Realistic gods for fantasy literature

Here’s an idea.

When fantasy has gods, those gods tend to be quite clear-cut: either they’re good gods of all the modern virtues, or then abysmal villains.

Now, permit me to annoy you by taking an atheist point, and considering Yahweh, the Old Testament God, as he is written. He’s not a nice guy; you know the Dawkins words on that. You could paint Yahweh as a villain, if you were of a mind to write a novel of historical fantasy that would really piss off huge amounts of people; but don’t stop at that. Think instead about a god — or in the more general model of fantasy, gods — that are not so simple and agreeable.

Say there’s the mostly good god Eksa Amble, who is all for justice, taking care of your family, speaking out against evil… and also for the idea that all women are soulless semi-animals that can be bought, sold and mistreated any which way a man wants. And since this is fantasy, Eksa Amble really exists. He answers prayers. He hands out revelations. He can be consulted in person, and he tells the questioner that yes, that’s really his opinion; now away you soulless animal person. How would people behave as this went on and on? How would the society adapt?

(It would be a story to make you wash your hands if that god was actually right in the world of the story; also a story to make a lot of other people wash their hands as people tend to not understand writing Draka or Rage don’t mean you yourself support or see things like the story’s world is. That’s the mistake of a ham-fisted moralist. So for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that gods are idealists, and don’t always see the story’s world as it is, but more like how they’d like it to be.)

A carefully constructed story would have some cousin of Eksa Amble in it; morals and ethics are a horrendously involved and messy thing, after all. What’s the chance that a medieval god would make the exact same calls of judgment and value as we modern folks? Or remain carefully obscure about the same uncomfortable subjects? What’s Manwe’s position on divorce? How about Aldur on abortion? What about Paladine and euthanasia? Or Aslan and homosexuality?

What does it exactly mean when a fantasy god is said to be some vague Light, or the Good One? It’s a poor god whose only position is “er, find a farm boy and strike down the Dark One before the world is destroyed”. Most every real religion has more than that: rules about what is okay, what is good, and what’s a sin. Rules about the relation of man and god; rules about the relation of man and man. (Mostly they’re against it. Sorry; abominable joke.) Most rules differ. I understand these things are liable to cause an uproar if written since many readers don’t come to fantasy to see familiar moral conflicts rehashed in unfamiliar guises, especially conflicts their particular opinion doesn’t come out from well (and there’s no pleasing everyone; sometimes not even pleasing a commercial enough plurality); but it would be nice to see someone taking this idea of morally more explicit gods and riding it, seeing how such an explicit force of neutral order influences the people of the story.

(Just not Orson Scott Card. I don’t need to see a homophobe god who’s written earnestly. It’s nice that some authors have either the sense, editor or aversion necessary for not airing their prejudices too much in their fiction. I have a nasty suspicion, but I’m not going to depress myself by looking for a quote, that if Tolkien had been of the mind, he could have turned every single gay off enjoying his writings forever; but Gandalf didn’t opine about the matter.)

(Somewhat unrelated: somewhere round the net there’s a piece of fan fiction that has Sauron-Annatar and Celembrimbor the ring-maker as gay lovers. I understand it is graphic. Good old Catholic Professor Tolkien would no doubt spray his pipeweed across half Oxford if he was still around to know.)

(And why yes, of course I intend to re-find and read that piece sooner or later. I don’t read even nearly enough gay sex lit for variety as it is; I’m not going to find a pairing more likely to fire up my little hetero heart. Legolas, blecch, an elf without a character; but Sauron in a fair guise and Celebrimbor, a working scion of great and gone sires in a time of great doubt and promise? Oh yes; there’s a setting for some drama. And bodily fluids. Also, just possibly, abominable puns about rings.)

Come to think of it, someone with too much free time should find out how the personal moral stances of an author are reflected in the Good Gods they write. I understand Terry Goodkind, an Objectivist, writes stuff that has pretty uncommon morals, and no tolerance for pacifists and victims; myself, I think that makes his books all the more interesting. I’ve read the first four or five; and I loved not knowing just what the “good guys” would choose next. With standard fantasy you pretty much know they won’t abandon their friends, rape, murder the helpless, or the like; good morals no doubt, but the story gets so predictable at times because the sanctity of the heroes needs to be preserved, and the world bends round them rather than them making hard choices.

