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18 April 2011 @ 07:14 am
TOTW: Religion in Fantasy  
“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”

~ J. R. R. Tolkien

Religion. It’s part of the world we live in, whatever our own personal beliefs. It’s shaped civilizations, been used both to justify atrocities and to inspire acts of great beauty and courage. It is a topic that many people avoid altogether, for fear of hurt feelings, insults, or ruffled feathers.

But that’s what we’re going to talk about today at the Inkpot! Specifically, religion in the context of YA and MG fantasy fiction.

First, we’ll consider the different types of treatment religion receives in fantasy fiction. Then we’ll talk about why authors might make the choice to include religion-- or not-- in their novels. And lastly we’ll consider some questions and ask all of you (Inkies and readers alike) to share your thoughts!

So first up, what are the different ways we can classify fantasy novels in terms of religion. I will propose three main categories:

1) Books where religion and/or atheism are not referred to at all.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t religion and/or atheism don’t exist in the world as the author sees it, only that have not been included in the book. As readers, we do not see them mentioned, even in passing.

2) Books where religion and/or atheism is implied, but where it does not impact the plot and characters.
There are mentions of religious holidays or of the existence of priests, gods, etc, but they do not directly affect the plot. Neither do we see the influence of any religious beliefs or atheism on the actions or choices of the protagonist. I would claim that any book that takes place in a real-world contemporary or historical setting falls into this category (if they do not fit into the following one, and actually bring religion into the story).

3) Books where religion and/or atheism exists, and it impacts the plot and characters to greater or lesser degrees.
This category contains a wide range of books, and could certainly be subdivided further based on the nature of the religion(s) depicted and the degree of impact on plot and characters.

So why would an author chose to include religion and/or atheism in the world of their novel?

In terms of setting, the inclusion of a religion can add richness, weight, and realism to a fantasy world. On a small scale it can provide the basis for a myriad small details: holidays, social conventions and taboos, superstitions, dietary restrictions, habits of dress, curses and blessings. On a large scale, an established religion may add complexity to the political and social landscape of the world.

In terms of plot, competing beliefs (or non-beliefs), tension between different sects or interpretations, and so on may add conflict to the larger world. Religious beliefs may drive politics and social change, may lead to war or provide support structures for the poor and needy. All these positive and negative elements impact the life of the protagonist, leading to both moments of crisis and despair as well as moments inspiration and comfort.

In terms of character, a recognition of religious beliefs, or a clear statement of atheism, may help to clarify and deepen the reasons why a character makes decisions. What is the basis of a characters morality and understanding of the meaning of life? Is a specific religion (or a disbelief in any higher power) informing the character’s understanding of right and wrong? Does the character believe in an afterlife? And how does the character make sense of powerful magics and supernatural beings, in the context of their own spiritual worldview?

And why would an author choose to avoid including religion and/or atheism in the world of their novel?

The author might simply not feel it is relevant to a particular story. Storytelling is not about creating an exact replica of life. It’s about choosing details, choosing the right moments and the right elements to create a fictional reality. It may be that in some cases religion is not one of those details that the author feels necessary to craft a specific story. As readers we must recognize that there are always going to be things we fill in for ourselves. And as authors, we recognize that there will always be things we know about our own worlds and characters that don’t make it onto the page. And if they aren’t on the page, we must allow our readers the freedom to fill them in. In some cases, one of those undefined elements may be religion. If the author doesn’t mention it, the reader may still assume it is there, or not there.

The author might chose to avoid including any religious references to avoid potential backlash, insult, etc. This is especially true, I think, when the religion is a real world faith or when a character clearly professes atheism. Both C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series have garnered backlash because of perceived religious and anti-religious statements. Some authors may be seeking to avoid that sort of controversy.

And lastly, some authors may chose to avoid including fictional religion in their fantasy worlds because of the own real-world beliefs preclude it.

And now it's your turn! What do you think?

Do you think a fully realized fantasy world should include religion(s)/atheism, whether they directly impact plot/characters or not?

What other reasons can you suggest as to why a writer might include religion/atheism in a fantasy world, or not?

For the writers: have you included relgions in your fantasy writing? Why or why not?

What are some of your favorite fantasies that include religion or religious themes?

Do you find that your own views on religion/atheism affect your decisions in terms of including religion(real-world or created) or atheism in your in your fantasy worlds?

Do you agree with Tolkien's quote at the top of this entry?

