Allegory: C.S. Lewis and Gun Kata

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Equilibrium with Christian Bale, you might want to watch that before reading this.

I’m not a big fan of allegory. I see the point of it as a teaching tool, but as a storytelling device, I think it fails, and here’s why. In allegory, the point of the story isn’t necessarily the story itself, but the meaning that is behind the story. I realize that there are themes in everything; you can’t get away from them. Unfortunately, allegory goes beyond themes, because it requires that everything, or almost everything, has a thematic analogue. Take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example. Aslan is Jesus Christ. The gifts of Father Christmas are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Edmund Pevensie is both Judas Iscariot and the proxy for the grace of God. I could go through the entire book and describe how it’s the Christian Gospel story retold. The Magician’s Nephew is about creation, even including a Garden of Eden scene. The Last Battle is essentially The Book of Revelation.

It's a beloved children's book, so I'm not going to rag on Narnia too much.

It’s a beloved children’s book, so I’m not going to rag on Narnia too much.

But that’s all fine, because C.S. Lewis was writing both for children in those books and to spread the Christian message. He was an unabashed apologist, especially if you look at the rest of his writing. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an even more obvious allegory, with the names being blatant descriptions of what they were supposed to be.

Allegory is great for devotional books, but for a storytelling and world building device, not so much. When you make a story an allegory, you’re not making a world of your own, you’re taking another world, even if it’s this world, and putting it into yours. If you’re honest about it being allegory, that’s fine, but at least be honest about it.

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

In the Kurt Wimmer movie Equilibrium, we’re treated to a flashy albeit logically impossible martial art called Gun Kata, where the users are able to predict and dodge bullets by using a set of exact movements, and they just have to remain standing still. In itself, that would serve for a nice two hours or so where I don’t have to think and just watch the fight scenes. The problem with it is that it also uses a dystopian environment as a direct allegory of the filmmaker’s apparent view that religion is evil.

Oh, look! He's wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

Oh, look! He’s wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

In the first scene, John Preston, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Errol Partridge, played by Sean Bean, confiscate books and artwork, simply because those cause emotion. You see, in the world of the movie, emotions are banned and suppressed with a drug called Prozium. A problem occurs when Preston finds Partridge reading a book of poem and legally executes him…because the sentence for emotion is death. This starts a chain of events where Preston starts questioning the law against emotion and rebelling against the totalitarian regime.

Now, where’s the allegory in that? You see, Preston is a cleric. In the movie, that means he’s trained in Gun Kata and able to dodge bullets (without superpowers, mind) and use the gun as the perfect weapon. If he was just a I’d have no problem, but he’s essentially a priest, and the law enforcement agency is the Grammaton Clerics, who are governed by the Tetragrammaton Council. Now, if you didn’t know, Tetragrammaton is from the Greek for “four letters” and is another name for the Judeo-Christian God, based the unpronounceable name of God, YHWH.

There’s at least one point where Preston does some fancy hand movements that mimic the letters in a scene just before going into a fight.
The rest of the movie pretty much hammers home the message. The execution is reminiscent of medieval robes and done by fire. Everything artistic, literary, and musical is banned. There’s even a Big Brother character known as “The Father” who is later revealed to have died years before. Now, if that’s not a stand-in for Nietzsche idea of “God is dead”, then I must be thinking of another Nietzsche. The message is basically slammed in your face, with absolutely no subtlety to it. If it had been more subtle, the message might have been more effective, but the scene where Preston is killing other clerics because the gun-priests want to kill a puppy was just silly.

Even in a good allegory, the message should line up with reality, and although the movie was definitely anti-religion, the points it was making just don’t add up. If Kurt Wimmer had wanted to say that religion removes individuality, which is apparently what he was going for, then there were more subtle ways to do it than saying religion removes emotion. Also, insinuating that priests were puppy-killers who shoot their friends in the face was a bit much too.

Basically, the problem I see with allegory, especially with how Wimmer handled it in Equilibrium, is that it hurts the final product if it’s too obvious. Equilibrium could have been a popcorn movie about a Big Brother regime that removes individuality and focuses on illogical but supremely fun to watch martial arts. If the allegory had been toned down or made more oblique, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed it and thought, “Hey, that was a fun movie.” As it was, the obvious shout-outs to the intended theme was a little jarring.
If you’re going to try to put a message in your book, movie, or other sort of media, do try to make it a little less obvious and jarring. Let your audience focus on the story rather than the message.

I’ll talk about allegory, themes, and messages in stories in later posts, but what books or movies do you think had allegorical themes that were a bit too obvious?

(Correction: A previous version of this post stated “There are a few times when the seal of the Tetragrammaton Clerics actually shows the letters YHWH.” This is based on a faulty memory of the movie. Sorry about that.)

