Belief and Religion in Fantasy

An international prayer house

Belief is integral to behavior.  In cultures, both ancient and modern, religious belief and superstition shape cultural mores, laws, assumptions, and attitudes.  This is why, in one culture, suicide is considered the greatest of crimes. While in another culture it is considered to be an honorable end to one’s life.  Our beliefs shape the way we live, interact with others, and see the world.  Just as this is true for us, it should be true for the peoples, characters, and races in the worlds we create.

The easiest, and most common, way of doing this is to pattern the beliefs of your fantasy world off of your own beliefs.  This is why much of modern fantasy holds to a Judeo-Christian ethic.  Even those western authors who are openly hostile towards Christianity see suicide, stealing, and murder as bad things.  They see monogamy as proper and polygamy as unnatural.  They value honesty, courage, independence, and freedom.  These values and beliefs infect their writing.

Do not mistake my meaning.  I use the word infect not because of its often negative associations but because it is the most apt terminology.  I could say that these beliefs permeate our writing, and it would be true, but it would not encompass the full scope of the event.  These beliefs inevitably make their way into our writing, sometimes intentionally, but often without our awareness.  This is neither bad nor good of itself; it simply is.  Like a bacteria that enters the body unknown and takes up habitation, our own beliefs enter the worlds and stories we create.  Like a bacteria these beliefs can be beneficial or detrimental depending on their nature, and the nature of their surroundings within the story.  It is easy, often unconsciously so, to write a world that corresponds with the author’s view of the world.  On the other hand if one is trying to create a specific culture that does not conform to his/her view of the world then that author must be careful not to write his/her own beliefs into that culture.

Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is an excellent example of a well written cultural shift.  Through the short stories about Conan we see the man’s own cultural beliefs and standards conflict with the world around him.  That which Conan values is often scorned by others.  That which Conan finds scornful is often valued.  Howard’s character brings to life the conflict that differing cultural mores create.  In fact it is one of the primary themes of the Conan stories.

A ritual dance at a Shinto Shrine

To create such an alien culture the author must begin with the most basic beliefs and values of that culture.  For example, in my own world of Avnul, there is a race known as the Saru.  The Saru are a reptilian race with an extremely high birth rate, each female will lay a clutch of between one hundred and five hundred eggs yearly.  They also are possessed of the firm belief that they are trapped in a never-ending cycle of lives and that their only rest is found in the short period of death between these lives.

Because of this, and of the basic needs of any race, a great deal of religious law and superstition has grown up around the event of death.  The Saru have developed a very strict caste system and how well you live within your caste will determine what caste you are in your next life.  Furthermore, because death is viewed with such reverence, and desire, by the majority of the populace a very complex set of rules has developed to determine how, and when, it is appropriate to die.  If a Saru does not die properly then that Saru becomes a wandering spirit, unable to rest between this life and the next.

When a child dies it also becomes a wandering spirit, because it is wickedness to die before having a chance to contribute to the community.  Thus, children who die are assumed to have been wicked in their previous life, this allows the community to understand why the child would be allowed to die and forced to wander between lives.  The Saru have developed a long list of ways to die well, and ways to die poorly.

Also, because of this emphasis on death murderers are seen as heroes.  They risk the wrath of the gods (and thus their own chance to rest) in order to send others to their rest.  Healers, on the other hand, are seen as villains because (illness or sincere injury being a proper way to die) they force the dying away from their rest and back into the horrors of life.

A Christian congregation

Among the Saru cannibalism is considered the greatest of all possible crimes.  This is because the Saru believe that, for one to rest between lives, the body must be buried in a river.  Those that die poorly are buried in the earth, which leads their souls to wander.  Those that die well are placed into Kumrii (the Saru god of death and rebirth that lives in all rivers), which allows their souls to rest.  If a Saru is consumed then the soul cannot rest.

There is much more to say about their beliefs, but you can see that the Saru’s basic beliefs about death drastically affect their culture and interactions among one another and with other cultures.  Their basic beliefs shape the entirety of their culture.  These issues of culture and belief are very important for us, as authors and world-builders, to pay attention to.  They can be the difference between a believable world, and an unbelievable one.  Or the difference between a good story, and a great one.

I was only gone for 6 months, what happened to the world?

