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"Faith in Fantasy Fiction" by John C Adams Reviews

After a long day’s wielding their swords in pitched battle or employing the immense power of sorcery to defeat their opponents, knights and warlocks alike can reflect upon a force greater than themselves.

In a genre where the vivid detail of worldbuilding is essential, and where the fight between good and evil still generally forms the basis of the narrative, faith matters in fantasy fiction.

Many fantasy novels embody an Anglo-Saxon or Medieval belief system, drawing upon European history and culture to portray the tension between pagan or Norse gods and a single god as Christianity expanded, squeezing out older forms of worship.

In longer works there is space for a variety of religious forms to be contrasted. In some novels this is central to the plot, in others religion provides merely a cultural backdrop.

Most recently, monotheistic religions such as Islam have been the bedrock for worldbuilding in epic sword and sorcery battles as fantasy moves beyond a Eurocentric view.

The genre is also embracing a more diverse and global outlook by using polytheistic faiths from Medieval times to inspire the creation of vibrant fictional universes drenched with fascinating myths and legends.

Whatever historical period and location is chosen for inspiration, fantasy authors are increasingly asking themselves: What, if anything, do my characters believe in?

In the A Game of Thrones series from George R R Martin, the 'old gods' referred to are not fully differentiated with distinct identities.

The North, including House Stark, hold to the old gods, but other than that we know very little about them.

Other houses are pledged to the new gods, which are individually named, giving hints of the characteristics each embodies (such as the Mother, the Maiden, the Stranger and the Warrior).

There is a pagan feel here, but it is developing into an established religion supporting the state: these ‘new gods’ (referred to as deities but open to interpretation as the seven faces of the one god) are co-opted into a system that resembles a Christian church with septas, septons and even missionaries gathered around their leader the High Sparrow.

Due to its sheer length, the A Game of Thrones series has the space to present all stages of development in religion simultaneously.

This is very unusual for fantasy, where writers tend to have only one faith present in their fictional universe.

The occupants of Westeros live at a turning point of belief. The Medieval Christian church excluded pagan gods in favour of a focus on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

In Norse mythology and Greek legend, gods possessed individual and complex personalities, appeared in person as part of the narrative and even engaged in marriages and family relationships with each other or with human beings.

The rise of monotheism meant a wholly different and much more distant relationship between man and God; this is something that fantasy authors address when deciding who, if anyone, their characters will worship.

Will those deities have distinct, human characteristics and personalities, and will they feature in the narrative in their own right?

Doing so can make for a fascinating story. The ‘old gods’ are explicitly those of Norse mythology in Runemarks, a children’s fantasy novel by Joanne Harris.

Introducing deities such as Thor and Loki to a new generation, the gods are brought directly from Norse culture.

Runemarks features our world reimagined as if the Christian faith had not gained a critical foothold on English culture during Anglo-Saxon times, but instead Vikings had emerged the dominant force, leading to Norse gods being worshipped instead of a single Christian god.

Not all fantasy fiction is limited by our own planet in seeking inspiration. The comparison between different types of gods is broadcast on a cosmic scale in the fantasy stories of H P Lovecraft.

Here we see both human-like gods alongside those who bear no resemblance to us; but we are left in no doubt as to which system will prevail in Lovecraft’s opinion.

In The Other Gods, earth's gods are presented as an undifferentiated group. They are compared with another set of gods, who also do not have individual identities or names to distinguish them.

Earth's gods visit the peaks where they once dwelt, travelling in cloud ships. Barzai the Wise, a man who is familiar with the Pnakotic Manuscripts, climbs to the top of the mountain at Hatheg-Kla and witnesses the 'feeble gods' of earth being terrified by the other gods.

Earth's gods are presented as human in the weakness of their terror. In Lovecraft's fiction, these other gods have been sent to earth from across vast aeons of time and space across a cold cosmos most notable for its indifference to mankind.

Deciding to introduce a cosmic element allows authors to show a fight for dominance between deities already present on earth and those travelling across the Solar System to invade. This is a dark, and far from reassuring, turn for belief in fantasy to take.

Fantasy authors can instead introduce monotheism into their fiction. Mainstream fantasy sometimes uses Christianity for inspiration when inventing a religion.

In A Legacy of Kings by Celia Friedman, belief is central both to the plot and to the life of one of the main characters. Salvator was previously a penitent monk in an abbey, but he becomes High King on the death of his brothers.

In many ways, Salvator is reminiscent of the Teutonic Knights - warrior priests, prince bishops, linking warfare with the spreading of faith. This religion is set against a foreign enemy who uses demons to summon supernatural power for his army - and offers the age-old bargain of human souls in return.

When Nasaan rides into battle to lay claim to the city of Jezalya, he offers a prayer to the god of war - and it is the demon (materialising in the form of a woman in the middle of the fighting) who answers his plea.

Another form of monotheism inspires Peter V Brett's Demon Cycle. Here, Islam is the inspiration for a religious system that underpins the whole of this growing series of epic fantasy novels.

Just like King’s A Legacy of Kings, Brett’s Demon Cycle is drenched in the detail of an invented faith, its followers and the depth of their belief.

It has an immense impact on every aspect of their lives as well as bestowing upon them the power to fight the night demons who threaten to destroy mankind.

Some of the most recent fantasy fiction uses non-Eurocentric faiths and cultures for inspiration. This represents a welcome development from traditional fantasy, which is often solely focused on an Anglo-Saxon culture, towards a more inclusive feel.

Tasha Suri’s recent novel The Jasmine Throne is set in a fictional universe inspired by Medieval India.

Fantasy novels draw upon millennia of history across world cultures for their inspiration. In doing so, the best of these portrays amazing deities, whether polytheistic and monotheistic. Each narrative is fascinating and unique in the way it uses faith as an inspiration.

Religion is a vivid way to make characters more or less likeable or relatable. But readers benefit as much as authors from the inclusion of faith in fantasy fiction, if not more. Characters who are motivated by their beliefs (whether for good or bad reasons, with positive or negative consequences to their actions) present an opportunity for us as readers to reflect upon our own lives.

Fantasy universes enable readers to be honest with themselves: in part because that universe is so different to our own world. Readers also respond to fantasy because of the way that it reflects on our past. How did we get to this point?

By introducing belief into its fictional universes, fantasy gives us all a chance to think about where our current ways of the looking at our world came from. Above all, religion is capable of being divisive and often provokes strong reactions, providing readers with some of fantasy’s most loved and hated characters to enjoy.

Thank you for reading my article, which was previously published in In D'tale Magazine. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

John C Adams Reviews

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If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might be interested reading in my review of Tyrant’s Blood by Fiona McIntosh.

Or you might like to take a look at my article about how old sins cast long shadows in the fantasy fiction of David Gemmell.

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