The God of the Fantastic

Isn’t this portrayal absurd? Why, then, do we always stick to it?

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.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on December 8, 2011, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’ve actually considered religion in Song of Ice and Fire to be less certain than that. The response of the gods seems nebulous at best, with the exceptions being when we get a rare POV glimpse of the world through a religious figure eye’s (i.e., Melisandre). The other times gods are mentioned it’s more up in the air. We’re told of the Old Gods of the North, but we only ever see fantastical creatures. There’s never been anything to show that the Seven are anything more than a religious doctrine embraced by millions. The Red God, in fact, stands quite alone in seeming to have some real “proof” of existing, and if we are accepting magic exists in that world (which it does, we’ve seen it more than once) then it’s possible that proof is merely spells and natural gifts, not a godly influence.

    I suppose that may be why it’s easier for fantasy characters to accept there are gods/a god. They have crazy otherworldly powers that have no other reasonable explanation. Magic is as solid a proof that a god exists as anything ever could be–how else could these amazing things be possible? Even the Miracles that Jesus performs in the Bible are the kinds of things we would see and cry “Magic!” at. So if a fantasy character, surrounded by magic, is going to question the Divine’s existence, he or she must have a different reason entirely to explain that magic. Are they natural gifts, or genetic mutations? Perhaps if *everyone* has magic, then it’s not hard to shrug off, because it is then commonplace and nothing unusual at all.

    Also, on another topic, one great thing about BSG is how many different types and ways of belief and believing it shows, from polytheistic to monotheistic to atheism and so on, people find faith and lose it all over the place on that show, and struggle with it in the in-between areas. Love it.

    • I disagree that Martin is as ‘up in the air’ as you claim. The powers that influence the world beyond the understanding of the characters are presented with the same trappings that divine power is in other works. It isn’t based on the rational, essentially, and is rooted in the metaphysical and unknowable. It is attributed with a god and we sort of have to accept it. There is no other explanation and, at this point, I very much doubt Martin will dissuade us of that notion. Even the Seven, though not as overt, are mysterious enough (Arya in Braavos comes to mind–the powers of that little brotherhood, based off one of the Seven, aren’t natural nor are they ‘understandably’ mystical, so then what are they?)

      I’m not really talking about how the characters see their world in situ so much as how the author is asking we, the readers, to see the world. Fantasy authors expect us to accept the presence of divine power (no matter how understandable) as is, and the doubting Thomases of their world are frequently left without legs to stand on.

      As for BSG, I cut out of the series too early to really get into some of that stuff, so I’ll have to let that lie.

      • The Faceless Men are branched off from the Seven? I thought they were a different god altogether (the Faceless God…or Nameless? Something like that).

        Worth revisiting BSG for a number of reasons, this being but one among them.

  2. Interesting. It’s often bothered me in a lot of fantasy novels/settings -especially at tabletop: this preponderance of deities. If it has been clearly demonstrated that gods are tangible beings, that give their followers a host of clearly definable magical abilities — how can there be reasonable doubters in the world?

    “By the power of my Goddess, I heal your wounds.”

    “Man, I feel a lot better — I can literally see my cut closing up. This is crazy! But I’m sure there’s some rational explanation for this.”

    “Look, my Goddess is standing right over there, you’re really hurting her feelings.”

    “I’m sorry, I just don’t believe.”

    “She’s crying now — I hope you’re happy. “

  3. I think the biggest reason why the actual existence of gods and religion (but conversely not atheism or skepticism) is because it seems like most fantasy writers all start creating their worlds from a foundation of our own real-world history (ranging from Ancient Greece through the Dark Ages, and into the Renaissance.) And since religion played a great part of those time periods and the architecture of those institutions are held with such great standing… the idea of adapting religion into their own fantastical worlds comes right along with it.

    Since agnosticism, atheism and skepticism do not hold much, if any, real influence on those times of our history (while I’m sure they did exist to a small extent)… they likewise do not hold any influence on the worlds that get created based off of it.

    • I personally think that Doubt has played a pretty enormous role in a lot of what has happened through history. Hell, it’s part of what got Jesus on the Cross in the first place.

      I think the essential problem (if, indeed, it is a ‘problem’, which is probably not true) is that fantasy authors transfer religion into magical realism almost automatically. There seems an almost subconscious desire to make a world where the gods are real and devotion to them has real, magical, super-poweresque benefits. Doubters are made ridiculous by this, when in the real world doubt has a much more robust defense. I think, to some extent, the concrete imaginings of fantastic deities does the ideas of both Faith *and* Doubt real disservice.

      • I would also say that there are probably a good number of fantasy writers who grew up playing D&D, and thus their entire concept of what ‘fantasy’ is has been shaped at least in part by that game. And as pantheons are a huge and important trope of the game (so much so that an entire class is devoted to them– pun intended)… that becomes another part of the foundation of what fantasy is for them, and its from which they can now adapt and spring their own worlds from.

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