I have spent the last six months immersed, or rather drowning in fairytales and myth criticism.  And I want to thank you, faithful readers, for struggling with me and reading the most interesting points of my thesis.  But it is time for me to move on to different topics – not because I do not like the topics of myth and fairytale – but if I don’t move on, I am going to start hating the thing I love the most.

With my thesis over with, I want to start writing my stories again…maybe I’ll even finish one! But as I sat down to write, I made a horrifying realization – I did not know what was going on any more!  It was not that

Standing on the edge of Lock Lomond...No, that is not where I went for six months, but I think my Muse may have vacationed there without me.

I had forgotten the basic plot.  I had forgotten the details, the voice of particular characters, facts about the world.  I am one of those writers who just sits down with an idea – an idea that is uncooked, still waiting for important ingredients like setting, plot, characters, villains, and even an ending.  But I have an idea.  I like to let the idea come with the inspiration of the muse.  (And if you have read my rant on the fickle nature of my muse, you will know and understand that this is a very dangerous and precarious way to write).

So now that I have time to write again, much of that inspiration has dwindled to nothing more than an inkling of an idea that is only a shadow of its former glory.  I have to reread my story and reacquaint myself with my own characters and world.  This is a tedious process and I spend more time rereading then I do writing.

I suppose there is a lesson in all of this – Take the time to write out the details of your world (For insight into how to go about doing this read Erik’s post).  I know as a spontaneous writer, it is stifling.  But having to reread over 100 pages of a story just so that you can figure out the identity of Charleston is much more stifling.

So readers and writers, how do you organize your thoughts and keep characters consistent?  What methods do you employ to make sure that you can go back to a world that you haven’t visited in six months and not have to recreate it?

War in Narnia: C. S. Lewis the Soldier

C. S. Lewis, as most know him

Everyone knows that C. S. Lewis was the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and an excellent Christian apologist, but what many people may not know is that Lewis was also a veteran of the “Great” War, better known as World War I.  The war affected Lewis greatly, and therefore we need to get an idea of how before we look at war in Narnia.  Lewis saw the worst of the war first hand, and he developed successful emotional defenses against its horrors.  Both of these aspects would alter affect Narnia.

An atheistic, priggish (by his own account) Lewis spent the early years of WWI studying with William Kirkpatrick, better known as the “Great Knock,” in Kirkpatrick’s home in Great Bookham, Surrey.  While living there Lewis felt isolated from the war, though he noted to Douglas Gresham that even in this insulated haven of study he could, if the wind was right, “hear the mutter and grumble of the far distant guns in France.”  Though he could have avoided service entirely, after a period of indecision Lewis decided to join up.  Having crossed that important threshold, he then proceeded to segregate his mind from thinking about the war to such an extent that he later remarked that some people would likely think it “shameful.”  In his words, war and country “may have my body, but not my mind.  I will take part in battles, but not read about them.” (Surprised By Joy 58)

Lewis later traveled to Oxford to begin study to become a scholar.  He had been there less than a term when his enlistment papers came through and he officially entered the army.  He did not leave Oxford, but joined a cadet battalion stationed at Keble College.  There he made the acquaintance of a number of aspiring scholar-warriors, including Paddy Moore, whose mother later played such a long and important role in Lewis’s life.  It is also notable that of the five friends who left Keble for war, he alone survived.  After a brief period of training, Lewis was promoted to second lieutenant and attached to the Somerset Light Infantry.

Lewis arrived on the front lines in France on his nineteenth birthday in November 1917.  While he would remember portions of the next five months fondly at times, over all they proved to be one of the worst periods of his life.  He later remarked that though he understood that war was sometimes a necessity, he would rather die than live through another.  Here too, he continued to demonstrate the remarkable ability to split off his intellect and imagination from the horrors surrounding him.  While facing carnage and death on an almost daily basis, Lewis seemed to dwell more on what he was reading and on the various poems that would later be published as Spirits in Bondage.

