In the comment thread below there was a lot of discussion about fantasy literature. This is a topic which I have some opinions, because when I consumed fiction regularly, it was mostly fantasy and science fiction (yes, I’m a nerd). The eruption of Game of Thrones into the popular culture space has brought this classic nerdy genre into the foreground.
Though fantasy is by its nature not of this world, the reality is that some level of plausible coherence rooted in verisimilitude is necessary for it to be broadly accessible and enjoyable. Apparently Robert E. Howard wrote the Conan the Barbarian books partly because he enjoyed writing speculative historical fiction, but didn’t have the time or energy required to become well versed enough in a place and period. Therefore, he created the Hyborian Age as a distant prehistoric epoch which was misty and vague enough that he could let his imagination flow freely while still borrowing heavily from the historical and anthropological furniture of our own universe. Sometimes this can get a little ridiculous. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic books are in some ways historical fiction loosely inspired by the fantasy genre (he’s exhibited this pattern of drawing closely from historical periods and places over the last 20 years)!
And yet most fantasy deviates more strongly from our own universe, creating its own “secondary world” where correspondences to our history and places can be made, but which are more tenuous or speculative. Even in cases where connections are as clear as Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, there are very salient differences which mark the work as fantasy as opposed to fantasy inflected historical fiction. For example, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series draws from 10th century Germany (she states this plainly), but the world is inhabited by various mythological or non-human peoples, as well is being much more gender-egalitarian than our own. I was a little skeptical of the latter part because conventional sexual dimorphism still seemed to hold in Crown of Stars, and that is I believe one of the natural reasons that men in pre-modern muscle-powered societies tend to produce highly patriarchal systems of political organization.
Which gets at the point about verisimilitude: there are stock fantastical aspects of this genre which I can take in stride, but subverting the more banal scaffolds of reality which root the world in something we can relate to bothers me. This is less of an issue in science fiction. I have read works where women take the roles of protectors to men, who conversely dominate the home. But, these works often posited biological changes where females were larger than males. In other words, they exhibited some internal coherency, insofar as the structure of the genre involves subverting and altering the parameters of what we might consider “natural.” In contrast, the fantasy genre often takes us “back” to a world that resembles a static and socially “traditionalist” order, as if to counteract the shocking reality of magic or supernatural beings being normal phenomena which interpose themselves into our existence regularly.
That is why for me religion in particular is an important aspect of the texture of any fantasy work. Religion is looms large in, is often even essential and central to, the Weltanschauung of pre-modern humans. In Big Gods the author argues that a transformation of our conception of gods and their role in our lives was critical in driving the emergence of complex societies over the last 10,000 years (others point the arrow of causality in the opposite direction). Even if particular individuals who were leaders in pre-modern societies were personally not pious (e.g., Julius Caesar) the societies in which they were eminent were always suffused with religious sentiment and practice (e.g., Rome).
And yet there are two authors who in my mind stand out for giving a “thin” treatment of religious belief and practice in fantasy literature: J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. le Guin. These two authors are very different, very eminent in the field, and, have differing views from me on a range of topics.
I have read widely on Ursula K. le Guin’s opinions in interviews, essays, and notes in her collections of short stories. She is a very political liberal author who has sympathies with anarchism and Daoism. Additionally, le Guin has stated she she is not particularly interested in the “hard sciences,” as opposed to the “soft sciences,” and even evinced a fascination with post-structuralism in one essay! (her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber)
In other words, I have major differences with Ursula K. le Guin in terms of our views and assessments. But overall I’ve enjoyed most of her work. She can get annoyingly preachy on occasion, but le Guin is a great prose stylist, with an ability to be evocative without being pretentious (much of her work is aimed at juveniles and young adults, so that probably necessitates enforced clarity). Because of her liberal politics she enjoys inverting, distorting, or confounding racial expectations. Unlike most of science fiction and fantasy, especially in the period she was writing actively, le Guin’s protagonists are not invariably white males. Despite not being a white male personally I have no major issue with identifying with white male characters (race is not a major personal identity for me). But, because le Guin has non-white/non-male protagonists her works are often situated in worlds that depart from the standard issue fantasy or science fiction settings. And often that’s a good thing.
Her Earthsea novels are epic fantasy, but are strong departures from the typical Nordic backdrop one finds in this genre. Most of the people, and the protagonists which are you meant to identify with, are clearly non-white, with dark brown to olive complexions and dark hair. In contrast, the only recognizably Northern Europe modeled population are marginal barbarians, beyond the limes of the oikoumene, with bizarre folkways and practices. But Earthsea is not a progressive cartoon. Its system of magic is novel and memorable, while its geographic setting is on a world which is characterized by a vast archipelago of islands, rather than on contiguous continents! This is somewhat strange, but not totally fantastical. Consider Majapahit. All of these elements are atypical of classical epic fantasy, but they don’t go beyond the bounds of imagined possibilities, or even plausible realities.
J. R. R. Tolkien couldn’t have been more different. A Roman Catholic who valorized the British bourgeois and supported Franco, his politics are inverted from those of le Guin. An incredible world-builder, Tolkien famously invented the template for epic fantasy. Some writers, such as Terry Brooks, have made very lucrative careers rearranging the plot elements and motifs from Tolkien’s novels. Unfortunately much of fantasy for decades consisted of clones of Tolkien’s work, in part because his world was so lovingly constructed and fleshed out, and also because it was so easy to just generate derivative narratives. This was the standard against which le Guin created her film negative when it came time to world-build.
And yet both authors gave little space to the elaboration of religious phenomena in their pre-modern fantasy! The only conventional theists in Earthsea are the barbaric (white) Kargads. The other inhabitants of Earthsea are similarly to atheist Daoists, rather like le Guin herself. And just as with race and place, she has admitted plainly that she excluded and marginalized supernatural religion because she didn’t much care for it. She wanted to make something radically different.
The situation with Tolkien is more complex. His world had demi-gods (Ainur) and God (Eru). These are not entities you have faith in, rather, they clearly exist and are known to exist to all. The antagonists do not disbelieve in the Ainur, they rebel against them. Tolkien himself was a Catholic, and claimed his work was fundamentally Catholic, but many critics are skeptical. Some have suggested because he was very religious in a Christian sense, and well versed in the folkways of the Northern European pagans from whose mythos he drew to construct his world, he was uncomfortable with realistically integrating their religious system into his work. It offended his Christianity to see what were clearly Northern European people practicing false religions. Though le Guin and Tolkien are starkly different in their attitudes toward religion, they ultimately arrive at the same conclusion that a realistic religious system is not congenial to their own preferences or comfort.
I believe their readers are more poor for it, and it detracts from the thick textures which otherwise characterize their worlds.