the author need not describe a religion's beliefs and practices in complete detail. The resplendently orientalist vision of "Mahound" in paradise, which Chesterton's Lepanto opposes to the jaunty Catholicism of the men who "go gaily in the dark," is at least as effective, in its swift short-hand conjuration of a moral and religious mood, as anything I have seen in a fantasy novel.

I wonder whether the tendency toward crystal-dragonism and churchless Christianity might be helped by the simple expedient of setting the fantasy within an alternate version of our own world. In such a setting, one can much more naturally have something that is like Christianity or paganism or Islam, but not quite like it, without the temptation to introduce random names as ciphers for gods people actually worship or holidays they actually celebrate. "Soft" alternate history might be an easier genre to write in than purely invented fantasy--and indeed, one might suggest that Tolkien, at least, was writing in that genre, and that Lewis, whose Narnia shares a physical if not chronological connection with our own, was as well.

Either way, I’ve certainly not solved any of these problems. The Sign of the Sibyl involves something a bit different from either the Lewisian or the Tolkienian situation: the transportation of adherents of Christianity to a world apparently devoid of it. The premise presents theological difficulties, both for the characters and for the author. They cannot say, without presumption, why they have come thither; I cannot say, without presumption, what God would have done with another world, or a race that is not quite human.

Still less have I attempted to present a fully-drawn paganism as the religion of that world, though I have borrowed liberally from real Roman religion and still more from ancient philosophical and Christian interpretations of the religious history of the world. Nevertheless, I have had cause to think a bit about some the theoretical and practical considerations that have shaped my own writing of religion in fantasy. On these I will expand further in the posts to follow.

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