Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On Religion in Fantasy

I have read a spate of books lately with heavy doses of religion, both made up and from the real world. That got me to thinking about how careful authors must be when portraying religion. Because most of the time, they don't do it well and to me it just comes across as . . . well . . . hokey.

For the non-native English speakers who read this blog, that means insincere, flimsy, unbelievable, unconvincing.

Most of the time, I just grit my teeth and read on. Sometimes it makes me set the book aside in exasperation for a while. Rarely will it be the reason I give up on a book, although recently, one book came close.

I think the problem comes when the author attempts to portray a religious conversion, or a devoutly religious person. It's hard without seeming dogmatic. It's damned hard. Even when the classics do it right, it can come across as overdone.

Here are some examples of religion in fantasy and in the classics, and how it came across to me as a reader. I was going to include excerpts, but if I do that, this post will take a month to write.

One classic that did it right was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. When Jean Valjean encountered the bishop at the beginning of the story, he was a desperate man, cornered by society into a life where he could only support himself by turning to crime. So he stole the silver from the priest. And when he was caught, the priest gave him the candlesticks along with the rest of the silver, explaining to the gendarmes that Jean Valjean had forgotten them. And with a simple--but generous--act of charity, Jean Valjean was a changed man. For the reader, it works. Christianity is a theme through the rest of the novel, but nowhere does it overwhelm the plot. Politics occasionally does, but that's the subject of another rant. (Tip: if you read it, find an abridged version.)

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park came across a bit heavy-handed, in my opinion, when it came to religion. It is my least favorite of Jane Austen's novels (but I still enjoyed it enough to read it several times). Fanny and Edmund were just so dogmatic and serious. I was glad to see her lighten up and have a bit of fun toward the end. When I read it for the first time, I really wanted to see a true Henry Crawford conversion, whether or not Fanny fell in love with him. I was disappointed.

In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Christianity comes up from time to time. Christianity is banned, but one of Ender's friends was raised with a smattering of clandestine religion. Ender himself had an illegal Baptism. Even though Orson Scott Card is deeply religious, the novel didn't come across as heavy handed. A while back, I wanted to read Orscon Scott Card's Old Testament novels, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel and Leah. Has anyone read any of those?

Dragonlance occasionally came on a little too strong, mostly during Goldmoon's conversion. But for the rest of the trilogy, I enjoyed the interaction between the gods and the characters. The humorous touch was the right touch--as readers, we obviously weren't supposed to take it very seriously. When the god unmasked himself toward the end, it really worked. (You've got to admit him carrying the fallen companion off into the hereafter was a stroke of brilliance.) When the rest of the companions met with the god after the final conflict in a sort of epilogue, there was a bit of discomfort, but the authors compensated for it somewhat by making the characters uncomfortable as well.

In The Deed of Paksenarrion Paks' conversion was overdone and really unconvincing, given the earlier doubts that the author had set up. It felt forced and wrong. I winced through almost the entire final volume--and this is one of my favorite novels.

One of the recent books I read was Hawkspar, by Holly Lisle. She obviously learned how to handle religion. In The Secret Texts, an early trilogy of hers, there were over-the-top religious conversions that were so unconvincing that for a long time I thought someone had put a spell on the characters. Then, I realized that there was no spell. In Hawkspar, it was much more subtly handled. I guess it helped in my mind that much of the religion turned out to be false.

There is a goddess in The Sword-Edged Blonde, but Eddie never worshiped her (thank God!). As a goddess, she had lots of limitations that made her somewhat less than omniscient. She didn't know what it was like to be a human, for one. She had interesting flaws and vulnerabilities and was a study in selfishness without seeming evil. Flawed gods are fine with me because then they aren't really gods, are they?

I'll leave the religion in Betraying Season until I write my review for it. For now, I'll just call it a "thumbs down" portrayal.

For Star Wars, I contradict myself. I enjoyed the concept of the Force much more when it was an "ancient religion" than when it was some sort quirk of DNA, or an aberrant cell, or whatever "mitachlorians" were.

If an author is going to include religion, I'd rather it be used like salt--sparingly. If there's just enough salt, it adds a nice flavor to the book. Too salty and the flavor is too strong to stomach. I don't read fantasy for religion; for that I read The Bible. (And I actually don't read that for "religion" per se, I read it to learn more about my faith.) Even in Christian literature, people are often put off by it because it has a reputation of coming on too strong.

Think of the movie, It's a Wonderful Life. An engaging plot mixed with a touch of religion that carries a powerful message. That's how it should be done.


Todd Newton said...

Interesting view. With my own fantasy story (The Ninth Avatar), I wanted religion to play a major role but not be the "thrust" of the story as it were. The religion of the main character is basically modeled off of mystical Christianity and is both integral to her receiving the vision and the "church" later splitting into pro-male and pro-female factions. Even "magic" is sort of a religion, but there are no "conversions" in my story, so you can feel safe there, but I think religion is an important part of learning about a fantasy world's culture (and making it believable).

I'm totally with you on the Star Wars thing, along with 99% of the Earth's population. Someone needs to delete the concept of "miticlorians" and start over... scrap the three prequels and make them with the same mystic quality as the original trilogy.

Cheryl said...

Well said. I'm afraid that far too many fantasy novels get their ideas about religion out of Dungeons & Dragons.

SparklingBlue said...

In The Gemsinger Chronicles, I have a goddess (named Meikon) but she created the mystical items that do her work in the world--the Twelve Stones of Power (which match up to the twelve birthstones on the Earth calendar) That said, religion itself isn't referred to very much beyond "Seers" (who are more like sages than priests) and the Holders of the Twelve Stones (who guard the places where the Twelve Stones are said to lie)

Lenore Appelhans said...

