Gods and wizards in fantasy

A reader in the comments pointed me to Vice and Fire (though I’d already seen it on Twitter), a rumination on 20th century and 21st century fantasy literature by Peter Hitchens in First Things. Hitchens is the religious and politically conservative brother of the late Christopher Hitchens.

The piece is curious because it reflects more about Hitchens than the material which he is describing. First, he begins with perplexity that J. R. R. Tolkien’s secondary world seems to lack a moralistic high religion, as we’d understand it. To Hitchens this is confusing in light of the fact that Tolkien was a very religious Roman Catholic in his own life. But it isn’t as if Tolkien scholars haven’t noticed this juxtaposition, or the contrast with C. S. Lewis’s style, who was extremely heavy on Christian allegory.

I think the most plausible explanation is that Tolkien had something of the same issue as L. Sprague de Camp. An aeronautical engineer by training, Isaac Asimov in his autobiography In Memory Yet Green recounts that de Camp made the shift to explicit fantasy away from hard science fiction because his professional background made it difficult for him to engage in the suspension of disbelief necessary to write plausibly about faster-than-light travel and other such things. In fantasy his own background did not get in the way of his creativity.

Like de Camp, Tolkien was gifted with knowing too much. This was a man whose legendarium was an attempt to create for the English people a mythology similar to what the Scandinavians and Irish took for granted. A philologist who was a scholar of Beowulf, Tolkien knew the whole cultural corpus of the ancient pagan Germanic people well. He mined their mythos in constructing the world in which he set his fiction. As such, he was aware of the violent brutality which characterized pre-Christian, and frankly pre-civilized, Northern Europe, and how its folkways were at variance with Christian morality. If Tolkien applied his scholarly skills to creating religions for the Men of the West, it seems unlikely that he would have been comfortable sanitizing what he knew their practices would be. On the other hand, as an invented secondary world of the imagination, it was not plausible that they would be Christian, and in any case, Tolkien was a sincere and devout believer in the Christian religion and may have been uncomfortable mixing his imaginative fictional world with the metaphysical truths he held sacred.

And yet this does not mean that the ethical monotheism which J. R. R. Tolkien personally adhered to did not bleed into his work. In Return of the King, there is a well-noted reference to “heathen kings” and their practice of burning the dead. The Men of the West may not be Christians, but nor were they pagans.

Which brings me to Hitchen’s diatribe against George R. R. Martin’s attitude toward religion. Unlike Tolkien, Martin seems irreligious. Some fantasists, such a Anne McCAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin, have created worlds where theism is understated or nonexistent (the Kargads in Earthsea do have something that we’d recognize as a religion grounded in gods…but they are the “bad guys”). Not so with Martin. His world exhibits a great deal of religious complexity and verisimilitude.

Perhaps too much verisimilitude for Peter Hitchen’s taste. Let me quote at length a description of the religions as from the piece above:

Some readers of Martin’s stories see a kind of Christianity in the worship of “the Seven.” This is the most official of several religions in ­Westeros, described in this way: “Worship was a septon [priest] with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song.” There are a Father, a Mother, and a Smith. Then there are the Crone, the Maiden, the ­Warrior, and finally the Stranger, who ­represents death. Although the Seven faintly echo the Trinity, there seems to be no equivalent of Christ or the Holy Ghost among them, let alone of the One God. This is not Seven in One and One in Seven but Seven in Seven. I would say that the Seven are much more like classical or Nordic pantheons than like the Trinity…The worship of the Seven is exactly what atheists think Christianity is: an outward vesture.

A rival older faith, officially tolerated, survives in silent groves of ancient trees. There is also a rather nasty Drowned God, who seems to encourage piracy among seafarers (which suits them very well), and a highly intolerant Red God with a touch of the Cathars, but which (unlike the others) manifests itself in acts of violent wizardry and second sight. This is the deity that flourishes in the sweltering, cruel east, and no wonder. So we have on the one hand a vague expression of civic virtue, empty of real force and truth, and on the other a manifestation of supernatural might, quite unconnected with goodness and very ready to ally itself with earthly power if it suits them both. This recalls the way in which, in our time, science and power walk hand in hand, often destructively and dangerously.

