Friday, August 11, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #22: Spreading Ideas

Religions spread ideas, either as an entire religion, or more often, as an idea that gets reinterpreted and re-examined as its incorporated into an existing religion. In turn, those new ideas change how characters think, feel, act, and interpret the world around them. Those ideas can also fail to change a person. How that person changes or doesn't changes is a story.

While other aspects of religion can be reduced to color and characters, ideas can't. Being exposed to ideas, examining them, and determining how they fit or don't fit is the very stuff of stories. Not every idea need be chased or thrown open, but at least some of them must, on presentation, have something to do with the story.

We see this very firmly in Star Trek: The Original Series. On one side we have Spock saying, "Logic dictates," while we have Dr. McCoy on the other doing his best to fulfill his Hippocratic Oath. Both these ideas provide compelling arguments, requiring Kirk to do the hard work of leading.

Nothing spreads ideas like religion because religions are packages of ideas, but not perfect packages. Although these ideas may appear to be systematic, they are systems in the loosest possible sense, more like Rube Goldberg machines than sleek engines, mated to parts from older systems while creating custom parts for itself.

When parts of religion move, they don't just plug into a culture, they require a culture to learn and adapt, to rebuild connections, to remove some ideas and alter other, until those ideas again resemble a workable system, no matter how cumbersome.

When ideas are moved, they get translated into something that the local population can understand. Because of that, old ideas stick around even while new ideas show up, and the new ideas change in character because of this translation.

The same holds true for characters, for people. Each person learning a new idea must also incorporate it into their life, figuring out what must stay and what must go, and what conflicts prove irresolvable. Ideas are the very stuff of internal conflict. Ideas are the very stuff of character growth.

Because ideas take a while for characters to understand, the character gains a continuous way to grow as the story unfolds because their understanding of the idea deeps and evolves, from a shallow understanding to an ever increasingly complex understanding. In this way, your character can never fully understand any idea, and so always have something to get wrong, consider, and improve upon.

Paganism is generally better at absorbing new ideas than monotheism as paganism is because that religion is neither comprehensive nor centralized. That doesn't mean that paganism embraces all new ideas, because there's old codgers who shout "get off my lawn" in every culture throughout history. This also doesn't mean that monotheism doesn't absorb new ideas, but with its comprehensiveness, folding in new ideas takes far more work. In the end, there's more than enough idea flying about that something new is always coming along. Damn kids.

Given long enough, ideas get absorbed, adding more complication to religion as some ideas don't always mesh well. New gods get accepted. The novel becomes the ordinary. New ideas appear. Society is really good at coming up with new ideas.

Ideas spread a number of ways. Travelers bring their culture with them, so there's always some cultural exchange going on. This is especially true with slaves and prisoners, who learn about where they are and in turn relate what they know. Religion and cults also seek to spread themselves, sending out people for the sole purpose of spreading the cult or religion. This may go well or go badly, depending on whose lawn you stepped on. Some concepts just don't translate easily. The rarest way that an idea spreads is through force, because killing the person you're supposed to be convincing is the essence of futile. There are scholar who believe that Islam spread like wildfire, not because there were swords, but because people were so sick and tired of their current government and religion that they used invaders as a means of revolution.

Ideas are spread through schools. However, temples and churches didn't necessarily run schools through most of history, and where they did teach, they taught the specific religious language necessary to act as a priest. Most schools operated independently of temples and churches.

Finally, there's stories, which spread ideas better than most everything else. Religions are chock full of stories. Perhaps its better to say that stories form religion rather than religion forming stories. In that sense, a religion is a shared set of stories that create a relationship between ourselves and the divine shared between people.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Friday, August 4, 2017

Religion on Fantasy #21: Do's and Don'ts of Religion

Life is filled with do's and don'ts, and these little prescriptions add more to the lives of our characters than the big beliefs. Some of these do's and don'ts are religious in nature, shared by entire communities, affecting every way that a community looks and feels, down to the rhythm of a day.

Do's are the easier things to identify. These are the things that add character and texture to a people or place that's not like the character and texture of another people or place.

If you go into a Chinese or Indian restaurant, you are bound to see statues near the cash register, presumably divine beings of good fortune. They are part of the landscape, part of what a restaurant ought to have and ought to be. You won't see the same thing going into a McDonald's. (That might be a lie. Is Ronald like a divine being, too?)