In stark contrast to his still blossoming literary pursuits, Lewis experienced the awful reality that was World War I.  He described “the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [high explosive], the horribly smashed men still moving like half crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet.”  He seems, though, to have dealt with this by withdrawing further into the shell provided by his active imagination and the literature he still managed to feed it.  He observed that the reality of the war “shows rarely and faintly in memory.  It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else.  It is even in a way unimportant.  One imaginative moment [that of hearing his first bullet] seems now to matter more than the realities that followed.” (SBJ196)

C. S. Lewis (left) during World War I

During his time at the front, he acquitted himself well; the company he commanded won awards for guard mounting and company drill and he even aided in the capture of around sixty German prisoners of war.  During the winter Lewis spent a month in hospital recovering from a bout with “Trench Fever,” but he had returned to his unit in time to face the massive German offensive in France in the spring of 1918.  Near Mt. Bernenchon in April, as Lewis led his men forward, British shells fell amongst his troops, obliterating a respected sergeant named Harry Ayres and seriously wounding Lewis.  Lewis managed to drag himself back towards friendly lines where a stretcher crew picked him up.  He was eventually transported to a series of hospitals in the rear.  The war ended before he had recovered sufficiently to take the field again, and he returned to Oxford to continue his studies.

Even in the horrific instant of Lewis’s wounding, he reported the same disconnect from his physical circumstances and retreat into his mind that he carried with him to war.  He seemed to be observing his own impending death as nothing more than an abstract exercise.  It is obvious that for quite some time he had the practical ability to withdraw into himself and distinguish between the creative reality of his mind on the one hand and his physical circumstances on the other.  For him, this amounted to a willful decision to enjoy the interior world he had created instead of what confronted him outside.  Perhaps Puddleglum described it best in his argument with the Green Witch in The Silver Chair when the he states,

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.  Suppose we have.  Then  all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. […]That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.  I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.  (The Silver Chair 159)

Whether or not the marshwiggle is vicariously speaking for Lewis, it is a tendency he seems to share with his creator.

This segregation of mind was well developed prior to Lewis’s actual entry into the war.  He had already integrated it into his larger worldview with ease, perhaps even eagerly.  Thinking back on it later, he himself remarked that “even if the attitude was right, the quality in me which made it so easy to adopt is somewhat repellent” (Surprised by Joy 159).  Precisely where his ability came from is a question that will probably never be answered authoritatively.  He may have been born with it, developed it as a child after his mother’s death, it may stem from years of day dreaming and vicarious living through the literature he loved so much, or perhaps it grew up as a survival mechanism as a result of the torture he and Warren Lewis had endured at the hand of Robert Capron, the insane headmaster of his first boarding school.    Whatever the case, it enabled him to endure the horrors of war but keep what he considered to be essentially himself separate and, to a certain extent, unaffected.

These experiences–especially Lewis’s tendency to separate himself–will have some significant implications for Lewis approach to depicting war in Narnia.  In the next article, linked below, I’ll go into further depth explaining just how.

The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010.  A greatly expanded version is under consideration with the journal Mythlore.

Sources Referenced:

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy:  The Shape of My Early Life.  Orlando, FL:  Harvest Books, 1955.
________. The Silver Chair.  New York:  Collier, 1970.

Posts in the War in Narnia Series:

  1. C. S. Lewis the Soldier
  2. World War I’s Effect on C. S. Lewis
  3. Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experience
  4. Dark Realism and Plain Practicality
  5. The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
  6. The First Experience of Battle
  7. Wounds and the Wounded
  8. Corpses?  What Corpses?

The Robots Cometh: Miniature Edition

Hello again! Having just ended a long series, I decided I would break things up with another look at the similarly popular science fiction topic of robots! Big ones, small ones, deadly ones, cute ones- there are so many to choose from even today, and you can get some great ideas for your writing by looking at what is currently being developed.