I’m going to put my own thoughts in a comment! Please join in the conversation!
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 11:19 am (UTC)
As a writer, I’ve written about worlds where there is a religion in the background, but where it doesn’t strongly impact the story (Fortune’s Folly), about worlds where I simply do not mention religion at all (The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle and Circus Galacticus) and about a world where religion is threaded strongly through both characters and plot (my current work-in-progress).

While I don’t think it is always necessary to include religion, it does strike me as an odd blank spot in a world that is otherwise marvelously and completely detailed. For example, I always sort of stumbled over the references in Harry Potter to celebrating Christmas. Even though the celebrations were decidedly secular, it made me wonder if any of the characters actually were Christian (or some other faith, or atheist) and how that impacted their perception of magic, the ghosts, etc. Likewise with other contemporary fantasies.

Some of my personal favorite fantasies that feature real or created religion, or that deal with religious themes, are Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Elizabeth C. Bunce’s StarCrossed, R. J. Anderson’s Wayfarer[US]/Rebel[UK], and Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series.
R.J. Anderson: Wayfarer - Lindenrj_anderson on April 18th, 2011 12:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you for mentioning Wayfarer. :D

I'm not quite sure I quite follow your suggestion that any book that takes place in a real-world contemporary or historical setting falls into th[e] category [of books where atheism or religion is implied but does not affect the characters or plot]. Because there are plenty of "realistic" books that deal directly with religion (Sara Zarr's Once Was Lost comes to mind), and I know there are also contemporary urban fantasies and paranormals that include religious elements in the plot (usually as part of the overarching mythology - i.e. vampires being repelled by holy water) or mention the protagonist's lack of religious belief as a significant element of their characterization/attitude toward the world.

Also, wouldn't Watership Down count as a real-world contemporary, even if it's about rabbits and their religion is, uh, rabbit-y? And also, well, Wayfarer, because in many ways the story wouldn't have happened in the first place if Timothy hadn't been going through a crisis of faith...
(no subject) - deva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 12:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rj_anderson on April 18th, 2011 01:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - rj_anderson on April 18th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kilerkki on April 18th, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - deva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:03 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Skylarkskyewishes on April 18th, 2011 11:40 am (UTC)
Great topic! I'm looking forward to reading everyone's thoughts.

I really enjoy reading Fantasies in secondary worlds that include well thought out and meaningful invented religions. My favourite example of this that I've read recently is Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days.

However in fantasy set in our own world, especially in modern times, deliberate references to Christianity tend to throw me out of the story, and I read on more warily. Even if there is no obvious preaching, Christian-fiction just isn't my genre usually.

There can often be religious themes included in stories where the author has not done so deliberately. Our values and ethics tend to be influenced by the culture we grew up in and whatever the dominant religion was there. Which is why western fiction tends to feature Good vs Evil as a common theme. It always amused me that Harry Potter got so much flak from some Christians, when the values in it seem very Christian to me, especially the whole prophesied-self sacrificing-chosen-one thing.
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, skyewishes! I haven't yet read Book of a Thousand Days and had not realized it included religious elements. I'm even more interested to read it now.

I'm curious (if you are willing to answer) -- do you find that deliberate references in contemp fantasy to religions other than Christianity have the same effect on you? Frex, references to Judaism or Buddhism?
(no subject) - skyewishes on April 18th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - olmue on April 18th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
nandinibnandinib on April 18th, 2011 01:01 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post. Religion in a fantasy world does add richness. The Attolia series, Starcursed, Ursilla K. LeGuin’s worlds (especially loved the world of The Telling) and others have so much depth because of it. There are books I love that make no mention of religion at all, but in general characters and societies with strongly held beliefs do make for interesting reading. In my own writing I have a character who struggles with her belief in the influence, or lack thereof, of the planets--astrology is huge in her society--and also falls in love with someone from another faith, one that her own family considers atheists. But, personally, I don’t enjoy storytelling that is too preachy or agenda driven.

On a side note ... if an existing religion or mythology is an obvious inspiration I think that the author should try to portray it responsibly. Especially if it is not well known to the intended readership and the author is writing from outside the tradition.
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
I agree completely on being responsible when drawing on existing religions/mythologies, Nandini. (And the themes of religion you describe in your own writing sound intriguing!)
R.J. Anderson: Rebel - Full Coverrj_anderson on April 18th, 2011 01:19 pm (UTC)
One of the things that was in my mind as I was writing Wayfarer was that I'd read a bunch of MG & YA novels -- including fantasy -- where the protagonist comes from some highly oppressive and controlling religious background, and has to escape that culture and reject those beliefs in order to find true freedom and self-actualization.