Among Christians, you're bound to see crosses on crucifixes. You might see other sorts of crucifixes, too, but mostly you see necklaces. Crucifixes are frequently put above doors, or in the most important room of the house. Presumably, the crucifixes keep evil from entering the front door, or is given a place firmly among the family.

On Saturday, near a synagog, you'll see Jews, dressed in black, walking to services. On Sundays, the Christians drive to church. Among Muslims, they stop and pray multiple times per day, facing Mecca. Religion affects the rhythm of life, the way in which time passes.

For each thing that's allowed, it seems that there's something else forbidden. On Fridays, Catholics may skip eating meat. You won't find the Jews or Muslims eating pork. The Jews might not clip the locks of their hair. The Amish refuse more modern technology, riding about in horse and carriages while others drive in cars.

Fasting is one of the most common don'ts across the world. All cultures seem to have fasting traditions, people self-deny themselves for religious reasons. The discipline of controlling hunger seems entwined with the discipline of religion.

During some times of the year and some events, some do's become don'ts and some don't become do's. Fat Tuesday is the non-religious day of feasting and revelry that precedes the religious season of Lent, where the people deny themselves. In that day before, restraint is thrown off, and gluttony becomes a virtue.

The clothing of specialists is always regulated. Nobody can dress like a priest except a priest. Yet, there's a time where someone learning to be the clergy is able to change clothes, is able to go from someone forbidden from wearing certain clothing to being the person who wears those clothes. What was once forbidden is now allowed, at least for them.

The rules of cleanliness are rife with do's and don'ts, especially as doing the wrong thing can sully something holy, or ruin the relationship with something divine. Holy places make sure that their special spaces are fenced off, set aside, safe from people doing the wrong thing, safe from don'ts enacted by ignorant people.

People who are especially religious take on more do's and don'ts than the average person. A Buddhist monk carries only a walking stick and a begging bowl. A Franciscan monk forswears wealth. A Crusader volunteers to fight for a religious cause. A priest becomes responsible for the spiritual well being of people who he may not know.

A few select do's and don'ts can go a long way to giving a texture and feel to characters, peoples, and places. Sometimes the effects will be modest, but at other times, the effects will reverberate through the story as some do's and don'ts will derail the plot, sending it off into new and unexpected directions.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Skies of Pern (2001)

From the opening paragraphs, The Skies of Pern (2001) by Anne McCaffrey shows the many hands that contributed to it, as paragraphs and descriptions flow in a very un-McCaffrey like way, but the bulk of the story remains pure McCaffrey. The book feels like a last horrah, one where many plot lines are wrapped up once and for all, where many gender wrongs and a righted, and providing yet another answer to the question of what dragon riders will do when threadfall is over.

The books works mostly as three intertwined novellas rather than as a single overarching novel, which lends itself to the feeling of a more complete work.

The novels starts off agonizingly slow, following yet more Abominationists. I nearly gave up on the book as this section bored me. Meanwhile, we have a romance begin between F'lessan and a green rider. (This is not a spoiler because the book makes it very plain that these two will be shacking up at the end of Act 2). About a hundred pages in, the novel finally gets some Pern-like momentum, with yet more disasters to show the studliness of our dragon riders. The B-Plot of the Abominationists continues, dragging the plot whenever it shows up. In my opinion, the entire B-plot could get dumped with no harm to the work.

I feel like one plot thread was left dangling. I had expected that Toric would finally get his come-uppance, eventually getting himself exiled, while F'lar and Lessa would have finally decided to retire south, but neither of these two plot threads came to anything. My guess is that both were in the original plot outline, but length considerations and manuscript delivery dates cut those threads shorts.

Expect to see some and all your favorite characters. If you haven't read a Pern novel before, don't start here. You'll see character both prevalent and obscure rear their heads, including those from short stories and B-plots.

Thanksfully, most of the plot talking-head scenes tend to stay on topic and actually progress the plot, rather than just suck down air.

My understanding is that there's some vigorous discussion on the dragon abilities discovered in this work. I find that this yet-another-discovery is no less contrived than all the other contrived discoveries of the Ninth Pass, so it works well enough for me. I've already accepted teleporting telepathic dragons. What's a little more unbelievability?