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Gods and Heroes: How Myths Tell What We Value

Zeus, king of the Olympians and god of the sky. The ancient Greeks are now known to have painted the statues in bright colors.  He wouldn't have looked this...marbled.

Zeus, king of the Olympians and god of the sky. The ancient Greeks are now known to have painted the statues in bright colors. He wouldn’t have looked this…marbled.

When we look at mythology, we often see stories that are either interesting or make us do a double-take because they’re so freaking weird, at least to us.  When people hear the stories about Zeus and how he seduced a bunch of women by taking different forms, including a shower of gold and a swan (yes, a swan), we can sometimes just scratch our heads and wonder if the Greeks were toasting to Dionysus a bit too much. At the same time, we can also see what they were thinking simply by looking at the stories that we now call mythology.

What the sexual exploits of Zeus and the other Olympians reveal most is their view of heroes as divine. People were created by the gods, and so the greater people, who would automatically be our people, would actually have divine heritage. After all, people with divine heritage have a right to enslave people who aren’t divine, right? Yes, the Greeks had a lot of slaves, even the noble, democratic Athenians. The point is that many believed that, in order to have the right of rule, they had to have divine heritage, so their original king or patriarchal founder had to have a divine father, usually the king of the gods, Zeus.

The incident with the shower of gold was how Perseus was born. King Acrisius of Argos had received a prophecy that his grandson would kill him. To prevent it, Acrisius locked his daughter Danae in a tower, so she could never have a child. After all, if she was in a tower, she couldn’t get with anyone. Because he was such a horny beast, Zeus entered the room in a shower of gold and…well, Perseus was born nine months later. With the prophecy hanging over his head, Acrisius locked them both in a coffin and put them in the ocean. To make a long story short, they both survived and Perseus grew up to kill Medusa and kill a sea monster to save the princess Andromeda and her entire kingdom.

Oh, and Perseus then kills Acrisius with a discus by accident while competing in some games. By accident. Yeah, you can’t escape fate.

Myth is the story that holds the truth;That’s really what the shower of gold incident is about. It’s not about Zeus loving the freaky (which he does), but about how you can’t outwit fate. The fact that the main part of the story is a hero who ultimately becomes the founder of an entire people means that, to the Greeks, he must have a divine father, and so the strangeness of his birth is really all a part of that.

When reading myths, we need to consider what they’re really trying to say. They’re not just simple stories for children, and many are most certainly not for children. In his most famous work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined the Monomyth that supposedly works through all myth. It has some merit, but not every religion or mythos stacks up to Campbell’s work. Another mythologist is Sir James George Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough in 1890. Both men attempted to bring all the mythologies of the world under one primary mythos, but it simply doesn’t work.

Different cultures value different things, and so different mythologies will invariably reveal different values.  We’re all human, yes, but we all have different ideas, dreams, and  goals. The story I tell cannot be the same story that you tell, simply because we have different spins on life, different points of view. Even if you have two cultures that value honor, family, and respect, they’re going to interpret those values in different ways.

Two cultures have thunder gods. One of these is the king of the gods, and he wields his lightning to rain down torment on the heads of his enemies, regularly sending them to horrible fates in the underworld should they offend him all while fathering heroes and kings. The second of the thunder gods is a protector of mankind. He has a notorious appetite, able to devour an entire cow on his own, and yet he is also a god of fertile lands, as thunder brings rain. These two gods are Zeus and Thor, and the differences show how thunder and lightning are viewed according to the two cultures, as well as how they view their gods. The Olympians don’t really care about humans, not as a whole, at least. On the other hand, the Aesir and Vanir, the gods of the Norse, are the protectors of Midgard, hemming it in with mountains to protect it from Nifleheim, Muspelheim, and Jotunheim.

Apply these myths to a fictional world, and we can reveal what the cultures we make value  by the gods they worship. Apply them today, and we can see how people tend to be the same way.

If I worship a god who is harsh, unforgiving, and openly willing to torment people for the slightest of infractions, I would most likely show those same characteristics, or I might even worship that god because I’m already like that. On the other hand, if I worship a god who is forgiving, loving, and willing to teach people, then those are the characteristics I would show. A monotheist would most likely believe that there is only one truth as epitomized by their god. A polytheist might believe that there are many ways of looking at the world, as there are many gods with many domains and personalities. The second is how I see the world.

When we’re making myths, whether in a story or an actual religion, we need to be mindful of what values we’re telling, because myth is more than just stories, and it is definitely more than lies. Myth is the story that holds the truth; deeper than allegory, it contains a truth that can only be witnessed within the fiction.