Les Miserables is a great example of religion done right.

I've always like the Pendragon Cycle from Stephan Lawhead too (Talesin, Merlin, Arthur).

acpaul said...

"mitachlorians" = mitochondria, of course. Basic cell bio. ;)

I think religion has a better chance of working in fantasy if it's done right.

Bujold's Curse of Chalion and Hodgell's Godstalk leap to mind as examples of religion done well.

Frances said...

This is a marvelous article. I have been thinking about a similar article for Frances Writes. May I link to yours? I am moving at halfast right now, so I'm not sure when it will be.

Nikki said...

I completely agree with this assessment. While I consider my faith a very important part of my life, I steer clear of books that have religion in them because it always feels so contrived. Even though I love the Chronicles of Narnia, there are some points that are so heavy-handed I have to cringe. In my own novel, the central conflict is essentially one of angels versus demons, but I've changed it so much that it no longer really fits that mold. I'm positive that my beliefs impact how I write the characters, but too much religion in a fantasy novel can definitely leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

Janet said...

I'm tackling this one head on in the novel I'm writing. I'm doing my very best not to make it cringe-worthy. Hope I'm succeeding.

Tia Nevitt said...

I tried to respond to this at work (during lunch!) but the outbound traffic police interfered. And of course, I've forgotten what I wanted to say!

Thank you, Frances. I adore links.

One of my unpublished novels has a major religion in it, but it all turns out to be false. Of course, the reader doesn't know that up front. It has been difficult to avoid being heavy-handed, so I know from experience how hard it is to have the right touch.

Neil Richard said...

Wow. Should I pray to you and your awesome analysis of religion? Maybe later.

For me, religion only works in a book if it works in my head. I'm a big Star Wars geek and the whole Force thing worked for me. Until the prequels and the blood tests and the what? No, you don't mean mitichlo-what? Seriously Lucas, you need a do-over on that one.

The rest of your references are lost on me. Except for It's A Wonderful Life of course, and I'll agree that it works quite well in the movie.

Other books that have a religion that stand out are Salvatore's Demon Wars books. While religion and magic are intertwined, it works. It's based on some concepts I can understand and wrap my head around.

Stirling's Change books are the same. While there is a ton of Wiccan in there, it doesn't bother me. I "get it." Until his latest installment, Scourge of God. Now things are just starting to get, well, bizarre.

Tia Nevitt said...

Sorry. I don't hear prayers. But thank you; glad you enjoyed it.

Kimber Li said...

I believe all human beings are spiritual beings, whether they believe in a supreme being(s) or not. Since stories need to be relatable to by readers, I think some kind of spirituality is vital. It must be done or it comes across as totally lame. Maybe it's difficult to pull off because writers worry about offending one religion or another or maybe they don't pay much attention to their own spirituality and, therefore, can't bring that experience to the story in same way.

Wow, that was a long sentence.

It's always a delight to read a story which handles spirituality well.

Unknown said...

{thoughtful look}

I think you're right. Too often books fail to find the middle ground between not pushing the author's religion and not respecting the characters' religion.

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

Lauren said...

This is a very interesting post. I actually mulled over thinking about it all day yesterday because of how interesting I thought it was.

I think that the religion depends greatly on the genre. In fantasy having some form of god is almost a mainstay.

If there is going to be a god, I like a flawed god. When I was a kid (too old for YA, but still a kid) I preferred the black and white elements that a god gave to a novel, but now I much prefer the introspection and interactions that come from a world that has a tinge (or inundation) of gray--which really doesn't happen with a perfect and perfectly evil power.

I agree with what TD Newton said about religion helping a reader learn about a fantasy's world culture and making it believable. Pretty much all human cultures have some form of god(s).

Often I think that a devoutly religious character can become a cardboard cut out pretty quick. Especially if it is an important character. No mater how devout you are, there will be times when faith slips and if this never happens to the character, they seem highly unbelievable.

I think a writer needs to use religion like salt as you say. That being said, there is a market for Christian literature. :-P Just make sure to put it in the right genre.

Anonymous said...

Nice article, Tia! It's funny, but it's been a while since I've been put off by a religious portrayal in fantasy work. Maybe it's because I haven't read much fantasy lately.

I've been mulling over how to portray some religious characters in my current writing project. It's tough, especially when the characters' religions deviate from my own Christian background. On one hand it's easier, because I get to make everything up, but the hard part is then selling it to the reader.

Your post definitely serves as a good starting point for what works and what doesn't.

On a related note, over at Books Under the Bridge, we had a few posts on Religion in Sci-Fi a while back that you might find interesting (I post there as Billy Goat - Hi!).

Hmm, now that I think about it a little more, I recently read Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air which contained a fair bit of religion for its Steamman race (it's Steam Punk). I thought it worked, but I'd be curious to hear your take if you ever get around to reading it. :)

Anonymous said...

I think it's hard to be objective about religion, especially if it's a real-world religion or based on one, which makes it difficult to portray it truthfully. I think too much religion can insert an outside agenda into the story, which makes the story ring false and seem hokey.

The Les Miserables example is an excellent one, IMO. It's a "show, don't tell" approach to religion.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks for all the comments that came in while I was sick and neglectful of this blog.

I do enjoy flawed "gods". The gods in the ancient world were hugely flawed. My unpublished novel, Forging a Legend, is about the downfall of a pantheon of flawed gods.

Religious portrayals have even popped up in some SF for me recently, including PEACEKEEPER, which I'm reading now. I'll have more to say on that when I post the review.