Religion in Fantasy: Finding Meaning in the Madness

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Last Updated on March 30, 2022

Conversations about religion can be difficult. It is a subject that tends to evoke great passion and strong opinions. From a staunch atheist to the most extreme believer and everyone in between, religion touches on nerves like nothing else. There is no denying the way it has shaped life on this planet and the way we interact with one another.

With that in mind, it is easy to see why fantasy writers have often used religion to explore the human condition and shine a light on both its positive and negative aspects. We have used religion to find meaning in the wondrous and make sense of the mysterious. Throughout history, religion has been used as a way to make sense of the world around us. Fantasy writers have used religion, in the same way, to give life to their own worlds. Some authors create alternative versions of real religions whilst others have created whole new secondary religions. Fantasy’s development from its beginnings has been intertwined with mythology and folklore and its links with religion are impossible to ignore. Religion can often be used as a way of developing a shorthand with the reader for certain races or species, just look at the differing gods and religions within the World of Warhammer as examples. It is easy to get a clear understanding of what to expect from those who worship Gork and Mork, the twin gods of the Greenskin races. They are gods of brutal cunning and cunning brutality. Straight away, it is clear that those who worship these deities are up for a fight and chaos may follow.

One of the earliest forms of western literature is attributed to Homer: The Iliad and Odyssey. Along with the Epic of Gilgamesh, these texts set a template that many adventure stories follow. They each involve gods meddling in the world of man. When reading about characters such as Achilles, Hector, Paris, and Agamemnon, it is easy to see the parallels with the popular superheroes of today from Marvel and DC. In Ancient Greece, these stories were used for entertainment but also as a cautionary warning (Icarus flying too close to the sun and Pandora’s Box unleashing suffering into the world due to the curiosity of one person). The Gods were used to explain things that science had not yet been able to touch upon. Zeus threw lightning bolts and that explained the storms raging over the Aegean Sea. Soldiers would ensure fallen warriors were left with coins over their eyes as payment for the boatman as they passed into the underworld ruled by Hades. William Shakespeare, one of the biggest influences on literature, built on the tragedies and comedies of Ancient Greece, using the tragic nature of texts such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone when adapting his own plays such as The Tempest, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare had to be careful with his writing as the Elizabethan era was one of great conflict between Catholics and Protestants in England. Due to this, witches and monsters were used metaphorically in place of some prominent religious members of society to ensure that Old Bill wouldn’t lose his head like some of his peers. The stories of his time still had that supernatural and fantastical element to them, but writers needed to be careful when commenting on religion. The King James Bible, published in 1611, is the only text to have contributed more phrases to the English language than Shakespeare’s works. Phrases such as ‘a fly in the ointment’ and ‘do we see eye to eye’ originated in this version of the Bible and is proof of the influence of religion on literature throughout the ages.

The 1600s was an important century for the development of language and literature in the West. Eastern texts progressed greatly during the Golden Age of Islam, as well as the growth of Baghdad and its Great Library centred on the Silk Road. The East had thrived with texts such as One Thousand and One Nights (including tales stories involving Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad) whilst the West was lost in the Dark Ages. Finally, however, there were sparks of light.

John Milton, a blind, religious writer produced his greatest work, the epic poem titled Paradise Lost. Milton took the story of the fall of man from the Bible and explored it from the perspective of the greatest villain of his time: Lucifer himself, Satan. Grimdark is known for its love of anti-heroes and the genre owes a debt of gratitude to Milton and his epic poem. The blind writer used Tiresias like wisdom and foresight to dive deep into the mind of one of the most hated characters from all of literature and explore why he may have acted that way. Feeling betrayed that God would hand over a paradise to puny humans, Lucifer acts out and takes the lead of his own army of disgruntled angels in defiance of their creator. Paradise Lost is a tale of rebellion and of longing and a need for redemption. Many great tales have been written since but not many touches on the emotion and the feeling imbued in Milton’s greatest work.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials builds on the foundation set by Milton and continues the fall of man story as Pullman draws on his own beliefs to portray a world in which religion is abused in that those in power use it as an instrument of control rather than for the betterment of the world. The Amber Spyglass involves a scene where a withered and frail God is killed in a holy war to end the corruption of the Church-like organisation and ensure freedom for all. Such texts would have led to beheading in Elizabethan England!

There’s no use in discussing religion in fantasy without mentioning the daddy of it all: JRR Tolkien. Though works such as Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul were written before Tolkien’s masterpiece Lord of the Rings, it is the adventure of hobbits, elves, men, and dwarves that is seen as the beginning of modern fantasy. Tolkien’s works include religion mainly in the appendices and in his unfinished The Silmarillion. Elves and wizards are nearly immortal beings doing their best in Middle-earth before sailing away to a Heaven-like dwelling. They carried dreadful burdens and sacrificed much for the greater good to reach this plane. It is in moments like these that Tolkien’s faith can be found. More subtle and focused on themes than C. S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia where the allegory is front and centre as Aslan the Lion plays the role of Jesus as he dies and returns to save his people.

Modern fantasy and grimdark in particular have used religion as part of the worldbuilding process and as a way of commenting on the use of power, both for good and bad. Game of Thrones shows the dangers of cults and especially the danger in believing charismatic figures. The books and the TV series do not shy away from the pain and suffering caused by those with blind faith, or how people with nothing to hold on to can be so easily manipulated. The rise of extremism in such stories reflects history and shines a light on the dangers caused by a cult of personality. In The First Law trilogy, Abercrombie has a monotheistic religion that has been corrupted by Khalul, who is now called The Prophet. In a genre that is known for its focus on the human condition and the fallibility of man, grimdark is perfect for exploring religion in its blood-soaked pages. Last year alone provided books such as Stephen Aryan’s The Coward and G R Matthews Seven Deaths of an Empire look at how religion can be exploited by individuals for their own gain and the way in which it can both drive people and nations apart or bring them together.

Religion can be divisive and spark uncomfortable conversations but that is what fantasy, and in particular grimdark, does so well. It gets people talking. It opens a platform for discussion and allows readers to study who we are as humans living on this big rock that is hurtling through space at an unfathomable speed. Fantasy, and literature in general, throughout the ages has allowed a safe (most of the time) space to comment on the world and the mysteries around us and allows readers the opportunity to reflect on their place and what it means to be human, long may that continue.

This article was originally published in Grimdark Magazine #29.

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Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones

Aaron S. Jones is the author of Memories of Blood and Shadow, and The Broken Gods trilogy. He is Head of School at a school in Kent, UK and when he is not tearing his hair out at students struggling with their, they're and there, he is tearing his hair out as he dies for the thousandth time on Elden Ring. You can find him on Twitter @HereticASjones where he is most likely procrastinating for hours at a time instead of focusing on his Orc murder mystery.

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