The God of the Fantastic
Recently I attended a dramatic staging of CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The performance was engaging and it did a good job of refamiliarizing me with a work that I had only really skimmed while in college (and that primarily so I would have frame of reference to understand what some of my friends were talking about), but it also got me thinking about God, gods, and the fantastic portrayals of them.
In particular, I recall feeling a certain sense of discomfort with the way in which the Devil and, by extension or association, God is presented by Lewis in the Letters. It isn’t that I objected to the religious sentiments and moral quandaries being explored *via* the dramatic portrayal – that didn’t bother me in the least. Rather, the issue I had was the way in which God, the Infinite, the Creator of All Things was pigeonholed into the basic ‘angel on your shoulder’ thing and Evil, also, was likewise simplistic, cartoonish, and more ’emblematic’ than ‘realistic’ (insofar as any portrayal of the infinite can be judged on the basis of realism). I suppose it’s easier to think of God in terms of a big guy in the sky and set Him up as oppossed to some fork-tailed, well-spoken demon in the underworld. It’s easier because it’s where we started – symbols and simplistic explanations for things we don’t or can’t understand. I don’t see God that way, or at least not since I ever sat down and give this idea some good, serious thought. Seeing as I don’t really mean to make this into a theological post, I’ll leave it at that.
What this line of thinking led me to is the use of gods and demons in fantasy literature. Like in The Screwtape Letters, gods are typically very tangible, understandable, and even physical things in fantasy literature. We know, for instance, that the Blood God of the Warhammer World, Khorne, sits on a Throne of Skulls, has a big sword, and bellows for blood to be spilt in his name. In Tolkien, we know the dispositions and behaviors of the Valar, and the Maiar, like Mithrandir and Sauron, are likewise personal, physical (on some level), and understood in concrete terms – Sauron needs a ring, Mithrandir is called Gandalf and blows smoke rings, etc.. There are numerous other examples, of course, but it isn’t just physical manifestations of the divine that I find interesting. Also curious is the extent to which the divine is demonstrably real in fantasy. Priests wield actual magical power; prayers can have actual, metaphysical effect; miracles are made real. The Red God of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has real power, if called upon, just as the Old Gods seem to.
The divine is an unquestionable power in Fantasy, as often as not, and the more characters question it, the more we expect them to be proven wrong by some ‘unexplainable’ miracle that is, with a wink and a nudge from the author, obviously evidence of the divine power the character themself doubts. Think Han Solo – he doesn’t believe in the Force, but we know he’s wrong. You’d think that the Force wouldn’t be open to question, given what Jedi are known to do, but it is. It’s even doubted by people who live in the world of the prequels, where Jedi are much more common. Lucas does a good job trying to ruin his own world by giving the Force a ‘scientific’ explanation with the Microbes-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but we ‘real’ fans of Star Wars (cue snort and a push-up of the glasses) know that it’s religion, not science, that drives the Jedi.
Why is this so? Why does the divine get such unquestionable back-up in fantasy lit? Where is the agnostic or atheist or, heck, even skeptical fantasy? Why can’t that moment of faith, where the paladin calls upon his God, be answered not with lightning from the sky or some magical burst of inexplicable fortune, but rather with a feeling of peace and certainty and even energy that is so often the fuel of the faithful and the target of the doubters? Is fantasy literature there to reassure us, on some level? Is it there to help us believe in things, whether they be gods or simply the purity of good and evil? I think this might be the case, and I’m honestly a little bothered by it. If I believe in God, I don’t need to have my belief bolstered by tales of a parallel world where a little boy really believed and had his belief confirmed from a light from on high and a magic sword.
I’d rather explore the doubt – I think that’s where the real drama lies, anyway. I want to pit believers who can’t furnish miracles pitted against non-believers who can’t furnish sufficient doubt to sway the believers. I’ve set Alandar up this way, at any rate – absentee Gods, conflicting mythology, magic more akin to science than anything else, but just mysterious enough to confuse. Maybe I’m wrong about this; maybe that isn’t what fantasy should be. Then again, it’s my fantasy, isn’t it? I get to explore what I like.