Actually, I think it’s almost disgusting to see yet another medieval world whose good gods are like card-carrying bleeding-heart Amnesty International humanists. Which, by the way, I say as an Amnesty International humanist (the bleeding was just for emphasis); shoehorning our own ideas in just to be comfortable with the cosmology you make seems not entirely unrelated to how some paintings tend to show Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed devil of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant type. Comfort and unambiguous cheerleading are overrated, if you ask me. People are nuanced enough to cheer Darth Vader even when they don’t think genocide’s a-okay.

But back to the subject of gods in fantasy.

Another thing: being all-powerful is a concept likely to kill the mind of logic; and it isn’t interesting plotting, either. This is quietly acknowledged in quite all fantasy; the gods are Greek instead of Christian; or at most Manichaean, a Good God against an Evil One, both equal in power. There needs to be some tension so the Good God can’t just intone “Let there be a Happy Ending”, and have it be so. (I don’t understand Christian fiction, really; isn’t it predicated on God being too lazy to do the stuff himself? He just whispers his will from the sidelines, confident in omnipotency that he will always win, one way or the other. Where’s the tension in such a set-up? If God wants you to win, you will; if not, you are screwed no matter what you do. The whole thing’s a rat race of the ignorant and the obliging.)

Now, there are a few observations that strike me, the atheist, as important. The first is that a fantasy with gods in it is not a situation like the real world. This real world of ours has no gods; or at best, has only fairly mute and restrained ones. No matter how the Pope asks, his God will not write the law in letters of fire on the sky; He merely whispers. The vast majority of us knows this is the case. No matter how a preacher calls for it, no unambiguous wrath of God crushes a place disagreeable to that preacher’s God; the preacher can only point at a disaster, and find explanations for it afterwards. We all kind of understand this is how things work, though we don’t always express it so. If those truly miraculous things really happened, if a God or gods were really, actively, openly responsive, people would behave much differently. To start with:

  • More orthodoxy. When a heretic is liable to be struck by lightning — or just to be given a talking-to by the Big Boss — there’s less wiggle room for variant interpretations and no room for splitters. (Then again, “accidents” full of supposed portent have always happened to inconvenient people; but a bolt of lightning from a clear sky is no accident.) Those that didn’t speak in the god’s voice but used the name would face a fate like an unlicensed Starbucks, or a “McDonnald” cafeteria with a golden double arch; except with more fire and gnashing of teeth.
  • More clarity. The god still might not answer all questions: who’s to say a god of this model would even be all-knowing and all that? For terror, imagine Yahweh staring at his sandals, muttering “I never thought about that before; but stoning-wise it would be…” But answers or no, at least people would be more sure which sayings were genuine, or accurate. (But would it be wise to use the god as a copy editor?)
  • More focus. Whether the god remained a voice from the light, or sat on a real throne somewhere, there would be a greater sense of someone really paying attention to things. Imagine a few soldiers gathered for a prayer… when a clearly audible voice and a great light appears. Think they would fight harder? (And soldiers with a god on their side might be supernaturally better, too.) How about if an incarnation, a “child of god”, possibly a bearded teacher chap in white, appeared to cheer and lead some particular endeavor? Imagine the Crusades with a physical, miracle-working Jesus leading them, with the Pope and Richard Lionheart by his side. (Imagine the clash when Saladin steps aside and a fellow with a veiled face and a flying horse steps forward, archangels flanking him, and hovering behind him the black stone mountain of Mecca following the Prophet of the Only God — wait, this perversion is getting too weird.)
  • More strife. Tolerance is easy when the gods stay hidden; as the soldiers of WWI could have a bit of unofficial armistice at the Western Front now and then, so religious people all through the ages have found it possible to not smite, convert and shun the infidel, because there hasn’t been someone breathing down their neck. What if those that meddled with outsiders had their blessings withdrawn? Real religions tend to place their rewards more and more into the supposed life after death; what if too much ecumenicism made demons boil out the ground and eat you alive? What if your god really openly told even the moderates that he (or she, or it) really wants this holy war; or wants the infidels expelled, even the dear and financially indispensable ones; or, to not be all gloomy, will not have the foreign ones hassled all the time. (“My god says it would be disrespect to yours to try to convert you.”) Holy wars, and holy detente?
  • Celestial politics. Suppose a pantheon of gods, each with a different “field of work”. People will then offer different prayers to each; but because there’s actual tangible fulfillment riding on these prayers, people would hone ways to pray to the right particular god in a particular right way, or to set gods off against each other to get the best results. (“Justitia, attend to me; give me a fair deal in my dealings. Chaotica, give me your scattershot charm: give me the answer I desire, and take your throw in return; whatever price the stars and the dice decree for your answer.”) Even if there was just one god per nation, there could still be some blackmail from below: a god that doesn’t keep his subjects numerous and happy will be left all alone by more warlike and numerous religions. (Or then a religion that you don’t leave — not because of thugs or isolation or threats of hellfire, but because of the god half a mile high that hears every word you say… and wants worship!)
  • Trouble with morals. Is it moral because a god will instantly incinerate you with a gout of hellfire if you don’t do it? Or will the instant-hellfiring occur because that thing would be good, and hence a god’s fire patrols its observance? Would morals ever change while there was someone affirming them who was more than a rubber stamp for the times? Or, given that the gods would not be omnipotent, would they be unchanging either? (Mind you, if we take Jesus seriously, he certainly is a changing god. Any century of Christianity would no doubt be happy to burn all the following ones as witches and depraved heretics.) And finally, what if one’s god and conscience were in conflict, and there was no hope of reforming the former into the latter’s image? A lot of bitterly unhappy individuals and societies, or a religious Stockholm syndrome? Could there be a revolt against not a religious authority or organization, but against an actual living, talking, walking, thunder-wielding, loud-spaking God? If a revolt, then how about a Magna Carta?
  • What about faith, then? You don’t believe in a god whose existence is self-evident. Makes as much sense to believe in a fork. The point is then whether one serves the god or not; to a believer there’s not much difference between the belief mode and the servitude mode, though. More to the point, there would be no atheism, because Flat Earth atheism is a trope because it is bloody stupid. If a god really openly exists and is involved, denying such a god’s existence would be about as bright as denying the moon. There would then instead be those that cried non serviam, those that would not serve. Their fortunes would depend on the particular god’s vindictiveness and possessiveness. (Or, if there were several gods, maybe a balance of terror of some kind would create “godless zones” where none of the gods was allowed to exercise his or her powers for the fear of setting off a religious war. Or maybe “atheists” would be the only acceptable intermediaries between fractious gods? Or some particular class of people were unacceptable to a god, and hence actively discouraged from worship?)

Come to think of it, this model would make a god more and more like some Oriental tyrant of Akkad or Persia; then again, I’ve heard it said that’s where a lot of our ideas of how gods ought to be comes, from the way servants addressed the king and yokels thought of him and his power. (There’s a whole lot of Christian hymns that would do just fine for a groveling address to a Sargon or a Xerxes.) Which is not a particularly relevant end to this post, unless you twist it round to this thought: modern fantasy’s gods tend to be modern gods of extraordinary vagueness and generic benevolence, and at work in a world which is not a world of real, active gods; there might be something interesting in marching out a few explicit Sky Sargons and seeing how the sparks fly.

And it strikes me that John Scalzi’s God Engines is a nice little example of something like this; there no doubt are dozens of others, but I am ignorant and have an abominable memory, so this is all.

2 Responses to “Realistic gods for fantasy literature”

  1. Terence-Jaiden Wray Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this and it’s given me something to think about with my own fiction.

  2. Joshua Gibbs Says:

    I am a christian man in the process of becoming a speculative fiction author. I would like to thank you for providing valuable insights into the flaws of most modern fantasy as well as how my readers may see the world. While I may not agree with everything you say hearing it helps me to write fiction that is more nuanced and therefore realistic. Creating a world that seems plausible to your readership is essential to suspending their disbelief. What I am about to say I do not do to offend or to patronize, but to express honest gratitude; Even you are fulfilling God’s purposes, wether you know it or not. I hope the very best for you.

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