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Jul 122011
 

There’s an awful lot of atheists in fantasy’s foxhole. It’s somewhat rare to see religion playing much of a role (outside the antagonistic, which is quite well represented) in the behaviour or thoughts of our various characters. Yet there’s something bizarre about setting a novel in a medieval Europe with no friars or monasteries, or in a Rome without constant propitiation, or in an Imperial China without the Mandate of Heaven.

I understand this. There’s a question of ‘write what you know’, and while many of us certainly are religious, the question of faith is approached very differently now than it was even five hundred years ago. If we’re writing a priest, we’ll send him to church now and again, job well done.

Of course, there’s also the controversy. No matter how you incorporate religion, there’s a decent chance you’ll offend somebody. I’m sure readers of faith are a little tired of seeing organizations superficially like their own brought out only when it’s time to burn a witch or two. Readers of a more skeptical bent can’t help but cock an eyebrow when we come across The Irreproachable Order, who in between opposing the Dark Lord at every turn organize bake sales, run a puppy shelter and heal the sick without any compensation or the smallest division in the ranks.

Today, we’ll discuss religion in fantasy writing, with an eye primarily to organized ‘modern’ faiths (i.e. 2000BC and on; we have an interesting relationship with your newfangled ‘modernity’ here at crow on a wire). Animism, ancestor worship and the like will wait for another day.

The cardinal rule

Any organization – religious or otherwise – is capable of doing great good and great harm, often at the same time, and sometimes in the exact same context. To take a simple example, Dominican friars were one of the earliest forces to speak out against slavery, and indeed the abolitionist movements in Europe and in North America owe a lot to them, to Quakers and, eventually, to the Papacy… but it was a much earlier Papal bull that legitimized European enslavement of African colonies in the first place, by convincing the laity that it was totally cool as long as you did it to Saracens and Moors (who themselves had a rocky relationship with slavery, of course).

This sort of thing is inevitable. Faith organizations are just as prone to infighting and politicking as everybody else. The seizing of temporal power with protestations of Deus Vult started when the very first shaman realized people were really keen on doing what the spirits told him, and it hasn’t let up since.

The important thing: this is not, in any way, shape or form, a condemnation of or an argument against organized religion. It’s simply the game of power disparities being played in yet another arena, and the religious part of it is practically incidental. It’s as human as the big monkey chasing the little monkey away from his stash of nuts. And faiths have been – and will continue to be – both monkeys.

Religion has inspired great men like Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s also brought us swine like Ted Haggard. Or, perhaps more accurately, great men like MLK find beauty in religion, while venal men like Haggard go straight for the ugly, the divisive.

Religion is complicated, it affects people differently, and organizational behaviour doesn’t always intersect neatly with the principles for which that organization stands.

So, rule the first: don’t write a polemic. A religion whose every priest is a money-grubbing hypocrite or a fire-and-brimstone moral crusader is exactly as believable as Standard Fantasy Monoculture. I think we’ve moved past the land of every-dwarf-is-a-Scots-drunkard.

This isn’t some sort of bid for ‘political correctness’, nor is it the exultation of verisimilitude for its own sake. It’s just writing. Different characters can explore different approaches to religion, and that can be really, really interesting.

What religion is

A religion is equal parts philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a group identity and a set of behavioural guidelines for said group. It tells us what its adherents value, what they profess to value, and what punishments and rewards – if any – are laid out for good and bad behaviour. It explains how things came to be, and where they’ll end up, through the medium of metaphor (which, in the absence of Hubble telescopes, was most of what our forebears had to work with).

Every religious story about how something came to be is also a moral lesson. Abrahamic faiths will tell us that we speak in different languages because their god cursed the builders of the Tower of Babel. That’s an explanation of a natural phenomenon, but it’s also an injunction against hubris. If those pesky humans hadn’t tried to build so close to heaven, we’d all be speaking… er, Aramaic, I guess?

But did people actually believe all that?

That’s a thorny question. We like to pretend that our ancestors were credulous buffoons who accepted everything at face value, and that we enlightened sorts know it’s all just fable and metaphor.

In reality, the literalist/interpreter divide goes back quite a long way, as do prioritization questions – how much of this do we really need to follow?

The Protestant reformation, let’s remember, was in large part about that. Paul Veyne’s ‘Did The Greeks Believe Their Own Myths’ goes back even further, and addresses the issue with the argument that truth hasn’t always been about verifiability, which makes the scientists among us twitch, and those of us who pay attention to politics say “Duh” (also, twitch).