Oh, and about the Zeus-becomes-swan incident…Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra (who later murdered her husband Agamemnon), and the divine twins Castor and Pollux (we know them today as the constellation Gemini). Zeus approached her as a swan, and she ended up having four children later that year…by laying eggs.

Okay, so sometimes, the myths are just freaking strange.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 3

I’m a few days later than I had intended, but I’m finishing up my series on “Mythopoeia”, the poem that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to convince C.S. Lewis (who was an atheist at the time) of the validity, even necessity of the creation of modern myth, as Tolkien is so famous for doing with Middle Earth.

“Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.”

In repeating “blessed are…” three times, Tolkien mimics the Beatitudes, where Jesus uses the same phrase a number of times in his Sermon on the Mount. Myth-makers are not simply fantasists, but heroes, however timid they may be in life, who are opposing evil by the very act of mythopoeia.

“Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.”

Again, Tolkien includes his Christian background by comparing the myth-makers to Noah, who built his ark to save humanity from the flood that destroyed the world. In this, myth-making is more than escapism from the world, but escapism to save the world.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

Here Tolkien expressed his general disdain for modern life, calling the modern focus on “economic bliss” a drug, comparing it both to the lotus eaters and the memory erasing Circe, both found in The Odyssey. Myth is not something that we find in history, but something deeper and wider than what has actually been or what is physically real. It is deep and real, and the fact that it is not “organized delight” makes it a personal thing for the “legend-makers with their rhyme” who are then able to come more closer to however they understand the Divine Truth.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

Tolkien is declaring, not just his desire to read myth, but to make it. The minstrels who sing the songs that stir our emotions and the mariners who bring back stories of a distant world, of sirens and harpies, Cyclopes and dog-head men: these are what inspires him. We who are called fools for caring so much about an unseen world, hiding away our hearts from the cold, regimented world; we are the myth-makers.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

This is one of my favorite passages of all time. “I will not walk with your progressive ape, erect and sapient. Before them gapes the dark abyss to which their progress tends…” Tolkien is going all out in blasting the progressive ideals that leave myth behind. Where are we going, and why should blind progression be automatically better? If the names we give things are the only way we know them, where is the meaning to our live? Why should a crow be only a crow, and not be Huginn and Muninn? Why should a mushroom be only a mushroom, and not a spot where the Fair Folk dance? When will we realize that the removal of Myth from our lives yields us to the Iron Crown, which Tolkien ascribed to Morgoth, the original Dark Lord?

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

And now we come to the ultimate purpose of Myth. Paradise, the ultimate Divine Truth. There are monsters and evil things in myth, yes, but they only show us what is in this world, the monsters that we must confront, the villains that we must defeat. Perseus slew Medusa and turned her on the king who set him up for death. Theseus slew the Minotaur with the help so needed to him. Odysseus opposed a god and lived to retake his home. Cú Chulainn stood against his foes to be remembered as a mighty hero.

When all is said and done, Myth inspires us to reach beyond what we are. It’s more than just a man’s story, as women in myth are also strong, crafty, and as brave as the men they face. Deirdre, Rhiannon, and Arianrhod had troubles, but they still continued. Myth allows us to see beyond this world, beyond the cold rocks and hard bark of the trees to see the gnomes and dryads that dwell within our hearts. Through those, we can come closer to the Paradise that we seek. Tolkien was a Christian, and so his Divine Truth was the Judeo-Christian Paradise. Whether you seek Elysium, Valhalla, or Tir Na Nog, myth is the path your soul takes you to the Transcendent Divine.

If you seek none of those, but rather seek to better understand yourself, myth-making is the perfect way to that. Truth is more than what we are told; it is what is. By myth-making, we become the bards, the poets, the minstrels, and the mariners. We become Taliesin, Merlin, and Tiresias. World creation can be so much more than creating a setting for a game or a story; it can be the creation of a myth, a living, breathing world.

Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings all resonate with people so strongly that the people who love them are more than fans, but almost religious devotees. It’s because they did more than just create a world. They created a myth.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 2

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1916

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he first created Middle Earth in the trenches of WWI.

In my last post, I discussed the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, which was written to C.S. Lewis when he had been dismissive of myth and escapist fantasy as “wish-fulfillment.” In the poem, named after a term Tolkien coined with uses the Greek roots “mythos” and “poeia” to mean “myth-making”, Tolkien not only defends, but celebrates the concept of myth as something real, alive, and vital to human existence. In the section I’m going to discuss here, Tolkien defends it as our divine right.

“Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.”

