Thursday, November 4, 2010

Narnia, Pern, and Religion

The Role Of Religion in Fantasy Fiction

Or, "What Kind of Question Is That to Ask the Jesus Allegory Lion?"

Fantasy fiction and religion have long gone hand in hand, whether said religious element forms a subtext or takes on a more didactic tone. It could even be said that religious lore itself contains some of the foundations of modern fantasy--good versus evil, fantastic creatures, miracles, and the creation of worlds. Monsters, intimate objects coming to life, and a healthy amount of sacred artifacts hidden away. Depending on the mythology, you even get tales of mystical weapons.

Just why fantasy and religion share so many similarities isn't clear. It does seem that humanity possesses an explicit need to believe in something; if not some type of religion, than at least some shred of decency that remains in the face of hardship. That good ultimately triumphs over evil. This is why societies value such things as courage, kindness, camaraderie. All of these things are present in fantasy.
However, the exact shape religion takes within the story is a matter of who is writing and who is reading. By creating an entire world or race, a fiction author becomes, in a sense, a small god. Through their creation, we can often glean a sense of their perspective on religion in reality, and from there consider the impact it has on our own world.

Sometimes religion is not about a specific, named deity, but a general belief in right and wrong despite all the shades of gray that are present in life; a general sense of something greater; the promise of an afterlife. These are some of the ideas present in writings such as Tolkien's. Opposite would be C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, where there is one omniscient, powerful (if not all powerful--I'll touch on that in just a moment) deity and a choice of whether or not to follow it...but only one right answer. There are atheists in Narnia, but their punishment is usually specified and they're all obliterated by the end of the series. This tends to be the case with our own monotheistic religions, especially in the middle east and west--their followers tend to be quite content with this arrangement, much like Narnian dwellers.

An interesting thing about life in Narnia is that, while its creator speaks face to face with the inhabitants, he offers so little information about himself and the world that one has to wonder, why does he bother? It's implied that there are limitations on his power, but no more. Who set down the rules, who enforces them, and just what they are remain a mystery. More than that, the answer is almost irrelevant on an individual level. Aslan may not be able to do certain things at certain times, but he created the world and he can end it; he can ultimately save you if he wants to, and if you're compliant--and smite you just as easily. Whatever the fates of the "shadowland" denizens may be, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of a single otherworldly judge and the unseen, silent being he answers to.

Where religion goes, so does the absence of it. According to Anne McCaffrey, author of the Pern series, it is something she thought the story could do without.

I also don't have organized religion on Pern. I figured--since there were four holy wars going on at the time of writing--that religion was one problem Pern didn't need.

Rather, Pernese people form an agrarian society that gives little to no thought to the otherworldly, remaining focused on their own salvation from above--the dragons. Yet they still have moments where they experience the profound, whether in a beautiful dragon's eyes, a piece of song, or the mysteries of between. Their's is not a nature-based religion, but a general healthy respect and occasional awe at the world they struggle to survive in. They could be classified as atheists or agnostics, but only if a distinction was forced to be made at all.

It's worth nothing, however, that most real world agrarian societies do have some sort of spiritual belief system. Pern is rather unusual in this sense.

But it's one thing to renounce religion--it's another to do away with spirituality all together. It's nice to think that there's something beyond death than oblivion and a hole in the ground (or a trip to the bottom of the sea, if that happens to be where circumstances take you). That our struggles in life are rewarded. That the worthy are taken care of. It's for that very reason that McCaffrey wrote the short story "Beyond Between," in which a dragonrider and her partner find themselves in the afterlife.

Fantasy fiction is rarely as blatant about its religious subtext, when it has any, as Narnia. Likewise, it doesn't often go out of its way to avoid connotations with organized religion the way Pern does. Rather, fantasy fiction tends to be made up of a comfortable balance of good versus evil (except when it isn't), likeable protagonists (except when they aren't), and lessons offered on our own morality. Meanwhile, religious texts continue to bring us stories of talking snakes in magical gardens, women who fall from the sky to live on the backs of turtles, beings who give birth to eggs and leech children, and dynasties of gods and goddesses living on top of a mountain. Religious lore and fantasy offer stories to entertain us and stories to guide us towards being better people.

Which accomplishes which is purely subjective.

Work Cited

Jamneck, Lynn. "An Interview with Anne McCaffrey." Welcome to! 05 Oct. 2010. Web.

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