Even with all its flaws, this book still works better than most of McCaffrey's non-Pern books, the ones where she didn't have strong editors or supporting writers, especially those written in the aimless 90's. The book will scratch your Pern itch, or drive a stake through it's heart, or both.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Religion on Fantasy #20: Social Status

How can you look better than your neighbors? In the world of social competition, no area of civil life is safe from one-upmansship. Religion happens to be one place where you can blow lots of money to look good.

Most religious buildings are not built by the state, they're built by individuals or collections of individuals. Go into any church and you'll see quite a few areas where people are memorialized or thanked. This is because they donated money to the church to build these areas, and in response, the church helped them to look good, be you they king or peasant. The term for this sort of phenomena is memorial architecture.

When you look at at many of the most famous religious buildings in the world, they trace their origin back to powerful kings or powerful empires. Building those structures cost a literal fortune, so the ruler made sure that his story was carved all over it. These buildings may be for the glory of the gods, but the king makes sure that he gets his own due, too. It's due to building like that, and other structures like statues and obelisks, that we know anything about ancient history at all.

Not all memorial architecture is religious, but all of it serves the social status of the memorialized.

Another area where people with money can look good is with sacrifice. Cattle are wealth, so the more cattle that you give away as sacrifices to the temple, the more wealth that you display. You can tell who has more and who has less. Strangely enough, those who benefit from lavish sacrifices are the poor. Meat is generally out of their reach, because they can't maintain cattle, but the temples need to do something with all the meat left over, so they sell it for far less than cost, because they produce so much of it every day, or if there's excessive sacrifices, they give the meat away. In this way, the rich supplement the diets of the poor.

Being seen inside the temples is also good for your reputation. To throw yourself behind the gods is to throw yourself behind the establishment. It's that kind of looking good to others that Ben Franklin understood very well.

Getting your relatives into religious institutions is another way of social climbing. If you could get your relative a good religious position, you did. The religious position was proof of your piety, even if you did pay through nose to get it.

Of course, worshipping the right gods is always a smart move. When someone new is the ruler, and he has a favorite god, he becomes your favorite god, too. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. People brought as prisoners to other countries often take on the worship of those countries, going native rather than maintain a separate identity. Keeping your own identity in a foreign land is bound to keep down on the social ladder.

Even among the non-elite, these rules of looking good apply. The wealth may be less grandiose, but churches and temples still need to get built, and usually its the people in the locality that do it. Some people want to be seen sacrificing, or be those who sit in the front of the church. Somebody is always richer than somebody else, and somebody is always hoping for a marriage alliance. While people are everywhere during the week, a religious ceremony may be the only place where all sorts of people may mingle, and that's good for business.

Even in death, social climbing keeps happening. Tombstones, plots, cemetery memorials, all of these show a piety to the family, and once again you can see who had the money and who didn't. Not to be outdone by anybody, the greatest kings built elaborate tombs to commemorate themselves, filled with wealth unimaginable, which is why they got routinely robbed.

Clothing is another area where social climbing and religion meets. You don't go before a god in your worst clothes, you wear your best. Piety gives you an opportunity to show off your wealth through clothing in a situation where you are bound to get seen. Even showing up becomes an ado, because you bring family and servants along with you, making yourself even more noticeable.

The dark side of this social climbing is that others get stepped on. When the early kings were buried, hundred of their servants were ritually murdered and buried along with them, so that in the afterlife they would provide service. Fortunately for humanity, this grandiose extravagance proved disastrous, because killing off everyone who's competent in the government is a sure way to fuck shit up. This sort of thing didn't happen for more than a handful of generation before a new system was devised. The Egyptians ended up burying little statues of servants, probably invented by someone who didn't want to die.

Religion perpetuates class divides. Religion is used to keep others in their place. People in power create new insiders, allowing them to also create new outsiders. Because religion defines these insiders, outsiders cannot advance without extraordinary circumstances.

Those at the lowest end of the social ladder, the most disreputable, are often seen as the most dirty or unholy. To be poor is to be morally corrupt (even if that's not the case). In this way, wealth means piety, receiving the favor of the gods, while poverty means impiety, and the disfavor of the gods. Everybody loves a winner, and the losers can get lost.

