Religion is an integral part of every society in this world, and thus it comes as no surprise that religion often features so prominently in fantasy literature, wherein authors construct imaginary worlds that must balance the fantastic with the believable in a way few other genres have to deal with. The issue I want to explore is how various authors approach this most delicate of human subjects. They say one should never discuss religion with the barber, but as cyberspace doesn’t have a razor blade in hand, I shall take my chances here.
My capitalization of the term “God” will strike some as idiosyncratic, I’m sure, but I’ve tried to consistently capitalize only when the term applies to the Judea-Christian God of our world. Any similar god in another fantasy universe is written in lowercase, unless such a parallel to the real-world God is implied, necessary, or explicit.
We move from forms of monotheism into the most basic form of polytheism, a dual-god belief, usually positing a good and evil god. There are a couple of different ways that this can manifest itself, which we shall examine below and consider the reasons why a fantasy author might choose one or the other whilst creating a fantasy mythology.
The purest form of dualism presents two gods who are very similar in form (often even called twins, or brothers) but with opposite personalities or metaphoric traits. The two gods are both essentially as powerful as the other, with the one god creating and the other destroying. These often stand metaphorically for the natural powers of Creation and Destruction/Ruin. In this pure form of dualism, these gods are physically realized within the fantasy world, battling in the cosmos and seeing their eternal struggle reflected in the story. The metaphoric applications here seem to be the biggest draw for fantasy writers, and especially for those who are non-religious in any traditional sense. It fits well with a contemporary naturalistic theory that chaos creates order which descends to chaos again. In fact, so far as I can tell, dualism is the most compatible form of deity with the modern naturalistic position, and therefore is a great draw for some authors, making it a fairly common form of religion in the fantasy genre.
Closely allied to this form of dualism is a purely metaphoric duality of gods. In other words, the gods aren’t real, per se, but they are merely names or descriptors given to the equal and opposite properties of creation and ruin, or good and evil (which are not necessarily the same). The distinction between metaphoric and physical dualism is a fine one, and is usually revealed by the characters in the story and the way they refer to the gods. The metaphoric dualism is usually more mystical or vague in nature, and the gods are usually called simply by their roles in the mythology, i.e. the Creator, Ruin, etc. This is even more clearly aligned with naturalism and the way it has almost deified the concept of Chance.
The third major form of dualism is a blend of the two above, and can often be mistaken for monotheism. It suggests a literal good deity and a metaphoric evil force. This is the form of god seen in the real-world religion of Zoroastrianism. Evil, in a monotheistic sense, is a by-product of the god’s creation (by-product in one of two ways: an unintended consequence, or a description of the absence of good). Evil in this hybrid dualist sense is external to the good god, and therefore equally eternal and, in some cases, equally as powerful. The powers of good, however, tend to have a higher chance of success in such a universe than in a purely dualistic view as described above. The reason for this is the relative nature of good to evil, in that good being physical has more to work with, so to speak, is more active and can think for itself, and is therefore more likely to come off best in a struggle. The converse is that evil is never totally and finally defeated, for being eternal, it persists, requiring new heroes every so often.
Dualism is in many ways a system that arises out of pure observation. We look around us and see good and evil. We see good win sometimes, and we see evil win other times. But there never seems to be an absolute triumph of one over the other, and as such it is easy to deify the two poles. Likewise, we see creation and destruction, which are not necessarily to be aligned neatly with good and evil, though this will depend on the author’s own intents.
Even fantasy novels that expressly suggest a monotheistic god or a polytheistic pantheon still tend to play up good and evil to near-deified levels. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a good example of this, for read on its own, there seems to be a metaphoric dualism in place (or, perhaps, the hybrid form with Sauron being the physical god and good being metaphoric). But the entire context of Tolkien’s Middle-earth works demonstrates, of course, a fantasy mythology much closer to the monotheistic model than the dualist, though the argument could be made (and I shall in the next section) that his universe is really a hybrid monotheist-polytheist one.