Nano-bots (and Almost-Nano-bots)

As computer components have become smaller, it has become possible to create robots small enough to do some pretty amazing things, particularly in the medical field. While the much-sought-after nano-bots (robots only 1-100 nanometers long) are not yet possible, they will theoretically be able to manipulate objects at the atomic scale. This would allow doctors to release swarms of these tiny robots into the human body to administer localized drugs, repair diseased or damaged tissue, or any number of other internal medicine that could become a cure-all for any number of health problems. While we can’t do this yet, we are getting closer. Robots are now being built on the Micro-scale (1-100 micrometers long, a micrometer being 1000x longer than a nanometer), and are so small that they can be injected into the human bloodstream. Other robots don’t even need to be that small, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here are some cool examples of some of the tiniest robots currently being developed:

Delicious Digestible Doctors

Well ok, not quite “delicious”, but they are ingestible. The digestive tract can be extremely difficult and invasive to

That looks really uncomfortable- but probably better than the incisions would be...

operate on, especially as sometimes the doctor cannot actually get a bearing on what the problem site looks like before they’ve already opened their patient up. This ingenious little robot surgeon appears to be a solution to that problem- why cut into your patient to get to his insides when you can just start from there? Robotic equipment has already been used for several years to aide in operations, but the ARES (Assembling Reconfigurable Endoluminal Surgical System) modular robot will allow doctors to build the operating equipment “on site”, so to speak, inside the patient, simply by having him swallow the parts. The bot will then build itself in the body, anchor, and the doctor can use it to both get a better view and perform certain surgical procedures. Obviously, not every kind of digestive-tract surgery can be done this way, but this is a big step forward  in medically-applied robotics.


Kind of creepy, right? Too large to be called a micro-bot at a whopping 1 millimeter (1/1000th of a meter) in width, Virob is also a less than ideal design. One of the biggest problems with robots this small is their power source, because as of yet we have no means of creating batteries that small. Virob does address that problem, relying on externally-administered magnetic waves to create its movement, but the skittering motion and relatively large size could potentially cause severe harm to the body if it malfunctioned. Besides, who want’s something like that crawling around in his insides? Pass. These issues, however, could be turned on their head in a science fiction story, however- I could see swarms of these things used as a weapon to weed out dug-in targets. Think the scarabs from The Mummy, only tinier.

Artificial Flagellum and Various Other Oddities

For a more elegant solution, you need not look any further than the Proteus. With its whip-like tail and brilliant, miniaturized motor (an amazing feat), this tiny swimmer actually owes its form factor to very common biology (which you probably recognize). If you remember from your high school textbook (or maybe you got to play with the microscope like I did), tiny cells like paramecium and many other microbes use tiny hair-like structures to create movement. Other than the most obvious example, there are several examples in microbiology of the long tail-propeller that the Proteus models, and allows for a safe way for this tiny robot to propel itself within the body.

I hope my findings have been useful! Look for another Science Fiction Problems next week!

Until then, here’s another robot I found for your enjoyment (kinda like the Virob, but cuter):

It’s all in the Eyes: The Windows Into a Story’s Soul

Describing your characters in a story can either be fun or tedious, depending on you, the writer, and on the situation of the characters. But regardless of how you feel about describing a character’s hair and eyes and nose and chin, your reader expects some idea of how you envision your characters, so describe them you must.

So, let’s see if I get this right:

The Princess Elmeriannia stepped into the light before the amazed crowd.  She was fair, like a lily, if not fairer.  Her hair was a rich and vibrant waterfall of shining mahogany tresses that tumbled to her slender waist.  Her features were delicate and lovely, like a spring morning, the most stunning being her brilliant, violet eyes…

Okay, let’s stop right there.  Describing your characters is important and details can certainly mean a lot to a reader (although if you resort to freckle-counting, you have serious problems), but be careful.  Descriptions are significant.  They add an important element to your story and they tell the reader something very significant about you, dear writer.  Yes, you.  Namely, have you fallen victim to yet another cliché trap?

For this post, I’m going to focus on the eyes only, because I don’t want to write too much and there are so many ways I could go with this.  The eyes are, after all, usually the most memorable feature in a person’s face and the first thing that a person wants to know or remember.  What color are they?

This is where things get very, very tricky.  There are only a few colors to choose from, right?  I mean, eyes can be blue, brown, green, hazel, gray…

But you are forgetting how much more creative a writer can be.  What about the violet eyes mentioned in the quote above?  What about turquoise, black, golden, silvery, red, or even mismatched if you want to be unique (though, trust me, you aren’t really being that unique.  It’s been done.)

Eye colors are a fun way to set a character apart, but they can easily turn your story into something that is actually rather generic if you aren’t careful.  Think about what you’re doing before you assign a color.  Are you doing it because the color matches their personality, their role in the story, their race?  These things do matter and making eyes “match” a person is dangerous territory.