In some societies, these divisions multiply, creating multiple tiers of insiders and outsiders, of privileged and unprivileged, producing a caste system. Religion relegates you to a status entirely dictated your birth.

Religion itself can be turned against your enemies. False accusations of impious or unholy behavior have been bandied about as long as there's been religion. The accusations may be rumor, designed to undermine your opponents, but sometimes it erupts into public accusations, trials, and spectacle. The nature of these events is always divisive because they are entirely political and entirely unfair. They know full well that religion has been hijacked to pursue a personal vendetta.

No all religious experiences get you social status. Prophets and visionaries can wander off the religious deep end in the pursuit of a true religious experience, you can wind up totally outside the establishment, losing all social status and credibility with the ruling group while winning status and credibility with a lower status group. The path to legitimacy for these movements can be long and difficult, but by the time that they establish themselves, they are the establishment. They are now the insiders, and so the cycle begins again.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Monday, July 31, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #19: Uniting and Dividing

Religion is a unique institution because it can cross international boundaries, cultures, languages, races, and time. Religion takes disparate people and gives them commonality, a shared way of interpreting the world. I don't know any other institution that does this so effectively, even empires.

At the same time, many religions reinforce boundaries. Local religions, or religions belonging to a specific people, increase distinctions between themselves and others. In this sense, religions become divisional, seeking to distinct identity rather than intermingle with others.

Religions both unite and divide.

Most religions divide. These religions are the core of a group's identity. Their purpose is to show who's in and who's out, who understand and who doesn't. That doesn't mean that an outsider cannot join into the religion, but that outside must first learn. That outside must become an insider. In this way, all the insiders know that they belong to one group, one ethic, one set of values, one set of laws, one set of traditions. Because everyone is inside these circles, assumptions can be made about behaviors and norms, reducing the cultural burden of operating. Division means that any group gets an idea of who 'us' actually is and what 'us' actually means. Exclusion means that you know who is on your team.

For an outsider to seek to become an insider is an odd thing. Who would want to leave their own insider status behind? Even if the person is sincere, the work ahead of them will be substantial, if not daunting because the process makes no sense to the insider.

However, when a group of people begins conquering others, they find themselves in the opposite position. Through force, they have incorporated others into their group, into their team. Once included, the enforcement of norms must come. It become obvious, then, that the conquered must learn to speak and operate among the gods of the winners. They are outsiders who want to be insiders again, or at least give the impression that they want to be insiders.

If the conquered resist too fiercely, then the winners must seek to break the cultural unity of the conquered. The losers must come to altars of the winners, forcing them to acknowledge the winning gods, and therefore forcing them to acknowledge the superiority of the winners.

In many cases, the winners just go straight for knocking down the altars of the losers. Break the religion first, then work on the niceties.

Over time, the gods of the winners become known. Their stories become known. These stories give a common vocabulary to all people, no matter their language. A knowledge of religion gives everyone an idea of the ideals and ethics are of their age. Religion then becomes a unifying factor, helping to make interaction more predictable. And how do people know who know? People do all the right public rituals, showing off their religious knowledge, showing that they understand.

Ever see a politician who messes up a traditional moment? People get upset. People at the top are expected to know the religious rituals and uphold them. This is a proxy for their desire to uphold the laws and keep their responsibilities. Following rituals declares to the people, "I find our common unity important."

When rulers break with religion, that causes trouble. Everyone becomes the outsider, nobody gets to be the insider, and nobody knows what anything means. It's no wonder that rulers who change around religion don't last long in office. Few rulers are dumb enough to pee on the third rail.

A classic fantasy trope of a religion that divides is a dark cult. These people meet in secret, worshiping some dark god that normal people wouldn't approve of. When they're eventually discovered going about their dark worship, people get murderously upset, and pretty soon revolution starts. By default, dark cults are closed because those inside will get power while those outside will get conquered.

A prophet is a person who both unites and divides. He waltzes into town to tear down those in power, those who do not deserve their place, while he unites the outsiders, those pushed aside, into a new and stronger political group.