“Yes trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen…” This phrase fairly well sums up the layers of meaning that I discussed in my previous entry in this series. Trees exist without us, and without the mythic layers we add in our understanding, but all that we know about them and all that we feel about them requires us to name them. Naming is a decidedly mythic thing to do, and is a part of many myths and religions as a thing that is given to gods and heroes.

“Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.”

And of course, because it’s Tolkien, there are going to be elves. Elves are the archetype of a mythic race for many, masters of poetry and the forging of great things. Even as we now consider dwarves to be master craftsmen today, that honor was once given to elves. In fact, what we know of as fantasy dwarves, with thanks due to Tolkien, evolved out of the svartalfr of Nordic lore, a name that means “dark elf.”

As for the rest of this portion, Tolkien is saying that mythmakers created their myths out of looking backward in time and culture. An ancient time, now lost to empirical understanding, is a place of legend, emotion, and myth. There may be some imagination built in, but imagination has its place, and when it’s honest, it makes the story more real, thus making it mythic.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Tolkien doesn’t just ask the question, “Can we know of something without imagining mythically?” He flat out gives the answer: no, we can’t. To Tolkien, nothing exists and nothing is seen except through the mythic, legendary, and poetic meaning that we give to it. Yes, stars exist, and we can see the burning balls of gas far above us, but without a frame of reference, what is it that we see but specks of light? Myth is the frame of reference by which we see.

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

And here Tolkien exhibits three ideals. First, is his Christian worldview, in that he believes that “the only Wise” is a singular, male deity, and that “gods and their houses out of dark and light” are creations of Man. At the same time, he believes that, in the second point I want to mention and unlike many who have spoken and written through the centuries within Christianity, that mankind is “not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” No matter our origin, whether you are a Christian, atheist, or pagan, there is no denying the creative power of humanity, which is the third point I want to bring up here. We have the creative power, and not only that, but it is our right to do so, to create fill “the crannies of the world” with elves, goblins, and other beings, to be like Theseus and Cadmus in sowing the seed of the dragon’s teeth.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

As if in answer to a previous accusation by Lewis, Tolkien admits to creating dreams of wish fulfillment and avoid harsh reality. In this stanza, he admits to and celebrates the fact that myth, particularly myth creation, is escapist by nature. In the end, he answers why it must be, because “of Evil this alone is deadly certain: Evil is.”

The very fact that there is such a thing as evil gives us the need to do something about it, and often, we feel powerless in the face of it. Mythopoeia, or the creation of myths, is just that. In our escapism, we can create the ideal, and by creating the ideal heroes, we give them monsters to fight. Our heroes are the ideal, and the monsters we create are the embodiment of evil.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 1

J.R.R. Tolkien

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth

I want to talk about a poem by one of the masters of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, Tolkien has been called the Father of Modern Fantasy, as it was his work, especially, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion , that have inspired fantasy writers for the second half of the century, ever since the story of the War of the Ring became popular in the Sixties. In the poem Mythopoeia, Tolkien explains his view of the validity of myth, particularly of the creation of myth, which is what the word “mythopoeia” means. Since it’s so long, I’m going to be breaking this discussion into three parts, with this as the first part.

So, here’s Mythopoeia by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

“To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus”

First off, we can see from the dedication that the poem was intended for C.S. Lewis, whom Tolkien calls “Misomythus”, or Myth Hater. I’m assuming that this was written before Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity, as he had, before his conversion, been a rationalist, which often denies the validity of myth.

 “You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.”

I love the beginning of this. Myth is much more than just a lie believed by savages. It’s living poetry that keeps us from being trapped in a cold and inane world where all we are is atoms. With myth, whether organic or created, we become alive, more than someone who simply calls “some matter in a ball, compelled to courses mathematical.”

“At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.”

Time marches on, and what are we in the great scheme of things? As we see the world continue, “from dark beginnings to uncertain goals”, we see “an endless multitude of forms.” These forms are the things by which we make our myth, all originating from the “remote Origo”, a term that means, essentially, the origin of all we’re discussing. In this case, the origo of the world.

 “God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.”

As a Christian, it makes sense that Tolkien would proscribe the creation of the world to God, and he imbues in the world a mythic standard. While some of the phrases, like “tellurian earth”, “stellar stars”, and “homuncular men”, are redundant, that may be the point. Myth involves layers upon layers of meaning, and when those layers are redundant, it adds intention, strength, and purpose to them. Of course earth is tellurian, and stars are obviously stellar, but Tolkien’s point is that they are more than just the thing we see. There is a deeper meaning that is not understood through words or science, but through meditation on the nature of what it means to be tellurian, stellar, and homuncular.