People are very, very capable of picking and choosing what exactly they want to believe in. The traditional-unto-the-point-of-cliche example is mixed fibres or shellfish. Leviticus hates ’em, but we don’t much care. But lordy, when two men want to marry, all of a sudden a poorly translated treatise on proper ritual behaviour for Levite priests becomes Holy Writ.

Do they actually believe this? Short answer: Yes, no, both, neither. Work out the details of belief character by character.

Spiritual distance

The idea of an ineffable, distant and omnipotent deity is a new(ish) one, in the grand scheme of things, but certainly appropriate for the medieval context in which most fantasies find themselves set.

If you’re looking further back, to Rome, or to the Celts, or to Egypt, you may wish to reevaluate this. Religious conceptions that predate Christianity (some might argue Judaism, for which see below) generally involve deities who are more likely to get their hands dirty down in humanland. They can be bargained with, they can be tricked, they can be bought off. They squabble with their co-deities. They’re prone to fits of god-sized jealousy and love to give insufficiently respectful worshipers a chance to cavort about in animal form, or roll boulders uphill forever.

They’re less like the modern conception of deity as Cosmic Dad, and more like royalty whose heads have swollen with power. And, importantly, this is frequently how they were treated by worshipers. Certainly, the gods were propitiated with sacrifice and people generally acted respectfully towards them, but it wasn’t a respect born of any great love – it’s just, if you don’t play nice, they’ll fuck your shit right up.

But even the Abrahamic faiths had their genesis (haw haw) in this religious context – the G*d of the Old Testament could just as easily be Odin. He appears to worshipers directly, makes bargains with them and is held to these bargains by his worshipers*, tricks people into demonstrating their loyalty, and alternates without warning between the magnanimous fellow that leads the Jews from slavery and a brooding, vicious sort that visits collective punishments on humanity.

*Okay, that last bit’s not very Odinly.

Who is worthy of speaking to the gods? Will they visit anybody? Can one interpret their words without the help of a qualified professional? These questions of spiritual distance can shape entire societies. If meeting a god is as simple as climbing Mount Olympus, or if they constantly and visibly intercede, that has implications on society far different than: “Yeah, he’s out there somewhere, being ineffable.”

Polytheism, monotheism, monolatry

Definition time! Polytheism = worship and recognition of many gods. Monolatry = recognition of the validity of many gods, but worship of only one. Monotheism = worship and recognition of one god.

After a few millennia of you-don’t-believe-what-I-believe strife, it’s easy to forget that, for the most part, earlier conceptions of religion generally made room for other people’s gods as perfectly valid – if, of course, lesser – spiritual options. In fact, when this whole organized religion thing was just finding its feet, there was a lot of “My dad can beat up your dad” going around. Conversions were common after losing battles, because hey, the other guy’s deity protected him better than ours protected us, so nuts to this weakling.

Cyrus, Persian imperialist extraordinaire, was the other side of that coin. When he took Babylon, he made a point of praising and publicly worshiping Marduk, that city’s god. Because why piss off the people you’re gonna rule, y’know? Ich Bin Ein Babyloner.

As monotheism became more common, this sort of your-god’s-cool-too approach faded in the Western world, until the Enlightenment and more modern times. Today, Unitarians are the foremost champions of the old ways: worship whoever you want, but stay for tea and cake.

Next time:

Religion in writing is an enormous topic, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Join us next week, when we continue on in this vein but get into some specifics – ritual purity, animism, apotheosis, and how beliefs in the afterlife shape the now-life.

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Jun 282011
 

Those of us who don’t make a point of wearing lab coats to impress the very thick may not have the healthiest attitude towards your so-called facts.

After all, in a line of work characterized mostly by making shit up, it’s tempting to think that reality need never intrude. Fantasy, by dint of dealing so frequently with made-up worlds, is particularly prone to this. Why learn whether pine trees grow in France when our story is actually set in F’rance, and we can cleverly call them ‘les foozle trees’ and be done with it without mousing over to Wikipedia? Suck it, treeologists*!

*A quick jaunt over to the internet implies that these are called ‘dendrologists’, which makes sense in a nerdy Latin root sort of way.

It’s true that there can be a paralytic quality to research. I once spent a good three hours trying to find information on ancient locksmithing, before realizing that what I was doing was a) difficult; b) time-consuming; c) really not that important, in the grand scheme of nobody-gives-a-shit-about-the-inner-workings-of-doors.

Mostly nobody. I’m sure that somewhere out there is a locksmith who drinks himself to sleep every time somebody opens a door with a hairpin in a movie.