It’s Not My Fault.  My Eyes Made Me a Jerk:

Creepy shiny cat eyes! Yellow with blue pupils... what does it MEAN?

When you have a character with a distinctive personality, you might be tempted to assign eyes to match.  That vivacious vixen with her snapping green eyes or the brooding, dark, Mystery Character with his black, black gaze just seem to fit.  Here’s the rub: your vixen and your Mystery Character are not alone.  There are hundreds of unfortunate vixens and Mystery Characters in the exact same situation.  The word “cliché” is beginning to loom…

The solution here is to be constantly aware of what you are doing.  Mix things up.  Don’t dramatize every character’s eyes to the point that their collective gazes would make a rainbow jealous.  One or two with impressive eye colors might be enough for one story to handle.  Watch out for over descriptiveness.  Yes, you have a vixenish character in your story, but if you go on and on about her snapping, vivacious, brilliant, haughty, emerald-hued green eyes, your reader is going to make the cliché-connection immediately.  If, instead, you were to reference their shade (perhaps moss colored instead of emerald?) and move on, you might be able to avoid the accusation of stereotyping. (But you gave her curly black hair too, didn’t you?  Confess.  You know, you did. *sigh*)  A time when these characters might be appropriate is, of course, in the interest of cliche bashing, which I am ever supportive of.  If you have a character that is supposed to be stereotypical and you clarify that to your reader, you might evade being accused of being unwittingly generic.  However, again, always be aware that these things are done, redone, and overdone, so the more often you can be unique, the better off you are.

While some people's eyes have a distinctive color, many people have eyes that are harder to distinguish. What do you think? Green or blue?

Hello, My name is Princess Violet and, Well, Yeah…

Watch out for the brave hero whose gaze absolutely must be a bright and glorious azure, the dulcet princess whose eyes are an astonishing purple hue (yes, we’re all stunned), or the villainous traitor whose black or yellow eyes as a toddler should have been a dead giveaway to all that he would turn evil when he came of age…

The reader should not feel like the eyes have anything to do with the fact that Our Hero is so heroic or Our Villain is so villainous, unless, of course, you are being brilliant and somehow the eyes are important. But that’s another matter.

Here’s an idea.  Mix things up.  Give the archvillain purple eyes instead of the princess.  They could be his lifelong sorrow because his minions won’t take him seriously.  “No, really, I’m evil! I swear!

Now, do be careful.  If you make your princess plain, don’t over-plain her to the point that your reader gets tired of it.  Yes, we know she’s plain.  We’re all impressed that she has overcome her lack of purple eyes so admirably.  Move on.  But switching things up and giving the hero boring brown eyes might make things a little more original.

Blue eyes... does that make me a hero by default? Does that mean bad guys automatically hate me? Does that at least mean I win in the end?

It’s a Race Thing

If you’re inventing non-human races, you can do all sorts of fun things with the eyes, of course.  Maybe they’re pure white (ooooh!) or green with pink pupils (ahhhhh!) or they change color according to the time of year (hmmmmmmm….).  Again, be careful.  This can be a good thing, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing.  It’s… too much.

If Eyes are Windows, How Much Stained Glass Can We Handle?

All in all, you can have all kinds of fun with character descriptions, but if you are constantly giving your characters jewel colored eyes, you will quickly lose any sort of effect that those eyes might have had.  Plain colors will be readily accepted by the reader and will make any astonishing derivations seem much more fantastic and interesting.

If you want to have some fun, do play around with eye colors, just so long as you are doing so knowledgeably and understanding that readers do pick up on those sorts of things.  The over-described hero/ine with the eyes that dance and sparkle and snap and shift in color from one moment to the next can get a little tedious for even the most admiring reader.  Really, when was the last time you saw someone’s eyes actually snap? No, really, I’m curious what that looks like.

I hate to be unkind, but just because you don’t have purple eyes doesn’t mean you must vicariously experience that dubious joy through every heroine you ever write.  It just doesn’t.  I’m sorry.

Now, on to write my arch-villain with the dewy violet gaze…

Black eyes... what did that mean again? Oh, right. Villain! My rabbit has black eyes... My rabbit is a-- oh dear.