I read with interest Bill Ward’s entry two weeks ago about Poul Anderson’s famous essay, On Thud and Blunder. While I agree with Ward that fantasy has, in some respects, changed much for the better, in certain others it has markedly declined, and for reasons that Anderson specifically noted 30 years ago. In his essay, Anderson writes:
“[T]he ever-changing interrelationships of kings, nobles, and Church form a major part of the medieval European tapestry…. The Church raises the subject of religion in general, which is little used in our field. Oh, yes, we may get a hero swearing by his particular gods and perhaps carrying through a small rite, equivalent to stroking a rabbit’s foot. We certainly got plenty of obscene ceremonies in honor of assorted toad-like beings. Both of these do have their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see an imaginary society which was pervaded by its faith, as many real ones have been.”
There is a fundamental dichotomy in fantasy literature today. On the one hand, fantasy tends to be written by individuals who are much more likely to be irreligious than the statistical average would indicate. On the other, fantasy is almost invariably set in an identifiably medieval setting that was historically permeated with religious faith. This dichotomy is not necessarily a problem, as one no more need possess religious faith to write convincingly about religious characters than one has to hack off a few heads in order to write well about sword-wielding barbarians. Frank Herbert was no Muslim, and yet his Dune is a science fiction masterpiece thanks in part to his exquisite use of rich Islamic themes and his multi-faceted characters, many of them devout. But unfortunately, Herbert’s educated and perceptive approach is much more the exception than the rule.
The problem with religion in fantasy and science fiction is, at its core, much the same problem that Anderson cites with regards to horses. Just as it is bad writing to equate riding a horse with riding a motorcycle, it is bad writing to assume 21st century secular values when writing about 5th or 10th or 25th century societies. In both cases, the error is primarily derived from the combination of ignorance and laziness. It is a challenge for the motorcycle rider to correctly imagine the experience of riding a horse, and it is a similar challenge for the non-believer to imagine what genuine religious belief of any kind is like. But one need not resort to one’s imagination in either case since there is a tremendous amount of historical documentation available concerning both these subjects and there’s always the option of actually hopping on a horse or speaking with an actual believer.
One of the few modern fantasy writers to rise successfully to this challenge is Guy Gavriel Kay. In The Sarantine Mosaic, Kay provides an excellent example of how understanding the significance of a society’s religious faiths – in this case, historical Eastern Orthodox Christianity and pagan animism – can not only provide the writer with a more credible world and more lifelike characters, but sometimes even major plot points. In Kay’s duology, the divergent beliefs of the characters are not only genuine, but are at least in part based on their observations of events taking place in the world around them.
Thirty years later, religion is still little used in the field of fantasy fiction. What is all too common, however, is writers attempting to use various aspects and trappings of religion while failing to recognize the way in which religious belief was an intrinsic part of how most historical societies interpreted their world. Making do by stealing a few interesting bits and pieces here and there while ignoring the whole systemic structure to which they belonged means that one is almost guaranteed to write something as nonsensical as Gnorts the Barbarian wielding his fifty-pound sword single-handed. The important thing to understand is that it’s not the writer’s faith, or his lack of faith, that is relevant here, only the writer’s ability to set aside his own beliefs, whatever they might be, long enough to breath sufficient life into his world and into his characters. Moreover, religion is a reliable source of the conflict, both internal and external, that is required to convincingly drive a plot forward.
Therefore, as Anderson implies, it will behoove the writer of modern fantasy to pay at least as much attention to historical social structures and belief-systems as he does to historical means of transportation and weaponry.