As we’ve seen, myth is more than simply stories; it’s the layers of meaning that are hidden beneath the way we view the world. When we create a world of our own, to make it real, we need to do more than simply copy the work of others. Elves, dwarves, and orcs are fine to include. Dragons, chimeras, and gryphons are great. Make them your own. Give them your own meaning, not just something to say, “This isn’t like the rest.” Make it something that is yours, coming from your view of the world, and therefore from your world. Even if you’re not religious, making a living, meaningful fantasy world borders on a religious experience, because it’s drawing from the myth that gives you meaning.

Subcreation and the Religion of Myth-Making

I haven’t been writing much on world building lately, and I think I know why. You see, sometimes, meaning most times, I tend to forget that it’s not just about making a fantasy world for a story that I’m writing. It’s not just a game. Tolkien used the word “subcreation” to describe it. In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which was originally a speech, he talked about the nature of fantasy and the creation of fictional realms as a religious experience. As a Catholic, he believed that the world was created by a divine spark, namely, the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments. The greater Creation was the work of God, and creation was part of the very nature of God. That said, because, as the Bible claims, man is made in the image of God, Man (I’m using it as a gender neutral term meaning “humanity”) is a natural creator.

Some would say that it just means that we create life by having children, but Tolkien believed, and I agree, that it means that we create. Not just life, but art, dreams, fantasies, and even entire worlds. Subcreation is a way of expressing the world in a new way, showing it through the lens perspective of Man’s image. If Man is made in God’s image, then elves, dwarves, and…yes, even orcs…are made in Man’s image. It’s not enough for us to simply create a fantasy world and leave it alone as if it has no meaning. It has loads of meaning.

Tolkien’s work has been loved by both Christians and Pagans alike. It has the Messianic overtones in Lord of the Rings that resonate with Christians, but also shows the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell as being in many world religions. Tolkien’s deep love of the past and the balance of nature is very Druidic in nature. I’ve even heard of people who take the Valar (as seen in The Silmarillion) for their personal gods. It may not be how he intended it, but remember that this is a man who, by his own admission, hated all forms of allegory. It wasn’t his purpose to make Middle Earth his allegorical manifesto, but to create a mythology for England, and mythology has the natural tendency to resonate differently with different people.

I suppose that’s why I started with the topic of religion when I started up the blog. You see, I don’t really want to turn this into a philosophizing collection of religiosity, but world building really is a religious experience for me. I’m not going to get into what that religion is, because, for one, it’s not really what this is about. This is about your creation of your mythology. World building, when done effectively, is more than just writing for entertainment; it’s the mythological expression of the soul of the world builder. The second reason I’m not going to say my religion is because, by seeing my soul through my world, you’ll probably be able to figure out what it is I believe and what I used to believe eventually, if you care enough to look, that is.

For me, at least, world building is so much more than just creating a story. It’s creating a mythology, forging a Subcreation as a work of art and, even if you don’t believe in a supernatural deity, an act of worship. Whether you worship the Christian Trinity, the Wiccan Horned God and Triple Goddess, or the rational influences of empirical sciences, creating a world of your own is a great way to not just reveal, but experience what is truly important to you.

The Seven Kinds of Holiday

Okay, so my last two posts have been about religion. How about a trinity of religion posts? Okay, I’m sorry. No puns. Puns are heresy. Okay, I got that out of the way.

I want to talk about holidays. We just got done with Easter this year, and there are so many different ways people celebrate it. At least, there are different meanings for it.

For some, it’s the highlight of their year, the great holy day of the cosmic resurrection cycle of Christianity. For others, it’s the one day a year they go to church, the holy day that they remind themselves of their religion. For even others, it’s a day to go hunt for plastic eggs filled with candy (or in some more adult versions, with miniature whiskey bottles). But wait, there’s more! For some, it’s not Easter at all, but Pesach, Passover, the reminder of when the Israelites were freed from slavery to Egypt. For pagans, it’s the time of year when they mark the spring equinox. And then there are those who don’t care, who don’t celebrate holidays because they’re not religious. There are also those who don’t celebrate it because their religion forbids holidays.

Wait, that’s seven groups of people, seven different ways to view a holiday. This is going to be a long one.

1.      Mythic Remembrance

Now, before you think I’m insulting religion, I’m not using the world “mythic” in a derogatory sense. In fact, I think that not only does all religion have a mythic aspect, but non-religion does too. Why else would Browncoats hold so dearly to the freedom ideals of Firefly, or Trekkies make Star Trek a major part of their life? Myth is simply the medium of stories that bring us deeper meaning. For some, holidays are not so much about historical remembrance or annual cookouts, but about the mythic remembrance of their god. As far as many Christians are concerned, Easter is not just about a day when a man was crucified, but about the metaphysical point in all time when their deity passed the threshold and returned, fulfilling the hero’s journey and giving them the chance to live.

