Faith and Religion in Fantasy

by Bruce Blake

turtle, turtle meme, flying turtleSeveral of the members of the Guild of Dreams were recently discussing (via Facebook group) their plans for upcoming blog posts. I didn’t know what I was going to write, so I made a smart-ass comment that I thought I might blog about turtles. Turns out I should have picked some other aquatic animal–mudskippers or jellyfish or something–because there’s a lot more going on with turtles than just a hard shell and an inability to right themselves if they get flipped bottom side up.

The first comment after my flippant remark mentioned Discworld, and the subject of faith naturally came up after that. Turns out that different cultures have long viewed turtles as a symbol of Heaven and earth, not just the imagining of Terry Pratchett and/or Stephen King (at the time I first read it, I didn’t get the turtle reference in IT, but I’m far more edumacated now).

“Do a post on faith in fantasy,” Chantal urged, the words smacking of both taunt and dare.

So I thought about and decided, “What the hell!” (The jokes will not be getting any better than that.)

For a guy who’s not religious (spiritual, yes, but not religious. I’m one of those 21st century Canadian west coast types), it comes up a lot in my books. Without religion, Icarus Fell wouldn’t exist. The idea of Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil is kind of a major plot point when your protagonist is brought back from the dead to harvest the souls of the newly deceased. Religion also plays a big part in my Small Gods series, though not your run-of-the-mill Christianity. Only in my Khirro’s Journey trilogy does it not play much of a role, though it does get the odd mention here and there.

To be quite up front, I didn’t think much about the subject until I picked up A Game of Thrones (didn’t George RR Martin change everything for prettyGame of Thrones, George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire much everyone?). Sure, there’d been religion in the other fantasy I’d read up to that point, but there was something about the way he described the Seven, the old Gods, the Heart tree, The Drowned God, and all the others. So many religions, all of them with different rites, rituals, and beliefs, all of them unique. I know there are many other books and series that delve into the subject, oftentimes featuring gods as characters, but these were the first ones that seemed real to me. Maybe because they were religions being practiced by people who could have been us, not by elves and dwarves and such.

It was the textures and feels of Mr. Martins faiths and religions I held in mind when I was world-building for my Small Gods series. I wanted it to feel realistic, be believable. Some characters would have undying blind faith, some wouldn’t believe at all, some would want to but doubt, some would waver. And, of course, there couldn’t be only one religion, not in a fully realized world.

With my wife being the unshakeable burlesque diva feminist she is, I thought it would earn me some brownie points to make the religion’s central figure a goddess (known as ‘the Goddess’, strangely enough). After a little brainstorming, I decided the Goddess should be served only by women (a la Amazon.com’s namesake, but I don’t think they noticed). I know this isn’t exactly groundbreaking–Wonder Woman did it years ago–but I also decided I’d have different factions within the religion, each with a unique way to continue without the benefit of having men as part of their population. That’s where the fun began.

When Shadows Fall, Small GodsAnd, of course, if there was to be a ‘women-only’ religion, there had to be the opposite, right? A rogue and looked-down-upon group of men who worship a god and have distinctly different ways of doing things than the women came to life.

That, my friends, is the genesis of the major conflict for the story. Out of a desire to put a little religion into the book, an entire series was born. You can try out some of examples of the religion in the Small Gods series for free over on Wattpad with the prologue to When Shadows Fall and also The Darkness Comes.

I don’t expect any of my ideas to take root and become religions in our world, but who knows? If a science fiction writer can convert Tom Cruise and John Travolta, maybe anything can happen.

What are some of your favourite examples of faith and religion in fantasy? What writers do you think do it particularly well?

(PS – no turtles were hurt during the writing of this blog)

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Bruce Blake is the author of eight books, the owner of one white dog, and a lover of the serial comma (though he prefers referring to it as the Oxford comma). You can follow him on his blog here, read some stuff free on Wattpad here, or purchase any of his books at very reasonable prices here, here, here, or here.

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6 comments on “Faith and Religion in Fantasy

  1. This is a fascinating topic and a fundamental part of fantasy world-building. When I created the mythos for my fantasy series, I decided that my deities would not be viewed as solely one gender. They are gender-bending based on the individual worshipping them: a goddess if the worshipper is female or a god if the worshipper is male. Artistic depictions of the deity depends on their following. If worshippers are predominantly female, the deity will be depicted as a goddess in paintings or statues or the like, or as a god if worshippers are predominantly male. I’m not sure if this has been used in other fantasy mythos, but I thought it would add something different and interesting to mine. The other things I really like about establishing a mythos for my fantasy world is the opportunity for creating myths and legends as well as avatars and artefacts. All of these things can play into the story at some point and gives me something to build on.

    Writing fantasy stories based on existing mythologies is something I enjoy doing as well. Researching rituals and beliefs as well as legendary creatures supplies a great deal of material to use in story and character development. You rarely find a fantasy tale out there without some basis in myth or without some faith attributed to the fantasy world described.

  2. Discussing religion in this light has always fascinated me. I’m also interested in looking at how different faiths intersect, often while deriding even the faiths that are closest to them. What’s also interesting for a writer is to look at how a religion evolves over a long time, and how a single religion can simultaneously hold opposing views.

  3. Pingback: Game of Thrones Revisited | Guild Of Dreams

  4. I wouldn’t go with a “rogue male god cult” myself. I mean, you don’t see people going around with a twisted Christianity that replaces Yahweh with a goddess, do you? I don’t doubt there is some minor group somewhere given how many Christian denominations are there these days, but they’re probably nothing major.

    What you do have is, for example, Wicca people or other neopagans that invented their new religions based on some ancient ideas of powerful goddesses and created their ‘Goddess’ this way. So if you had the cult of a male god, it would most likely be unrelated to that religion with a goddess, it would be reactionary and calling back to a more primitive time, but with an undeniable tinge of that main religion. Exclusivity of divinity was after all a very Abrahamic idea, and the real pagans did not believe in it, unlike modern Wiccans.

    I mean, at least the way you present it here makes it sound like the male cult is some kind of heresy of the female one. If they’re very clearly distinct traditions, I probably just waited a couple of minutes.

  5. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are the two that most quickly come to mind. But, I think that world view plays a really important part in any fantasy – it reflects the world we live in and this includes people of faith and those without and everyone in between.

  6. Great post. Although the first one that springs to mind is CS Lewis, that’s really because of the allegorical nature of Aslan and how Lewis’s faith entered his work. For me the best two uses of gods and religions in fantasy I’ve read were in Erikson’s Malazan empire series and Eddings’ Belgeriad. In both the gods are very much part of the story, to the point of being characters within it.

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