Which sometimes does happen, yes, and it makes for a very dramatic story, so it's no wonder that many authors (especially those who aren't particularly sympathetic to religion themselves, or who went through a similar experience of losing/rejecting religion) are drawn to that narrative.

But I'd never read a book where the protagonist goes through a genuine crisis and struggle with faith that wasn't tied to some world-shattering tragedy or abuse in their family or home church, but rather to the more personal, internal struggle that many teens go through as they try to sift through the ideas and values that have been handed down to them by others and figure out what they themselves really believe. And I'd definitely never read a story where the protagonist went through that process and didn't flat-out walk away from their beliefs in the end.

So for me, writing about Timothy's particular crisis of faith was a way of expressing something that I knew from personal experience to be realistic and true, but wasn't seeing reflected in the books I was reading.

And yet, since this was a fantasy adventure story, I wanted it to remain in the background and not take over the plot -- so before I sent the ms. to my editor I made sure to run the book past a number of people I knew were non-religious or came from different religious traditions, and ask them if they found it intrusive or preachy. (They didn't. But when the book came out, a couple of reviewers did. You can't please everyone.)
Rose Greenolmue on April 18th, 2011 02:19 pm (UTC)
"But I'd never read a book where the protagonist goes through a genuine crisis and struggle with faith that wasn't tied to some world-shattering tragedy or abuse in their family or home church, but rather to the more personal, internal struggle that many teens go through as they try to sift through the ideas and values that have been handed down to them by others and figure out what they themselves really believe. And I'd definitely never read a story where the protagonist went through that process and didn't flat-out walk away from their beliefs in the end."

That's what I found refreshing about your book, Rebecca.
(no subject) - leah_cypess on April 18th, 2011 02:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - deva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Rose Greenolmue on April 18th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
I know there are people who can't put religion and fantasy in the same sentence, but I was just reflecting this weekend while talking books that the books that carry the most weight and meaning for me are the ones that incorporate both. The books that make me *me* would have to be Narnia, Harry Potter, Madeleine' L'Engle. I love how the invented religion in Megan Whalen Turner's books works. Lord of the Rings. RJ Anderson's books. I'm fascinated by Brandon Sanderson's adult fantasies that always feature such a rich (completely invented) religious tradition. It's hard for me to imagine life without some kind of faith, so including it in a fantasy world makes the book all the more real and valuable to me. OTOH, I'm not bothered if a story *doesn't* mention religion, because one novel can't encapsulate everything. But my favorites, yes, have some kind of faith/miracles/sacrifice at the heart. The one kind of book I *don't* like is one with an explicit message to tear down someone else's beliefs. I'm all for learning why others think the way they do, even if it's very different from my own beliefs. But I'm not into religion-bashing.

Whether you explicitly include religion or not, though, I think fantasy still involves a belief in something (magic) that does not follow traditional laws (although it has its own logic, yes). Which in some ways makes it not too distant from religion anyway. Which is probably why fantasy appeals to me so much in the first place. It's a fight of good vs. evil, with extra elements added. And it allows people of many different faiths who might disagree heartily in real life to share in the inclusiveness of the story and enjoy things they do share in common.
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
I'm intrigued by the references to Brandon Sanderson here and elsewhere in the comments -- I'll have to check his work out!
(no subject) - olmue on April 18th, 2011 07:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:12 pm (UTC)
I'm enjoying seeing how the spiritual aspects of the HUNTRESS world are unfolding -- it feels very natural and integrated into the setting.
(Anonymous) on April 18th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
Religion in Fantasy
This is such an interesting topic, and I'll look forward to reading more comments. I find it interesting that, though Tolkien was a Christian, The Lord of the Rings doesn't have any overt belief system in the world of Middle Earth. It has been criticized for that by some, but I never missed the lack of religion in those books.

I think it's interesting when some kind of religion is portrayed in fantasy, though I tend to think it should have some bearing on the story, however slight, if it is included. To throw it in just for the sake of having it there doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that's just my opinion. I've read fantasies with and without belief systems, and have enjoyed it either way if the book is well written and the created world is convincing.
R.J. Anderson: Narnia - Aslan - It Is Finishedrj_anderson on April 18th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Religion in Fantasy
Tolkien's invented belief system comes out pretty clearly in The Silmarillion -- but you're right, it's not overt in LotR itself.