Now, I’ll admit, having grown up a Christian, I don’t know about how other religions view holidays like this, but I’m sure that they exist, where the holiday is just that, a holy day. It’s a point in space time where Divinity touches the Earth, where our reality is subsumed by the Greater Reality. If you’re going to create a religion for a fantasy world, or even for a science fiction setting, it’s important to remember that this is how many holidays either begin or end up. Liturgies and ritual tend to be the most important part of this kind of holiday, and they can be anything from sedate and stern to celebratory and ecstatic.

2.      Historical Remembrance

While the celebration of this kind of holiday can be similar to the mythic remembrance days, it’s different in that it’s to celebrate a historical event, and although Divinity might play a part, it’s more about what happened rather than what happens. Passover, when the Israelites left Egypt, Hanukkah, when the Temple was rededicated, and American Independence Day, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, all have one thing in common, they celebrate a historical event. Whereas the mythic remembrance days focus on something that is, in the perspective of the believers, continually happening, the historical remembrance days focus on something that happened, although it still affects them today.

These two perspectives may often merge in the same day. They may even be perspectives held by the same person. Since they’re not mutually exclusive, it would be fairly easy to create holidays that have both of them in this vein, and simply have different groups give different emphases, much like certain groups in America seem to hold up July 4 as a mythic day as much as they do a historical day.

3.      Annual Cycle

This one is a bit different from the other two in that it’s not always a distinctly religious holiday. Take New Year’s Eve, for example. Annual cycle holidays started out as ways to maintain the seasons and give meaning to the year, and for many, that’s still what they do. In Wicca, at least, they have the high days of the year that show the annual death and rebirth of the Horned God and the transition of the Triple Goddess from maiden, to mother, to crone. The Jewish Rosh Hashanah is as much an annual cycle day as much as it is both a historical remembrance and mythic remembrance day.

Annual cycle days are, in fact, often a subset of mythic remembrance days. Bringing the mythic cycle into the yearly calendar makes it real, and when you have a religion, a real, living religion, there is going to be myth whether you know it or not. Why else would people take the concept of New Year’s Resolutions seriously enough to even try them? Why wait for them? If you’re creating a religion for you world, remember that they need to have some way to count the years and a framework for their lives. The yearly cycle, or even the monthly cycle, is perfect for that.

4.      The Annual Reminder of Religion

Of course, there are some who will not be as devout in their religion as others, perhaps going to their place of worship only for the high holy days. This happens in the real world, and it will happen in any credible fictional world. They might even have a perfectly valid reason for this. It may be, though, that the religion is more of a cultural thing. It’s expected to listen to the priests, to celebrate the holidays. They don’t really have anything against it, but it just doesn’t have that much ritual oversight in the normal, everyday aspect of their lives. When you create a religion for your world, make sure that there are segments of the population who simply are not as…overt…in their piety.

5.      Food and Fun

Not all holidays are going to be religious, and sometimes, they’re just going to be about nothing more than having fun. Sure, Mardi Gras started out as a holiday to kick off Lent, basically do all the things you’re not supposed to do before you spend forty days not doing them. Now, it’s really not much more than an excuse for drunken debauchery. Of course, I’m not sure if ever was much more than that, but whatever.

Holiday celebration that is simply about having a good time is pretty normal, and for many, it’s the same holidays that the überreligious people are celebrating. For others, they just make up their own. Take Pi Day for example. March 14, also written as 3/14 in the U.S. is a day to celebrate math, the ratio of area over circumference, and eat pie. That’s really all it is. It’s pretty entrenched in geek culture, at least, and it seems to be growing.

These holidays seem to happen more when there isn’t really a strong religious or mythic undercurrent to a culture. People just need to celebrate, to hold something up as important and do something to remember it, like eat pie or, well, talk like a pirate. Sure, it’s silly, but the fact that it’s grown naturally shows it’s an important part of culture.

6.      Secular Non-Holiday

Now, not everyone wants to celebrate a holiday. When you’re not religious, or when you’re not a part of the religion celebrating the holiday, you just treat the day like a normal day. It might actually get in your way, how everyone treats it differently. Businesses are closed on Easter, and those who are simply not religious might want to get something done that day, but they can’t because, well, the people running those businesses are off celebrating. This isn’t as much of an issue in homogenized cultures, but in areas where there’s culture clash, you have people who just want the holiday to be a normal day. That’s not to say that people won’t have holidays, but rather that they’ll have different holidays.

7.      Religious Non-Holiday

Of course, there are always those who simply don’t have holidays. Some religions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that holidays are idolatry. While they do have a very strong religion that guides them, their ascetic nature keeps them from taking part in what the culture around them, or the culture they left, considers holy days.