The classic paladin also unites and divides, although on a more interpersonal level. By being purer and better than everyone, he winds up more alienating, more alienated. Nobody can meet his measure, so people divide from him. Meanwhile, a paladin seeks to unite those of good character, to bring them together into a force capable of opposing evil. He may even rally people to older says, forgotten because of some conqueror, ready to reassert itself, to unify the old believes while dividing from their conquerors.

Consider the idea of a rightful ruler. Many fantasies work on this idea, yet who decides who rules? This idea of a rightful ruler boils down to a religious idea, the goal to have your insider in office who you understand, and get rid of the blasphemous person who isn't rightful and who doesn't understand.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Silmarillion (1977)

Neither fish nor foul, uncategorically other, and perhaps the most abandoned book in the western fantasy canon, The Simarillion (1977) by J.R.R. Tolkien, published posthumously, continues to divide and muddle fans to this day.

When I mention this book to many fantasy readers, their response is usually, "I couldn't finish it." This book, this collection of stories, provides a detailed background and mythology to Middle Earth. Part history, part short story, part epic poem, part legend, part myth, the collection resembles nothing published before or since. For the reader, it either provides more of what they so desire, the details of Middle Earth, or provides what bores them to tears, the details of Middle Earth.

I first read this back in high school, 10th grade, and even back then, as earnest as I was, I found the work hard reading. I could toss off anything else, but I could not toss off this. By the end, I confess that I wasn't paying much attention as I pushed towards completion. Decades later, I came back to the work on audiobook, listening through it as I played endlessly with my then kitten, who needed lots and lots of string. I got more of it that time, but I forgot almost as much.

If you're a deep Tolkien fan, this book has what you want. This is distillate from which the literary tales were created. If you aren't a fan, this is exactly the part of the novels that lost you, equally concentrated.

While I appreciate many of the ideas and tales in the book, they lack the engagement of actual stories, the one that most fantasy readers enjoy, where they form attachments to heroes and learn to despise villains. Due to the structure of the tales, there's little to attach to unless it's Middle Earth itself. Because of this, all these stories feel a bit remote, far away, uncompelling unless its Middle Earth itself that you love.

Even though this book was published in the 1970s, it wasn't a product of the 1970s. In every way, this is an older work salvaged from previous decades, making the best of assorted and often inconsistent source materials.

In my most recent attempt to reread it, The Silmarillion escaped me. There are many who can sing their praises of this work, but I am not one of them.

Religion in Fantasy #18: Religion and the State

Religion has a long history of politics, and politics a long history of religion. The two have always proven inseparable, even where history has tried.

In most beginnings, the gods give laws to the people. This makes the laws themselves divine, sacred, sacrosanct. The gods provide order to the universe, and then they provide order to the people. If it's not the gods who give the laws, it's their representatives, their divinely chosen. The point is clear, that these laws are given by those better than you for  your own good.

Once you have rules, you also need rulers. Who rules? Those better than everyone else. Quite often, these people are reputedly living gods, descendants of gods, or the most favored of gods. King and conquerors take on the trapping of religion to reinforce their hold on powers while alive. And in death, they continue to live on. When these rulers die, their divinity gives them a place in heaven while the ordinary person faces a darker afterlife because they aren't gods, they aren't divine.

While religion and state may be one, that doesn't necessarily make the state a theocracy. In a theocracy, the religion is dominant over the state, where in most temporal kingdoms, the state is dominant over religion. It's about who's driving the bus.

Rulers cement their rights to rule through religion. The most common right is birth, that they are literally born better than everyone else. They trace their ancestry directly back to that of a god, usually the most powerful god, and by that, eclipse all other claimants. This works pretty well, except for daddy king's tendency to produce many children in order to guarantee an heir. Now you have lots of siblings, all with the same claim. Some societies solve this dilemma by choosing the next king, some solve it by using the first born as king, but most solve it through vicious civil wars. The first job of every new king is beating down the other claimants to the throne.

In India, the caste system added interesting dimension to who gets to rule. As they believed in rebirth, and that your position in birth demonstrates your spiritual quality, then those born into the upper classes, by virtue of having been born upper class, have demonstrated a measurably higher state of being, so they get to rule their lessers.

