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.
Pure polytheism probably vies with pure theism for the most used religious manifestation in fantasy. In fact, it probably wins out. There are good reasons for this, I think, and some interesting facts about this manifestation of the divine that are worth thinking about.
Firstly, it must be noted that polytheism died out in the West between 800 and 1600 years ago, depending on the part of Europe you are looking at. Therefore, we are dealing with something that, in the Western mind, is purely fantasy. The roots of the modern genre as laid down in the early and middle part of the Twentieth Century show a heavy reliance on Greco-Roman and Germanic-Norse mythology, which are, of course, polytheistic in nature. There is also something in the Western mind that equates polytheistic belief with a more primitive thought pattern, and therefore it becomes a requisite in pre-modern fantasy worlds.
Let’s think briefly about the nature of the gods as they are presented in fantasy. I find two primary types: personal gods and anthropomorphized natural forces. The personal gods are like the Greek gods as they appear in Homer. They are physical, they meddle, and they have distinct personalities. The other sort of god is the exact opposite: they do not manifest physically, they typically don’t meddle, and they don’t have much in the way of distinct personalities. As the first sort is more commonly understood and easily grasped, I will take a moment to focus in on the second sort, which I think is actually becoming much more prevalent in the fantasy genre than the first.
In some senses, these “natural force” gods are related to the dualist gods in the last post, as well as the deist god. They are often used in stories to question the very existence of any god, polytheistic or monotheistic, for they seem so distant from the characters. Their lack of involvement in human affairs is a centerpiece of the mythology, and it certainly puts the onus on the heroes to perform without any hope of a true deus ex machina moment. This is not a bad thing at all, and it accords nicely with a contemporary naturalistic worldview. There is another draw, of course, and that is the lack of filling in pages of back story on each of the gods, for all they need is a name and association, and the writer can let the mysteriousness of them do the rest. That may sound as though I am cheapening this form of deity, but many authors are not interested in the finer points of theology—or at least it has no place in their stories—and so this sort of polytheism is a nice workaround to give the appearance of religion without having to go into much depth.
As I’ve mentioned Richard Dawkins before, let me mention one of his detractors, Oxford mathematician John Lennox, who points out in several places that polytheism has much in common with naturalism as a world view, more than one would expect, and in many ways more than in common with monotheism. What does he mean by that? Well, the “god” of atheism and naturalism is nature itself, and polytheism is usually nothing but personification of natural forces. It is important to note that almost all polytheistic pantheons in fantasy (and certainly all in real life) are created gods, or non-eternal in nature. They form out of some primordial state. They are natural beings, just of a higher sort than humans.
It boils down, again, to where an author begins. A God-believing author may use a polytheistic universe because she is uncomfortable presenting some form of God as a fantasy and so will use what is clearly fantastic in its place. Alternatively, as I have done in The Ossian Chronicles books, polytheism could be used as a false religion (worshiping either imaginary or very real, but evil, gods). For an agnostic or atheist, polytheism is yet again another fantasy, and just as appropriate as a monotheistic god would be. Or, a thoughtful atheist may already recognize that all he is doing is personifying the very forces of nature he believes are behind everything to begin with, which accords well with the theory of the origin of polytheistic belief in Earth’s past. On which thought, we will end, to take up atheism in fantasy next time.