I’m re-reading The Song of Ice and Fire series by Martin since I plan to be back to my Song of Lagrandil fantasy series by the summer. It is always good to read the genre you are going to write in for a couple of reasons. Sometimes it is encouraging, as Stephen King puts it in his book On Writing; “I can do better than that, hell, I’m already doing better than that.” So it is good to see someone published that you think you can best. It means you see yourself as publishable. Other times one finds works worthy of emulation. For most of the time I find reading another author’s work similar to watching another martial artist do kata, a mixture judgments second by second. “That turn was well-done. I would not reach that far in this direction. Etc.”
Today I ran across a modern misunderstanding that carries through to almost every science fiction and fantasy novel I have read. In A Clash of Kings Jon Snow prepares to go into the frozen north. He is comforted by the fact that the Seven (the gods of the southern people) have no power north of the wall since there are no churches (septs in Martin’s world) or people who believe in them up there, but his people’s gods, the nameless Old Gods of nature will be in the north.
No! I have never encountered that idea in any historical mythology that I have ever read. Oh, sure, people like the Romans had no problem making token sacrifices to other gods as well as their own, but never out of belief that their own gods were not present. If anything the belief of pagans seemed to be that other gods had turf to be respected or challenged, but their gods were true gods, meaning they were the gods of the world. The Greeks did not fear to sail beyond the Mediterranean because Poseidon could not see them there, but because of terrible things out at the world’s edge. (And honestly, a lot of the times it seems like the Greeks would have been glad if Poseidon had passed them by.) There is no record of a Viking afraid to sail beyond Odin’s sight, because in every mythology I can think of the gods extended throughout and beyond the whole world, Midgard (our world) being just part of Yggdrasil. Other gods were regarded with local caution, like don’t mess with this Jehovah dude in Palestine but as long as you’re a good Roman he won’t bother you in Rome, but never blaspheme Jupiter anywhere or you’re a dead man.
This attitude about the gods did not just refer to religious matters. Dr. Brendan McManus of Bemidji State University stated in a lecture about medieval law that in the early middle ages a person’s laws, like his gods, were thought to follow him around wherever he went. So, if you were a Lombard you were subject to the law of the Lombards wherever you were. Justice was intrinsically tied into the absolute reality of the gods. That is where the entire concept of the western trials by ordeal came from, that the gods saw everything and wouldn’t let you lie in court when you swore. (So, if you are wondering where the old phrase “did I stutter?” meaning “am I lying?” comes from, now you know.)
The difference between the actual worldviews of the middle ages and the medieval-esque ideas presented in fantasy comes from a simple question of of primacy. The supernatural tended to be the supreme reality in ancient belief systems, like the Chinese dynastic cycle where the fall of a dynasty marked that it had lost the favor of the heavens and therefore lost power while the new dynasty worked hard to show through prosperity that it had the divine mandate. Pluralistic modernism views religion as a soothing bit of selfish irrelevancy or a source of personal power and benefit. Gods are invented by and depend upon man, their creators, for their existence, power, and benefit. Moderns tend to treat beliefs as a sort of spiritual masturbatory act. Believe if you need to need to comfort yourself, but it isn’t something you should talk about far less perform in public.
Why does this matter for fiction? This distinction is critical in terms of verisimilitude and characterization. Whether secular or not, the modern understanding of history, that we believed in gods when we were more at the mercy of the world around us and ‘grew’ past those beliefs as we developed a better understanding of nature has some truth to it. The argument about whether the change in pervasive belief was a virtue or a folly is beyond the scope of this essay. I want, in stead, to focus on how to write a non-humanist character as opposed to a subtly humanist character. Here are some examples of Early Modern Characters and Modern Characters.
EMC: The gods existed before humanity. New religions are a discovery of what already existed. They can be forgotten or rediscovered but they have always been there.
MC: The gods are made by people. When the people who believe in a god are gone, the god ceases to exist or have influence.
EMC: The gods are in charge of nature, and their favor will result in nature working out for my benefit.
MC: Nature is independent of the gods, so it is my actions about the physical world and not my interactions with the spiritual that determine my well-being.
EMC: The gods require our obedience even if it does not benefit me directly. They are in charge. (This idea is often called piety.)
MC: Spirituality only exists for the benefit of those who believe. It is better to change religious beliefs to get an immediate benefit or abandon them than endure hardship.
EMC: There are values and things bigger than the manifest world around me. (This could be nature spirits, ghosts, pantheons, or the Judeo-Christian God.)
MC: What I can see and experience are the ultimate determinants of truth.
Actual conflicts between religions, which the Song of Ice and Fire books include, have tended in history to be conflicts of divine power instead of conflicts of reality. People met, and either the battle between armies or supernatural showdowns occurred. People then tended to believe in the victor as well as or more than the loser in the divine conflict. This melding and merging of religious beliefs is more consistent throughout the historical record than the belief that gods lost power or stopped existing. The sole exception to this are the three monotheistic faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Even then the tendency has been for melding such as the mixture of African animism with Christian imagery in Vodoo and with Daoism in Aikido philosophy. This trend actually shows up in scripture as one of the big reasons why the people of Israel were to drive the nations out of the holy land or they and their children would want to get along with other faiths, eventually losing their own to their destruction.
So, when writing fiction it is critical that we determine what our characters believe. If I were to write an animist, like the Old Gods of Martin’s fiction, then as long as there were natural events like streams, forests, and the wind, there would be the presence of the Old Gods. Martin writes that the Old Gods could not exist without their sacred groves, but his own back-story fiction states that they did not come from the sacred groves, so it does not follow that they would go away without them. Similarly, as the Red Woman brings her religion to Stannis Baratheon, the Sept should have opposed her, not the academics. Religious belief does carry power and influence, and if the legendary conflicts between saints and druids in my own people’s history are any indication, those in power do not relinquish it easily.
This is especially important when writing about populations that undergo religious conversions. When the favor of the divine is essential to your family’s life and welfare, the reaction to a convert is not, “How distasteful but that is your choice.” The reaction should be similar to someone bringing nuclear waste to store next door. Throughout history people can, have, and will kill over such things not out of a sense of evil, but out of the sincere belief that the other religious belief threatens themselves, their nation, and their loved ones. This is why missionaries get killed a lot, regardless of the faith in question. The only person who is going to be all right with a change in their beliefs is someone who did not really believe in the first place.
This is a glaring weakness in The Song of Ice and Fire and too much of modern fantasy. If we choose to write characters who believe, we must write characters who act on their fundamental truths just as surely as we do ours. OR we must explain why their belief system can accommodate other faiths. For the Romans, it was an hierarchical thing. Appease the local gods but don’t forget that the gods of Rome are still on top. For a religion like Hinduism, other religions may be tolerated because they are reflections of elements of a deeper truth (which we have so don’t talk to us about yours, please). For a humanist, if you feel that believing something makes you a more well-rounded person, that is fine. Just don’t get any of your religion on the public furniture.
Because a character who sees their gods as limited by boundaries he can surpass (walk south for a month and Zeus can’t hear you and you can do whatever you want) are not going to put much trust in their gods for very long. After all, they have proof in their own experience of the humanistic tenet: mankind is greater than gods.