I recently read The Red Knight by Miles Cameron and it provoked a mixed reaction in me. Without getting too long-winded, I absolutely loved some bits – for example, I thought some of the action scenes in particular were far better than even the biggest names in the genre offer up – but had significant issues with other parts. Of those, one that really struck me was the use of Christianity as the significant religion and while I stand by my opinions on it, at the same time I felt a certain inherent absurdity in my own argument.

Put simply, in a world with monsters and magic (whether or not it was sortof England) I found it looked rather ridiculous to use Christianity as a religious background. Now I might be an atheist, but even I have to admit Christianity is at the very least, no less illogical and baseless than a religion Cameron might have made up, yet I found its place in the book far less plausible.

Now logic doesn’t play a large part in religion. Whether you’re talking Norse myths where (as memory serves) a god’s born of basically nothingness and the first thing he sees is a cow, or Japanese where a god creates the land by stirring the sea with a spear (presumably creating all raw materials needed for spears let alone reasons to need a spear such as hunting anything but spontaneously-created cows), doing the 5-year-old thing of asking where the cow came from doesn’t serve much good.

But still, in a world with god-like creatures, powers that break the laws of physics and demons etc, I didn’t find it gelled with a real-world religion that’s clear about preferring blind faith to practical demonstrations. How could such a religion survive in a world where some monster can appear and say ‘I’ll see your imaginary-best-friend with his loving-thy-neighbour and I’ll raise you a big-ass fireball conjured from thin air’? The demons in this world were physical beings rather than denizens of a lower plane, neither Revelations nor Constantine, but the forces of God were mortal – just boosted by magic of their own that I think even had a common source. The only angel was secretive and suspect at best, hardly a warrior with a flaming sword come to help out.

In such a world, whenever you came into conflict with other faiths, would you not feel a bit despondent when supernatural forces are chewing their way through your ranks and the god you’re fighting for is conspicuously absent? I suspect I might end up standing before Saint Peter saying ‘well yeah, one true god maybe but the dude was flying and shooting lightning from his fingertips, so he kinda made the better argument about being god than a character in your bible’?

So what is it I’m looking for in a religion? Aside from smiting people with big-ass fireballs obviously. For that matter – what do I mean when I use the word ‘god’? Clearly not some all-powerful creator because what’s the point of any story if god can fix it all any time they want? But if they’re just powerful beings, what’s the difference between a god, demon or hippogriff? In my series, the Twilight Reign, they ended up being a sort of parasite in certain ways, beings of magic that were fed by belief from mortals. Priests are blessed with a faint touch of their spirit and act as the conduit of belief and worship in an observer effect sort of way. They might have created mortal life, but were affected by their followers still, both by their numbers and by the perception of their god.

There are some writers like Gaiman, Pratchett, Holdstock and Erikson who seem to understand belief and faith on a pretty fundamental level.

There are some writers like Gaiman, Pratchett, Holdstock and Erikson who seem to understand belief and faith on a pretty fundamental level – and I’d wager mostly from an outside perspective too. Certainly they all influenced my work and plot points of the Twilight Reign were worked out as I re-read Pratchett’s ideas on the god-worshipper relationship. All rather better-thought-out than anything I learned in church where I kept wanting to ask why this omniscient and omnipotent being felt the need to create a choir of angels just to sing his praises, or how he couldn’t fully defeat a minion whose army was outnumbered two-to-one.

I’ve seen a number of TV shows and movies with a Christian-style religion involved and they seem to adopt an unspoken conceit that the omnipotence is mostly PR and God and Satan are equal forces maintaining a balance. It does rather beg the question whether humanity becomes an experiment/game that rather ran away with things, but it does at least permit a level of freedom to explore a supernatural plot involving mortals. You rarely see what either faction actually gets out of the worship side of things however, it is just there and believers are expected to fall in line, but “ineffable” covers most things.

Cathedral Sanctifier by Michael C Hayes

Cathedral Sanctifier, Art by Michael C Hayes

But how vital is religion in a fantasy world?

But how vital is religion in a fantasy world? Is it a naturally occurring phenomenon or could a world be plausible without such trappings? In my part of town there are mosques, churches, two convents and a monastery, a Buddhist centre and likely other things I’ve not even noticed. A thriller version of my life would not even mention religion but the epic fantasy would still probably have to consider what effect it had on the setting at least, how it had shaped the world I live in.