In the Roman Empire, new emperors played seven degrees of godhood, whereby they paid a genealogist to connect their ancestry to a god. These connections were worthless, of course, but divine blood was a prerequisite for the throne and a little lying never stopped anyone.

By the middle ages, blood relations to a god had ceased and divine right had appeared. You were king because God wanted you to be king. Because you were king, God didn't want anyone else to have the throne. This worked pretty well once a king killed off his competition, but with each new generation, there were more siblings to fight it out.

In China, the gods favored those who won, resulting in centuries of all-out blood fights for the throne because winning meant favor. Everyone believed, or at least claimed with some measurable proof, that their victories meant that the gods now smiled upon them. Everybody likes a winner.

Sometimes it's not who you are, but what you have, that matters. Who controls the special McGuffin that let's them claim the kingship? In England, the monarch sits over the Stone of Scone, which gives them a claim on Scotland. Essentially, it's a sacred stone, which is why it gives rulership. There's also the One Ring, which besides being evil, will give Sauron effective dominion over all Middle Earth. As he's already evil, no harm, no foul.

Controlling the capital goes a long way towards asserting your dominion. Religiously, the capital is the center of the world, the place where all your gods are, the place where the temples are the thickest.

Getting control is one thing. Keeping it, that's another good place for religion.

Once a state exists, it creates ceremonies and rules about itself that greatly resemble religious rules. Flags, banners, and symbols of the state represent the divine ruler, and because they represent divinity, they are divinity, they are idols. How one treats them is a direct substitute for how one treats the throne. Emperors and kings used to touch banners, giving them divinity, giving them to their troops. These banners would therefore be sacred, important, and worth protecting. To lose a banner, a symbol of your divine ruler, is a shame beyond reckoning, and for the victors, a prize worth displaying. The defense of a banner is therefore religious fervor.

When states win battles, they often send gifts to temples commemorating those wins, and by extension, thanking the gods. Symbols of the enemy are particular prized as they represent a victory of your gods over their gods. Objects worn by the enemy rulers and kings are especially prized. Symbolically, your god now has dominion over their gods.

When conquering a foreign country, toppling its gods was a frequent action, but not always. The victors sought to symbolically display the destruction of their opposition's political sovereignty. In the place of the losing god there would be raised the victorious god. In this sense, a temple becomes a victory trophy. Whoever wins gets the trophy. It's sorta like the Stanley Cup.

Sometimes gods weren't toppled. In the Roman world, where the Greek gods were well known, it made no sense to topple the gods because Zeus and Jupiter were equated as the same god. In that case, it was politically foolish to change one god for the other.

In most kingdoms and civilizations, the rulers didn't directly control the religion or temples. Religious institutions acted independently, managing and supporting themselves through outside support. Because religion wasn't centralized, taking over religious would require putting in an infrastructure, and the only people capable of doing that ran the temples. This meant that religions tended to keep independent of the state, which simplified the state but sure did complicate politics. The kings ruled, but they had to avoid offending the religious establishment.

Rome was odd because the temples themselves were seen as parts of the government, like a Department of Temples. The people who ran the temples were political appointees, and the state directly funded the temples. It should come as no surprise then that the Roman Catholic Church would later run itself on the same principles, where the local rulers dictated the clergy.

A trope found in many films is the tribal chief supported by his witch doctor. Essentially, the ruler and the religious professional are a team. If the local priest disapproves of you, then everyone disapproves of you. Because of this, the witch doctor is feared by everyone as he can turn the state to his whim.

Of course, the gods could just skip the whole human thing and rule themselves, which they do in a number of work. However, this is rare unless it's a god against god story, or the stage is set lower down.

The problem of basing the state on religion is that the state is tied to religion. A new religion or atheism constitutes a threat to the state, undermining its political foundation. If the ruler is no longer seen as religious or religiously favored, then his replacement goes from unfathomable to very possible. When this happens, the rulership has no choice but to eliminate that which threatens it. This was the very problem that early Christians introduced into the Roman Empire.

At a local level, religion and the state is usually well separated. Nobody is special, even the mayor or the town headman. The closer to a locality, the less divine a person seems, the more likely that they need the favorship of their friends and neighbors to rule, and the more likely that the rulership consists of actual work and coordination. Running a locality means meeting the needs of your constituents because you aren't divine and you are replaceable.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy