The Gospel Truth—How Religion Shaped the World of Fantasy
In March 2000, when a whole generation of pre-teens had their noses buried in the wildly popular Harry Potter books, The St Mary’s Island Church of England Aided School banned them from its school library. This decision was made on the grounds that the books were “inappropriate” since they depicted witches and wizards as “imaginary, cuddly and fun”. The seemingly innocuous children’s series has stirred up much controversy since its publishing, with many parents and religious groups challenging the books’ apparent occultist overtones. Much like Harry Potter, many other literary works of fantasy have been both lauded and lambasted due to the implications they make about religion.
This hints at the significant influence that religion has had on fantasy literature. As a genre, fantasy developed from folklore and mythology, and ties to religion are fundamentally built into it. Fantasy narratives have approached religious themes in various ways—by inventing secondary religions, by reworking particular religious ideas, and by supporting, promoting, or criticising a specific faith through the means of fiction.
There have been various common motifs and parallels between religion and fantasy literature. The themes of sin, the dichotomy of good and evil, salvation and redemption, sacrifice, and the concept of resurrection are significant components of fantasy fiction, and authors have often employed them to comment on society and religion.
The Christ Complex
C.S. Lewis is regarded by many as one of the most influential Christian apologists, whose religious beliefs were reflected in The Chronicles of Narnia. In addition to several Christian parallels, the series also borrows from Greek and Roman mythology, and British and Irish folklore. One of the most overt examples of this symbolism is the character of Aslan, the noble lion of Narnia. Aslan is a literary Christ figure who played a pivotal role in the story, just as Christ is central to Christianity. The similarity between the death and resurrection of Aslan in Narnia and Jesus in the Bible is notable. They were both ridiculed before their deaths—Aslan was taunted, shamed and his mane was shaved off, while Christ was also mocked and humiliated before being crucified.
In one of his last letters, dated March 1961, Lewis wrote—
Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts, I thought He [Christ] would become a Talking Beast there, as He became a man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; (b) Christ is called “The Lion of Judah” in the Bible; (c) I’d been having strange dreams about lions when I began writing the work.
The novel’s central conflict can be considered a symbolism for Christianity’s tenets of sacrifice, empathy, sin, and salvation. In writing The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis wrote a children’s story with a compelling Christian narrative and imagery that directly reflects important biblical figures.
On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was also a devout Christian and a close friend of Lewis, felt that fantasy should incorporate Christian values without resorting to obvious allegory. He wrote the following in a letter to Robert Murray in December 1953.
“The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
His most famous work, The Lord of the Rings, has several parallel themes with religion. One such theme is the redemptive and penitential nature of suffering, apparent in the ordeal suffered by Sam and Frodo in carrying The One Ring to Mordor. Another example is the theme of salvation and redemption—Boromir atones for his attack on Frodo by saving the Fellowship from an orc attack. Even Gollum, after years of being enslaved by the ring, almost redeems himself, struggling between good and evil, before succumbing to the darkness. The corruption of power and sin is a major running theme across Tolkien’s works—the One Ring symbolises how the allure of power and prosperity can consume a person and lead to ruin.
The popular fantasy series, Harry Potter, while not overtly religious, has been influenced by Christianity, and echoes J.K. Rowling’s struggles with faith. The concept of sacrifice and selflessness portrayed by Harry can be compared with the idea of sacrifice in religion.
“To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious. But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going”, Rowling said in an interview with MTV.
Cast in the Mold of Old Gods
Pagan religions and mythologies have often been reflected in fantasy fiction as well. The Lord of the Rings was heavily influenced by Norse mythology. The character of Gandalf the Grey is particularly modelled on the Norse god Odin, in his incarnation as a wanderer. The battle between Gandalf and the Balrog and the collapse of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in Moria is a direct parallel to the foretold destruction of Asgard’s bridge by Surtr during the events of Ragnarok in Norse myth. Similarly, the character of Aragorn borrows from the ideas of heroism and courage in Beowulf.
The main witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series are closely based on the depiction of witches in British folklore, and a reflection of the Neopagan concept of Triple Goddess (the unity of three distinct figures in one being). The three witches—Magrat Garlick, Nanny Ogg, and Granny Weatherwax—were based on the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone stereotypes of the Triple Goddess myth.
The epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, that inspired the immensely popular Game of Thrones TV series, has several competing religions which were based on real religious systems. The Faith of the Seven, the predominant religion in Westeros, was based on the medieval Catholic Church and the Christian doctrine of Trinity. The faith has been inspired by paganism (Triple Goddess) as well—three of the Seven Gods are the Mother, the Maiden and the Crone.
“The Sparrows are my version of the medieval Catholic Church, with its own fantasy twist. If you look at the history of the church in the Middle Ages, you had periods where you had very worldly and corrupt popes and bishops.”, George R.R. Martin said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Instead of the Trinity of the Catholic Church, you have the Seven, where there is one god with seven aspects. In Catholicism, you have three aspects—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. “
The Old Gods, which were worshipped by the Northern population of Westeros, were influenced by traditional Pagan and other Celtic and Norse mythologies. The religion of R’hllor, or the Lord of Light, was roughly based on Zoroastrianism, and the Cathars of Medieval Europe. Both religions have the idea of two gods—one good and one evil. The religion of the Lord of the Light is also centred on belief in the existence of two deities—a god of light and a god of darkness.
The common belief in polytheism which has been shared among virtually all religions is reflected in fantasy literature as well, with worlds having multiple Gods and religions.
“The readers are certainly free to wonder about the validity of these religions, the truth of these religions, and the teachings of these religions. Look at the analogue of our real world. We have many religions too. Are some of them more true [sic] than others? “, Martin said in an interview with Gizmodo.
On the other hand, modern-day fantasy works have brought up new ideas about religion. Neil Gaiman, an English author, whose works include The Sandman comics, wrote American Gods as a thought-provoking religious allegory. The book puts forth a different idea about the origin of deities, called thoughtform. It introduces the perspective that gods are the construct of human belief and faith, and the concept that belief is the source of power. It is emphasised throughout the book that the gods subsist only on the power our minds give to them. The New Gods in the book exemplified the dynamic nature of faith and how religion has evolved. The novel makes the reader question the origins of religion and the existence of gods. Terry Pratchett explored a similar origin of deities in his book, Small Gods.
The Curse of Controversy
Fantasy novels have always come under scrutiny for their ideas on faith and religion. Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, was a source of significant controversy and resulted in heated and violent reactions. Rushdie used magical realism to create his characters—the title refers to a legend that a few verses spoken by Prophet Muhammad were sent from the devil to deceive him into thinking they came from God. He was accused of blasphemy, and in 1989, a fatwa was issued against him calling for his death. The book has been banned in India, claiming it as hate speech towards a specific religious group.
Phillip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, has been critically acclaimed, and attracted controversy, for its critical portrayal of religion. The Magisterium, the ruling authority of the Holy Church in the books, exerts a firm control over society—it censors and suppresses the news of any ‘heretical’ discoveries. Pullman’s allegory painted a critical picture of the Church—the Magisterium harms children in a heart-wrenching way, by permanently separating them from their Dæmons (a physical embodiment of the human soul), and thus stunting their sexual and intellectual growth. In light of the building number of child sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests, the series appears to hold new significance. The series has faced backlash from many Christian fundamentalist groups. However, The Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has represented a more accepting side of Christianity by praising His Dark Materials as a thought-provoking exploration of themes of faith, power and humanity.
The genre of fantasy fiction grew from religion and folklore as writers began to imagine worlds beyond our own. They borrowed themes and ideas from the world around them and weaved them into their own narratives. However, these works of fantasy that enthralled young children and older readers alike have unfortunately faced serious controversy. Novels and stories have been banned, condemned and blacklisted due to offending religious statements, and accused of promoting different religions.
Religion continues to be a sensitive topic, and when fantasy, or other forms of literature and art, attempt to comment on or reflect it, they can come under attack. Nevertheless, fantasy, through hints of satire and parallels with religious beliefs, continues to make us reflect on the world we live in.
Featured Image Credits: Ise Ananphada via reddit.com