Tolkien's moral worldview, however -- the attributes he considers virtues and which are expressed by his heroic characters -- do reflect his Christianity, however.

I'd say the same is true of D.M. Cornish's Foundling series, where religion is not even mentioned in any way whatsoever, but a Christian moral worldview comes through subtly in the books nonetheless.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on April 18th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this post! It's an interesting subject. Myself? I've both included and excluded (except perhaps in passing) religion. To me it's about whether or not it has a real bearing on the story and the characters. And just another quick point - that even though I am Jewish, for example, I don't always write from that perspective. It depends on who the character is and what his beliefs are. :D
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, Lisa! It's great to hear how different folks have dealt with this!
Rachel: pelicaninsanexflame on April 18th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
I'm with almost everyone in this thread when it comes to loving fantasy that really incorporates religious themes (even if, as in the case of Harry Potter, religious themes do not imply the overt presence of religion itself in the book). Personally, I'm fascinated by religion and by rebirth stories. I think I share that interest with a lot of the YA community -- after all, coming of age and rebirth aren't so very different. One of the great advantages of speculative fiction is the fact that it allows writers to build new worlds, and thus gives them a fabulous opportunity to comment upon or critique our world's religions -- the His Dark Materials series comes to mind here, of course. Thus, I do love to read speculative fiction that includes religious themes.

That said, it's not a requirement for me -- I'm not one to judge someone by their religious beliefs, and that carries into my reading preferences. I think it is feasible that a society could be formed without specific religious beliefs, and so I don't usually feel its absence in an otherwise well-built world.

It's interesting that, while it seems like fantasy novels usually, or at least frequently, include religion, I feel like I rarely see it on television. One of the things that struck me most about Battlestar Galactica was the fact that it unabashedly explored religious belief and conflict, which felt like a breath of fresh air in mainstream media.
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(no subject) - insanexflame on April 22nd, 2011 12:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Jackiefabulousfrock on April 18th, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC)
I've never tackled religion as a primary element in a novel but I also dislike leaving it out entirely. Especially since so far I've been writing historically influenced fantasy, and religion was such an important part of people's lives in prior centuries (I mean, it still is, but most places you are no longer weird if you don't attend church!). The novel I'm writing now is set in a city inspired by 1920s Berlin and the main character actually attends church. Her faith is a source of strength for her but I never outright state that. Since I was homeschooled and I always acknowledge something like Christianity in my pseudo-European worlds some readers are probably going to think I'm religious! But I was actually raised in a totally new age-y way. That part of me comes through in my stories of the world of Arestin which I've been writing about since I was 12 (unpublished, as yet)...their religion is different, based more around reincarnation and how it is thought to work than around god.

I love seeing writers explore religious topics, especially in fantasy, where there is so much room to play with different ideas!
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
I agree very much about historical settings -- which is probably why even in second world fantasy I notice the lack. It's so pervasive throughout our real human history that even in an alternate world (be it Middle Earth or Tortall) I expect that the people of that world have at least asked questions about life after death, higher powers, good-and-evil, creation, etc.
(no subject) - fabulousfrock on April 18th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Heather Tomlinsoncalepin on April 18th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
“Storytelling is not about creating an exact replica of life. It’s about choosing details, choosing the right moments and the right elements to create a fictional reality. It may be that in some cases religion is not one of those details that the author feels necessary to craft a specific story. As readers we must recognize that there are always going to be things we fill in for ourselves.”

Yes, that rings true for me!

One thing I struggled with in crafting a fantasy world based on medieval Provence for The Swan Maiden was how religion was a major element in daily life of the era, but would likely have been hostile to the magical system I was developing. Yet it didn’t seem to me that my story was “about” the conflict between Christianity and magic. I ended up downplaying religious aspects to avoid having them take over the book. It’s been a while since I read The Wolf Hunt, by Gillian Bradshaw, but I think she integrates contemporary Breton religious views and magic very successfully.

For Toads and Diamonds, the opposite was true: the religious dynamic of the era I was researching struck me as a key to the resulting cultural richness. Religious differences drive a lot of the novel’s plot. Frankly, I was encouraged by Shannon Hale’s inventing a religion for Book of a Thousand Days to spin off my own, too, while trying, as Nandini recommends here, to respect the source.