This is where it strikes me that the author had a hammer, and everything was a nail. There’s some truth to what he’s saying. The religion of The Seven is never outlined in great detail in comparison to other quasi-medieval aspects of Martin’s world. But there is a backstory to this: apparently the religious institutions were subordinated and suppressed to some extent by the previous Targaryen dynasty (who were clearly only nominal converts in any case). The fact is that the Faith of the Seven is monotheistic, where each god is a manifestation of the single ultimate God. And, it is a religion derived ultimately from revelation to the Andals in Essos. This is not a naive and organic tribal paganism.

As for the religion of the Red God, Martin has admitted that its spread to Westeros is modeled explicitly on the spread of Christianity. It is intolerant, but so was the spread of the religion which Peter Hitchens is a personal devotee of. On the Isle of Wight the last pagans were mostly killed by invading Christians due to their reluctance to adopt the new religion. He claims to have read the books, but he gives no indication that the Red God is a favorite of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who fight to defend the common people against the depredations of warring lords. Though the Red Priest Melisandre commits evil, like those Protestants who burned witches in Northern Europe, she believes that any suffering is ultimately to further the good. The brutality of the followers of the Red God is the other face of the fact that they are zealous and on fire for their faith, and believers who have faith that they walk in the path of virtue. The Cathars who Hitchens allude to were persecuted and then slaughtered by the orthodox Christians.

What explains Hitchen’s bile then? I am being pedantic on the points he makes about Tolkien and Martin in part because not all readers of the above essay will have read the source material, and will take his misrepresentation at face value. But it is true George R. R. Martin’s worlds exhibit a high level of brutality and perversion. When I first read Martin’s work I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legend fixedly in post-Roman Dark Age Britain. I decided to email Martin to ask him if he was perhaps influenced by this work, and he did admit that he was a great admirer of the Warlord Chronicles. Martin has said repeatedly that his work attempts to show that just because someone takes a vow of knighthood does not necessarily entail that they are virtuous. As a point of fact many knights in the European Middle Ages were little better than mercenaries and brigands. Codes of conduct and broad ethical frameworks exist in part to tame, constraint, and smooth out the rough edges of military elites who rule by force of arms.

Additionally, like fantasist Robin Hobbs, Martin does not engage in plotting where your precious ones will always come out unscathed. This is a painful feature, not a bug. The idea is to humanize the protagonist, sometimes uncomfortably verging on creating anti-heroes, and to contrast the highs of the payoff with some major lows. The way Martin does this bothers many people, and I think it’s within their rights to be bothered. But for those of us who have read more anodyne and more juvenile fantasy works, encountering Martin’s work was a bracing shock and made us want more precisely because of the rougher texture and sharper edges.

Finally, there is one aspect where George R. R. Martin explicitly attempts to mimic J. R. R. Tolkien, and this is in creating a “low magic” world. More honestly, Martin’s magic is actually magic, rather than a different form of science and engineering. When Martin’s series began to gain prominence, fantasy had fallen into a period where formulaic magical elements resembling Dungeons and Dragons had saturated the genre, to the point where lazier authors often made recourse to magical deus ex machina. If you remember back to Tolkien you observe that there really wasn’t that much magic, and you never saw Gandalf cast spells like a carnival act.

Ultimately George R. R. Martin is attempting to pull off several things at once, and obviously he isn’t always doing it well, nor does he fulfill all the expectations of his readers. The broader framework of the world he is creating does exist in a sort of good vs. evil paradigm with dark magical forces. But Martin enjoys shades of gray, and coming from a background as a Hollywood screenwriter, he worked hard, perhaps too hard, to give his characters moral complexity. They are often both saints and sinners. Finally, though A Song of Ice and Fire is epic high fantasy, he has injected into its veins an element of dark historical fantasy. This does not not always work, and I suspect readers keying in on the high fantasy elements are easily repulsed by the frank brutality and amorality of the historical fantasy. To make an analogy, the flavors clash. Your mileage may vary on whether this is good or bad.

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