There are very good reasons to spend time on research, and the best of them has very little to do with verisimilitude. Research is a fridge stuffed to the gills with delicious ideas. It has a way of proposing scenes you didn’t know you need to write, and it fleshes out character and setting with the sort of detail that really brings those things to life. Would Mad Men be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t so true to, say, the sexism endemic in the ’60s workplace? How many of us would know how the secretarial corps worked? How many of us would know what it sounds like to have a hundred women clacking away at typewriters at exactly the same time? Hell, I’m sure some of us have never seen a typewriter, and fifty years is really not that long ago.

Without research, your Gauls are just Americans with funny hats (and you probably put wings on them, but in your defense, Asterix is pretty cool). With research, you have kings on the front lines of war. You have the last man to a war council being sacrificed for luck. And hell, you probably have druids cutting him open so that they can augur up a storm in the pattern of his intestines (yes, likely apocryphal).

Besides, even if we can’t all be experts on everything, it’s fun to try.

We normally talk about historical fantasy here, but I want to take a jaunt into the modern just briefly, to note that: yes, you do need to do some research. It may seem silly to spend a whole lot of time hitting the books in preparation for something that falls under the rubric ‘write what you know’, but the simple fact of it is that they know it too. And if, in a modern fantasy, you tell us that Toronto’s City Hall is at Yonge and Eglinton, and that there’s a Ford Civic parked out front, somebody is going to be pulled right out of that story.

In many ways, it’s actually more important to get your facts straight in a modern story… but the good news is that it’s also much easier. If you want to know what Canadians eat, it’s as easy as googling up a menu from Tim’s. Hell, you can find a franchise, and go straight to Google Street View to see what’s in the vicinity. That might be taking the need for verisimilitude somewhat too far, mind you, but it’s possible. And by possible, I mean easy.

Historical and history-inspired writing is the opposite end of the paradox. Because we aren’t directly familiar with the technology levels, and because we probably don’t know what Gauls ate, and because we really wouldn’t know how to go about hunting a boar, research becomes vital… at the same time as the core of people who could call you on mistakes dwindles.

Again, verisimilitude isn’t really the key here, particularly when you’re dealing with hot elves-on-dwarves fantasticals. What you want is to tell a good story without making any blunders so obvious that they pull readers directly out. So, yes, electricity probably won’t go over well in ancient Egypt, unless you’re writing one of those delightful kook stories that insists the pyramids were all aliens, man. And you probably didn’t need to hit Wikipedia to figure that out.

But what did they eat? How were their houses laid out? Were servants paid a wage, or did they work for room and board? Who decided what was legal? Was there a punishment for adultery? What could priests get away with it if they said a few Hail Osirises? All of a sudden, we’re getting into questions that are interesting and make for good drama.

And, unfortunately, these are the difficult questions to answer.

The more distant our histories, the more likely it is that they’re essentially the who-conquered-what stories of the nobility. It’s easy to find out who was king in Persia in 442 BC (Artaxerxes I). It’s a lot more difficult to find out how his subjects lived.

Less so now, though. The recent trend towards ‘do-it-yourself’ history – you know, lock modern family up in a period-appropriate house for a month, build a trebuchet using only period-appropriate technology, etc. – means that you can very likely pop onto YouTube and find a documentary intimately concerned with the question we’re actually interested in: how did they live?

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I know that Victorians enjoyed washing down their calf’s brains with the occasional cocktail of warm ale, cold ale and gin. Thanks, YouTube!

Failing that, children’s books are an amazing resource. Kids have little patience for questions like: who conquered what at the battle of where in the year which? After just an hour of parroting back year numbers, they’re busy whining about cookies and Nintendos and their real parents.

But kids are interested in context. They want to know what they would have eaten, how they would have dressed, who/what they would have sacrificed to which deity. And their books are heavy with answers to those questions – which are exactly the ones we as writers need answers to – and light on all the cruft.

Finally, fables and mythology are an excellent resource not for cut-and-dry facts, but for a sense of what people believed, which themes inspired them, how they related to their gods. It’s one thing to be told that the Greek deities were more humanized and capricious than what, say, the Abrahamic faiths are used to. It’s entirely another to read about Zeus turning into an animal to seduce his target of the week.

Academic texts can be useful as well, of course, but for the purpose of writing qua writing, they’re usually just not as good as more ‘populist’ edutainment. But in the absence of other options, they can be a treasure trove of highly specific information. Love potsherds and carbon dating? Then you’ll love archaelogical studies.

In closing:

It’s not about the facts, although reciting facts with your fingers crooked just so (don’t forget the sacrificial goat) can protect you from pedantry.

It’s about facts in service of a good story, and I guarantee that story will be better if you take some time to flesh it out through research. History is richer – and stranger – than fiction. Steal shamelessly.

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