How much God is Enough in a Fantasy?

At my last convention, I was accused–by a member of my own writer’s group, no less!–of not having enough religion in my work.  The writer was going on about how *nobody* includes enough religion in their medieval fantasy!  Including you–(he points to me).  I was incensed. (appropriate here, given that my frame image is a church ceiling)

I take issue with several aspects of my colleague’s assertions.  First is the question of what constitutes enough?  Let’s see, I have characters who are nuns, priests, and archbishops.  Characters who are devout and fear Hell, and characters who doubt.  Characters who are motivated by their religious beliefs.  Characters who use religious obscenities, and those who don’t.  I have scenes in graveyards, abbeys, and churches, including at Mass.  By most standards, I’ve got plenty of religion informing the worldview, characters and setting of the book.

I think my colleague meant to say that many works that purport to be medieval fantasy are not as steeped in Catholicism as they should be, given the pervasive nature of the Church at that time.  Certainly, the Catholic church was a dominant power during the Middle Ages, and to leave it out of a novel with a medieval setting would be just plain wrong.  There are certainly a number of fantasies with pseudo-medieval settings that have no religion at all–that’s part of the reason we call them “pseudo.”  Some authors aren’t interested in religion, some are simply drawn to other aspects of the period.  Some haven’t done their homework.

My colleague will also freely admit that he doesn’t read much fantasy, so I think he may be behind the times.  He might be surprised to find how many classic fantasies do, in fact, include religion–Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.  Tolkien did not–but that’s a question for another day.

However–and here’s the key–the Church is no longer a dominant force in the mind of most readers.  Many people identify as Christians, some as Catholics. Many others identify with a variety of other religions, or with no religion at all, and we’d all like to have the widest possible receptive audience.  I’m pretty sure my colleague is old enough to be aware that many were concerned at the election of JFK that he would listen to the Pope rather than the people.

The task of the author, even the author who wishes to be faithful to the period, is to deliver a great story, richly informed by the cultural milieu, including the significance of religion to the people and history of the time.  But the author also needs to strike a balance between delivering that experience, and alienating the reader or delivering a polemic on one side or the other of any topic of controversy.  My books are informed by religion, but they’re not about religion.  My characters have a variety of approaches to God, as do my readers.  I hope my readers will enter the world of Elisha Barber and find it to be believably medieval.  I hope they will be engaged with the characters and the story, and intrigued by the intersections of religion with the story I’m trying to tell.  I want those intersections to be appropriate to the milieu as well as true to my tale.

And that, for me, *is* enough.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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