 

Now that you’ve got an image of the different ways that culture can view holidays, what kind of special celebrations and rituals are you going to come up with for your world’s religion? There are different rituals from all around the world and all through time to choose from, and any mix of them would work in a fantasy world.

Religion: You can’t avoid it, but you can make it what you want.

Okay, so, last night, I put up a blog about religion. Specifically, about the different ways that deity or deities can be viewed within religion. It was more of an overview than anything, and I’m certain that there’s more to say on the subject. Now I want to go into the why. Why should you bother including religion in your constructed world? You may be an atheist and nonreligious, or even opposed to religion. You may be religious and not want to include anything that doesn’t mirror your own. These are both valid concerns. Really, they’re the same concern .

Why would you include a sociocultural point of reference in your fictional world that disagrees with the real world?

That’s the concern.

If that’s the case, then why are you making a fictional world to begin with? You’re creating a fictional world, but making a world is making everything that would be in a world. Religion is a part of the world as much as settlements and towns, even if it’s organized  irreligion. If you don’t want to make a religion, go the Gene Roddenberry route and make humanity “evolve past religion”, but even in Star Trek, the Prime Directive is treated religiously as the guide to all things good. Breaking the Prime Directive is treated in the same way as blasphemy. If you want to make only your religion, then make it allegory.

My point is that, when you’re making a full-fleshed and believable world, you need to take it seriously and to not take it seriously. It’s not this world, so you shouldn’t be so serious about copying this world. At the same time, if it’s supposed to be two or three hundred years into the future, you should consider using religions that exist, but consider that things will change. I have one religion in a science fiction world I’m developing that doesn’t appear until the early twenty-first century, because do we really believe that no new religions will form?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when creating a religion for a science fiction story:

  1. Is your bias getting in the way? Are you removing religion from your world because you want it removed, or because you sincerely believe that will die out on its own?

    Take Joss Whedon’s Firefly as an example. Whedon isn’t religious, and he certainly isn’t Christian, but he still had the presence of mind to include multiple forms of Christianity five centuries into the future. That’s a case of someone, who may not agree with a religion, understanding that the religion won’t simply go away.

  1. Are there sects or denominations that seem to be merging in their ideas? What new ideas might come out of what’s already here? In what way would a charismatic leadership be able to form a new religion out of what’s here?

    When creating a new world, whether a future world or a fantasy world, it’s a good idea to research the topics you’re using. I don’t mean to become a doctoral student on everything, but to at least have a passing knowledge of religion, society, culture, and the rest of the building blocks of the world. Religion forms through theology as much as it does through the charisma of teachers, and the social surroundings play a major part in it. Look into how other religions and sects formed through history and what was going on around them, what might have led people to that.

  1. Think of what new changes would happen in society that would prompt an entirely new religion? How would the religious react to terraforming planets, mining asteroids, or simply living in space?

    Might there be a religion formed around faster-than-light travel, or perhaps about opposing FTL? Might a religion believe that terraforming, or making an uninhabitable planet inhabitable, is the highest form of worship? Might a religion react to the vastness of space by becoming a cold warrior race that worships the entropic nature of the universe?

When you’re making a religion for fantasy, you might ask yourself these.

  1. Does my bias get in the way?

    It’s a bit more forgivable to allow religious bias in fantasy, since you’re making the world up from scratch and not reinventing the real world. Also, fantasy has been used for religious allegory for centuries. At one point, John Bunyon wrote about giants and monsters in Pilgrim’s Progress, and in the last hundred years, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have added to the debate with Lewis’s Christian series The Chronicles of Narnia and Pullman’s atheist series His Dark Materials.

    I’ll just say this. If you have religious bias in writing your fantasy, make sure that it’s intentional. There’s little that’s worse than an unintentional bias.

  1. What is the actual cosmology of the world and how would people react to that?

    The nature of religion is still important, but knowing if there really are gods and goddesses, angels and demons, or other spirits out there, would really help to know how religion would be affected. Do the deities take part in the world? Do they physically order the world and form the religion? People can get it wrong, easily. A fantasy world doesn’t require the presence of deity, simply the presence of magic.

  1. Are there any more questions I need to ask?

    Okay, I realize that this one is a copout. I didn’t have a third question for the fantasy section, so I just added this one. Still, it’s important to never stop asking questions. Was there something I missed? Was there something I could have done better? If you have a story set down already that delineates your world, then it’s canonized. But even then, it’s not that you don’t have to change it; it’s that you can’t. I’m not saying never write your story out, but never stop trying to figure out if there’s more you can do, maybe in later stories in that world.