I can’t help but feel that if you get to make up a world and write about people who live in it, just remember they all grew up too – all had parents and grandparents with the own histories, plus small-minded arseholes living down the street and telling them they weren’t living right. Without taking some time to consider the situation and maybe even give matters a little internal logic (more so than any you heard in Sunday school) you might find it look a little flat. Without doubt you could write a fantasy with a clear lack of religion, but there’s always the concern that either you have to spend ages explaining it or it looks like there’s a hole in your world-building. Fine for those who don’t like world-building, but for me to give a shit about the world I’m spending a year or two stuck inside, I tend to want to know how life works.

Without doubt, spending too long on the history will bore a reader and just cos you’ve got an impressive pantheon it doesn’t mean you should take it out in public but… It might just be the nerd in me, but I find it hard to take a fantasy seriously if it looks like the author couldn’t be bothered to spend longer than five minutes on a usually defining aspect of society. For all that I loved the earlier books in A Song of Ice and Fire, I found the religion/magic side a little jarring. The world has minimal magic and the Gods just are in some fashion, but then up pops a fire priestess who if I remember correctly is pretty hard to kill and has some serious magic at her disposal. You can’t help but wonder why no other gods seem to grant such power, but still manage to be considered a viable power in comparison. It’s not a major focus of the series/world so it doesn’t have the same effect as it would in the Twilight Reign, but still it pulled me up briefly.

But this is just my preferences; one of the good things about fantasy is the size of the sandbox you get to play in. Will I write gods into every novel I write? Absolutely not, doing the same thing over and over gets stale and the genre’s full of people looking to try something new – not all of them will make the big bucks but that’s life for you. Will I at least ask myself about gods in every setting I create, absolutely. People are curious about the world and where it came from, if my fictional people aren’t at least as curious I’ve got far bigger problems than world-building nerdery.

7 thoughts on “‘Gods: What Are They Good For?’ by Tom Lloyd”

  1. Totally on point, Tom. As much as any of us might like to deny it, religion is a central part of everyday life for most people on this planet. Even when you believe in no god(s), religion is still central to functioning in a civilization where everything was conceived in God we trust. Fantasy – especially epic fantasy – being so often allegorical, necessarily needs to deal with religion in some way. I would rather see it creatively explored and reinterpreted than smeared like the same old PB&J across the pages, but I find it difficult to believe any story if the characters within it don’t believe in something – even if that something is just the power within themselves. Lovely points – thanks for a great article.

  2. Thomas Whittaker says:

    While in theory the lack of god doing lots of stuff on the planet while demons are tossing fireballs around would be an issue, in practice it’s not.

    A lot of fantasy is based around Tolkein, where god exists but rarely intervenes. Tolkein gives three fairly solid reasons why gods might not intervene.

    1. When angelic beings war the devastation is immense as in the War of Wrath.

    2. Angelic beings are vulnerable to mortal men and superior technology (and magic can likewise be defeated by technology, as happens often in song of ice and fire).

    3. Through subtle manipulations by god the good guys do tend to win, and god seems to prefer subtlety to brutality.

    All of these assumptions make for fun novels and I’ve never had any issues with believing in them.

  3. B.T. says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish between two types of religion: religion of ancient societies who used displays of power (magic) as a means to explain things they didn’t understand, including the origin of their race; and more modern religions, who place an emphasis on faith rather than displays of power. In either case, the terms “the gods are fickle” or “the hero wasn’t worthy enough” were often used as an excuse for a god not exercising his power to aid the righteous. It’s a cop-out that exists through history, so I wouldn’t find it unusual to see this in a fantasy novel.

  4. Tom Lloyd says:

    Regarding the emphasis on faith, I agree but can’t help thinking that when this solely-faith-based system meets massive supernatural power, its foundations will start to look shaky. Our modern religions got away with it because no such confrontation occurred but you have it repeated over decades/centuries and the faithful might not be so moved?

  5. Willie Williams says:

    I am a very big epic fantasy fan, but I also am a christian who strongly believes. I am very aware that most authors don’t agree with my beliefs and at every opportunity they take shots at the religious. I just have to deal with it, but it is getting tiresome that all epic fantasies relies on the big bad naive, simple minded religious as the great evil every time. I think i would enjoy a world created without any religion it would be something fresh to read.

  6. Rose says:

    I’m a fantasy fangirl and fascinated by medieval theology.

    I agree that thinking about religion is very important to epic fantasy; in fact, some epic fantasy is constructed purely to examine religion in a sort of philosophy/morality vs. theology/tradition or church vs. science vs. magic. However, I don’t know that god(s) is necessarily the key. In a lot of good fantasy, there isn’t really so much of a divine system as a cosmic system of magic (see Garth Nix Abhorsen series for instance). What really needs to be addressed is good and evil and life and death, which can be done without a pantheon or organized religion, so long as there is something for the characters to believe in/fight for.

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