In the Gospel of Saint John, it begins:
In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.
When I studied scripture (yes, I have studied scripture – both in high school and in college. Go Jesuits!), recall spending a fair amount of time discussing this line. John’s gospel is significantly different than the other three. In it, John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and, as a consequence, it’s a trifle more abstract in places. It works with certain metaphors the other gospels don’t (as those gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a human being and how he relates to humanity). In the original Ancient Greek, the word we translate as “Word” is logos.
Logos means “word,” but not in the conventional sense (that is lexis). Logos, rather, means something along the lines of “rational basis” or “premise”. In the theological sense, among the ancient Hebrews it indicated “that through which everything was made.” It makes sense, in this context, that Saint John would relate God to logos, as that is literally what God is – the thing through which everything is made. I also think it is profound to think of the metaphor being constructed here, irrespective of your religious beliefs: Word as God.
Neil Postman, the media theorist and cultural critic (and professor of communications and culture at NYU), goes on at some length about the power of words. In his essay “The Word Weavers/The World Makers,” he says:
For whatever we believe in, or don’t believe in, is to a considerable extent a function of how our language addresses the world.
We cannot conceive of things we have no words for. Our words and our language dictates how we interact and understand the world around us and it is very difficult to escape. Even if you learn several languages, our frames of meaning and understanding are still hung upon a framework of words. Now, there is some argument among linguists and biologists and so on regarding how language came about (are we born with it hardwired in or do we learn it/not learn it according to environment), but regardless of that, the simple fact remains that words are the very stuff of creation. What’s more, language is basically just a metaphor – it exists at what Postman says is “at considerable remove from the reality of the world itself.”
Consider any object. Can you see the back of it? Obviously not unless you turn it around, but then, of course, you can’t see the front anymore. Indeed, you cannot ever see all of an object at once without using a series of mirrors, and even then you are only seeing reflections and images of that object’s full self. Nevertheless, if you look at the coffee mug on your desk , you know its shape and its function and its color and, despite no current sensory evidence, you are able to conceive of it without needing to see it. This, Postman insists, is the function words serve. They are metaphors and metaphors, he says, are “organs of perception.”
This brings me, as it always seems to, back to fantasy literature. Magic, as it is commonly portrayed, is almost always somehow verbal in nature: speak the magic words, know the magic incantations, write the magic runes, speak a thing’s True Name, etc.. Tolkien has Middle Earth sung into existence, Le Guin has Ged the Wizard work his magic by speaking the names of things, and Rothfuss’s Kvothe wishes for nothing more than to Speak the Name of the Wind. Historically, this is an ancient belief and custom – we can see it in the Gospel of Saint John just as we can see it in the beliefs of the ancient Hebrew Kabbalists and even the ancient Sumerians who saw names and writing and speech as somehow magical in nature.
What’s interesting about this is that those ancient cultures were right! Words are magical, and not in some mealy-mouthed “inspire you to write and love books” way, either. They are actually magical in the sense that they are what gives the world shape or, rather, enable us to shape the world around us into something understandable. One cannot stare into a void without having a word for void or, rather, if you were to stare into the void (or anything else for that matter) without words, you would have no way to think about the experience outside of dull, animal impressions. Words – how we use them, where we use them, when we use them – have real, actual power over the world around us and the people we meet.
To study words, to understand them, and to wield them is to hold real power. No magic wands required.
Taken from Chapters 177-179 of the Book of Hann, the Verisi Standard Translation, in the 23rd year of Keeper Estherick II
So it came to pass that the Hann, God of Men, called Longstrider, came to lead mankind out of the Taqar and to the shores of the Sea. Long had been the journey from the Hearth, and the race of men had swelled to many multitudes. The young men had become grandfathers; ancestors of great families, accomplished in deed and bravery.
The land was as Hann had described it – lush and alive with fruits and game. The great beasts of the Taqar were behind them, as were the barbarous children of Melich and of Xarn. They pitched their tents, and a great cheer went up among the people. There was feasting and dancing. Hann’s great pavilion was at its center, and there the chiefs of men attended him and heeded his counsel. This continued for days.
Then came Ulor, the Lone Wanderer, Speaker of Truths, to the great camp. The faithless God, the cause of the Exile, was waiting for them here, in the promised land of Alandar. Though the sentinels of the camp challenged him, none could hinder his passage, for he was the blood of Ozdai, All-Father, and no mortal was his equal.
Hann welcomed his brother, as was fitting, but all knew that Ulor, the Thankless, held no love for his brother. They went outside the camp, and there strove with one another with word and body and art, for three days. The people dared not come close, for the skies cracked and thundered with their anger.
On the morning of the fourth day, Ulor was gone. Hann returned, weary from his struggle, seated upon Equ, the Father of Horses. When the people had gathered, he spoke to them.
“I must leave you now. A father must always know when to let his children earn their own place in this house. So I have led you out of suffering and hardship and into the sun, and now I leave you to make your own fortune. Remember my wisdom and my faith in you; be not greedy and selfish, but defend one another and love one another as I have loved you. Guard your souls from the predations of the world and the temptations of darkness. Seek not ease, but kinship. When you die, I shall come to guide your spirits home to the Hearth, where you shall sup with my Father. This I swear.”
“In time you shall fall upon one another with dagger and club. You shall spill the blood of your cousins and your sisters’ children. You shall take dominion of the world and squander it on yourself, for deep in your hearts Ulor has placed a dark seed – love of yourself. This I say will come to pass, and those who succumb to the dark whisperings of my brother I shall not guide to their reward. They shall be left to wander back alone and lost. This I swear.”
There was much weeping. Hann silenced them with a thunderclap, and spoke a final time.
“When, after the long age of struggle, you have once again united yourselves; when my children stand united against the lesser beings of the world and when you join again as one tribe under the wide sky, then I shall return to you. For at that time the goodness of your hearts will be smiled upon by my father, and the Exile will be at an end. Then we shall once again travel across the vast wastes of the Taqar, and brave the same dangers, and walk the same stony paths, but this time to return to the Hearth, and there dwell for all time.”
“This I swear.”
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.