Religion: Gods of a Fictional World

Okay, I want to talk about religion for a bit. I know, there’s that whole thing about not talking about religion or politics in polite company. So, I guess we’re not polite company. Great, glad we got that out of the way. Religion is a big deal, and when you’re making a fictional world, it’s not the best idea to just leave it out, ignoring how it would work in your world. People need something to believe in, and they will disagree with each other on what that means. That said, there will likely be multiple religious views in whatever world you make. In fact, I don’t really see how a world without religion, or a world with just one religion, would happen. If there’s a single, dominating religion, there will be people step up and make their own, for whatever reasons sincere or insincere.

For right now, I’m just going to talk about the different ways of viewing divinity. One god, many gods, all god. This isn’t just about the cosmology of the world and what is actually there, but what the people of that religion believe. You can certainly apply these to how your world actually is, but remember that, because people will disagree on what god means, there will be people who view it incorrectly.

Monotheism

The belief that only one god exists and the rejection of the claim that other gods of equal power exist. The Abrahamic religions are the most obvious to people today as being monotheistic, but that doesn’t mean that they are the only religions that have ever been, or even are, focused on the belief in only one god. It certainly doesn’t mean that, in making your world, you have to base a monotheistic religion on one of the Abrahamic religions.

It’s up to you, but there are a number of ways to view monotheism, and a key thing to remember is that, even if the deity in your world isn’t a real being, approach making the religion by delineating the deity of the religion as being a character in your story with a personality, however large or small you want to make it.

Dualism

The belief that there are two gods, but no more. Dualistic religions can claim that the two gods are opposed to each other, as in the good and evil deities of Zoroastrianism, or that they are complementary to each other, as in the Horned God and Triple Goddess of Wicca. Dualism can also flavor other religions, as some aspects of Christianity involve a sort of dualism between St. Michael the Archangel and Lucifer while maintaining the primary monotheism.

Polytheism

Polytheism is, simply put, a belief in and worship of multiple gods. Simply believing that other gods exist doesn’t make a religion polytheistic, but if they are all worshiped, at least at some point, then it is. Greco-Roman, Norse, and Celtic religions would be most common to Westerners, but it is one of the most common religious types out there. This one can not only lend the most variety with the gods you include, with each god have a different domain, but also be a great example of how the culture works. Greek culture, for example, included Dionysus, god of wine, revelry, and women who tear your head off, as well as Athena, goddess of wisdom as well as war.

Henotheism

Henotheism is something between polytheism and monotheism. It’s essentially the worship of a single god while believing that other gods not only exist, but can be worshiped. Say your culture is predominantly polytheistic, but you have temple sects where the priests, and some of the worshipers, only follow the god of that temple. Those sects would be henotheistic aspects of the greater polytheistic religion. It’s not a big deal to get the terms down in whatever story you write, but just try to remember that, just because your culture has thirty different gods, that doesn’t mean that people will worship all thirty, or even more than one.

Monolatry

Monolatry, or monolatrism, is a pretty interesting case here. Like monotheism and henotheism, it involves the worship of only one god. At the same time, it doesn’t dispute that other gods or divine spirits exist; it just rejects the possibility of worshiping them. Essentially, monolatry claims, “Yes, these spirits you call gods exist, but my god is the only one that should be worshiped.” Take the Thirty-God culture I mentioned before and add a sect that doesn’t just only worship its one god, but rejects the other twenty-nine gods as being worthy of worship.

Pantheism

Pantheism is the belief that the Divine is not simply transcendent or in Heaven, but is everything. In pantheism, God is not just in the world, but is the world. Plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and even people are all divine. There are elements of pantheism in a lot of the world’s religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Gnosticism. If you’re including pantheism in your world’s religions, take note that you can make it pantheistic while still including elements of other pantheon types.

Panentheism

Unlike pantheism, panentheism doesn’t believe that God is all things, but rather that God is transcendent and exists in everything, but separate from it. Instead of being all things, God is in all things. It’s a fine point to make, but fine points are what make your world interesting. The devil is in the details, but the god can be found there too.

Animism

Like pantheism, animism believes that everything is divine, but instead of all being part of a single divine entity, the spirits are differentiated from each other. It’s not all as simple as that, either. Perhaps in your world all animals have divine natures, or animals and plants have divine nature.

Atheism

I realize that you’d be unlikely to have an atheistic religion, but there is such a thing as non-theistic religions, where they have the philosophy and even ritual of a religion, but they don’t focus on a divine nature at all. At the same time, consider that you might have cultures and traditions that are atheistic in nature. After all, you want your fictional world to be realistic in some sense, right?

 

Anyway, that’s all the religious types I have for you for now. I’ll be going deeper into crafting religions in later posts.