Great topic and discussion!
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks for adding your comments, Heather! I'm even more intrigued by TOADS & DIAMONDS now! This post is really adding to my to-read list...
Zoe Marriottredzolah on April 18th, 2011 06:12 pm (UTC)
This post made me realise something that I hadn't consciously thought about before - religion plays a huge role in everything I've ever written. In the case of my second book (Daughter of the Flames) and the companion novel I'm writing now, this was a deliberate choice, because I wanted to write a story that inverted certain common fantasy tropes I had noticed (and which were also pointed out in Diana Wynne Jones' amazing The Tough Guide To Fantasyland).

However, in The Swan Kingdom and Shadows on the Moon, I never made any front-brain decision to create a world and characters which were inextricably entwined with religion. But I did. And thinking about it, even the contemporary urban fantasy story I've got brewing at the back of my head deals with this.

The weird thing? I'm not at all religious. I suppose it's just something that interests me in terms of storytelling. Or maybe reading Ursula K Le Guin, Megan Whalen Turner, Terry Pratchett and Tamora Pierce (all of whom ask the tough questions about religion in their work) at an early age did it. Hmmm.
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks for stopping by, Zoe! It's been fascinating to hear from other authors what influenced their own decisions about including religions in their worlds.

Also, I love that your new book was partly inspired by one of the tropes in TOUGH GUIDE!
(no subject) - redzolah on April 18th, 2011 07:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
A Deserving Porcupine: rebeccarockinlibrarian on April 18th, 2011 06:13 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree with the Tolkien quote. I've noticed that my own personal religious beliefs (not necessarily my religion itself, though it's definitely mixed together) are closely tied to my identity as a storylover/writer/fantasy-and-folklore-buff. The power of words, story, and myth may be at the root of my entire faith!

I do like when religion and fantasy blends together. I really like when the fantasy elements are incorporated into religion, rather than them being unconnected-- because it seems that one being true would either imply that the other is untrue, or is not only also true but somehow related. One of my favorite real-religions-incorporated-into-fantasy-magic-systems is in Diane Duane's Young Wizards books. I love how the magic system somehow manages to VALIDATE practically every religion that actually exists-- and this makes me believe in it more! I've actually tried to work out, in Young Wizards terminology, what the exact nature of Jesus would have been in that universe (and I think I've got it figured out, but I'm not saying what it is, because that would be a massive spoiler for Wizards at War). It's kind of funny exactly how many really interesting theological discussions I've had with myself which have used Young Wizards as a jumping-off point.

And-- maybe it's because I'm a believer, but maybe it's also because, as someone above said, it's so overdone-- I don't care so much for the books where traditional monotheistic religion is clearly The Bad Guy. It makes me want to say "YOU'RE MISSING THE POINT!" a lot (don't even ask me about The Amber Spyglass). I like to see belief explored deeply and treated with respect, and not torn down necessarily, particularly when the religion you're tearing down isn't even portrayed accurately. I am always fond of Possibilities, which is one of the reasons I'm a fantasy fan, and it feels like allowing for Possibility is just way more interesting and alive-feeling than throwing Possibilities away.
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
I remember really loving the concept of Timeheart when I first read the Young Wizards series. I haven't read WIZARDS AT WAR yet but it's on my to-read shelf waiting but once I have I will have to remember to ask you about your theory. :-)
ebooraem on April 18th, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
Fascinating post, Deva...and fascinating comments!

Re: Religion on tv. One of my favorite episodes on the original Star Trek back in the 60s was the one in which the Greek gods turned out to be from another planet, and had left Earth once humans stopped worshipping them. (Although I'll quickly add...one person's myth is another's religion.)

I had a bit of a religious conundrum in THE UNNAMEABLES, in which Island residents had essentially created a secular religion--perhaps moral system would be a better description. The secret backstory (not in the book) was that Island's founders were disaffected members of the Massachusetts Bay colony, and one reason they left was that they objected to the society's dogmatism--I think I got that across, but not the contribution of religion. The irony is that over time Islanders ended up replacing the original dogmatism with a much more restrictive version of their own.

I went around and around about whether to bring up their feelings about the religion they'd left behind. I decided it would be a distraction and would take the book in a direction I didn't want. I'm happy with that decision, but it was a tough one. Like so many of the other commenters, I think that understanding a society's religious background can be essential to understanding that society.
Devadeva_fagan on April 18th, 2011 07:25 pm (UTC)
It's funny Ellen, when I was thinking about this post I was looking at my bookshelf and saw the UNNAMEABLES and was wondering about that very question (if you had considered including religion) since I think it was pretty clear to me that the island had been founded by folks who would have come from a strong religious background. So I am glad to have this insight into your decision!
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on April 18th, 2011 07:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)