Thursday, February 16, 2023

Guy Gavriel Kay's Religion Without Religion


Western fantasy was a Christian genre.

The great fantasists of the early-to-mid 20th century—J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lord Dunsany—imbued their works with Christian influences. It was the culture that they, their peers and their readers were immersed in. Today, the opposite sentiment dominates fantasy. Today we have the grimdarkness of George R. R. Martin and Mark Lawrence, the woke subversiveness of Tor, the isekai harem fantasies of Japanese authors and indie Western writers, all of which are united in their profound disdain for religion.

And in the middle point between the extremes is the work of Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kay's literary career began in 1974 as an assistant to Christian Tolkien, helping the younger Tolkien edit his father's unpublished work. 10 years later, Kay published The Summer Tree, the first book in his own fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. You can clearly see the hand of Tolkien in The Fionavar Tapestry, in the treatment of myths and legends—but when describing gods and magical powers, Kay draws mainly from pagan practices, especially those pertaining to prices and sacrifices. This pagan influence can be seen in his later works—but heavily watered down.

Kay's main body of work is set in a counterfactual world dominated by three main religious groups: the Jaddites, who worship the sun; the Kindath, who worship the two moons; and the Asharites, who worship the stars. They were meant to be analogs to Christianity, Judaism and Islam respectively, save for one small difference.

These religions are not religions.

Dogma Without Doctrine

This world serves as the shared setting for most of Kay's novels, such as The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, The Last Light of the Sun, Children of Earth and Sky and its prequels. Based on real-world events and countries, Kay's stories follow the lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people swept up in the course of history. These characters follow one of the three main religions of the setting, originate from religious civilisations, and come into contact (and conflict) with characters from rival powers and competing religions. Many of them are religious people—except that they are not.

Many characters go through the motions of faith. They worship at specific times and places, they recite the shibboleths of faith, they treat those of other religions with varying degrees of hostility and suspicion. But every single character—even the priests—lack the substance of faith.

There are no holy books. There are no commandments. There are no scriptures, verses, prayers, apologetics, screeds, letters, discourses, or lectures that play a significant role in the stories.

The central mythology of the Jaddite faith is that the god Jad, personified by the sun, extends his warmth and blessings to all on earth in the day, then sinks into the half-world to defend humans from howling demons at night. Beyond that, there are no teachings, no lessons, no spiritual goals, no sins, no redemption from sin.

The characters' decisions are driven mainly by passion or purpose. Some follow their hearts. Others seek certain goals. Religion plays no part in their thought processes. Though they call themselves Jaddite or Kindath or Asherite, they recite no scriptures, refer to no teachings, hold themselves to no standards. Even clergy do not act like clergy. A nunnery becomes a haven for espionage, extramarital sex and abortion; religious warriors freely commit suicide; and there is no articulated concept of creation and annihilation, or of sin, confession, forgiveness and redemption.

It is a profoundly twenty-first century approach to religion: the appearance of religion without the substance of religion. As Michael Weingrad puts it, 'we get a [caricature] of religion as a kind of team sport, where your mascot (sun, stars, or moon) determines who you cheer for.'

It is not impossible to have fantasy without religion. Kay does this superbly well in his other works, notably Under Heaven and River of Stars. In stories where religion is little more than background colour, it doesn't matter whether the religion has substance or not. However, Kay's shared world is explicitly founded on religion. The stories are set in the backdrop of clashes between religious civilisations. The characters are themselves described as religious. In stories where religion does play an important role, one that informs how characters and organisations and countries make their decisions, then religion has to have substance.

Without substance, all that is left is a hollow shell propping up an elephant.

Monotheism Minus Mono and Theos

In Sailing to Sarantium, mosaicist Caius Crispus is charged by Emperor Valerius II to travel to the city of Sarantium to create a mosaic at the Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom. During his travels, he grapples with the Heladikian heresy. The heresy holds that Jad had a son, Heladikos, who rode his chariot carrying fire from Jad to men. Heladikos drove too close to the sun, setting his chariot alight, and plunged into the sea, where he was borne away by dolphins. The priests have declared this doctrine heresy, and so it is supposed to be officially persecuted everywhere in the empire.

But why is this a heresy?

Since the Jaddites are analogs of Christians, let's examine doctrines condemned as Christian heresies, such as Gnosticism and the Brethren of the Free Spirit Central to these heresies is the denial of a core tenant of Christian doctrine. Gnosticism distinguishes between an unknowable Supreme Being and the Demiurge who created the material world. The Brethren of the Free Spirit believed, among other things, that they could communicate with God directly and did not need the Catholic Church for intercession.

For a belief to be deemed a heresy, it must deny a core tenant of the doctrine of the parent faith. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Christianity can see why Gnosticism and the Brethren of the Free Spirit were condemned as heresies. But when there is no doctrine, how can there be heresy?

Looking at history, we see that when the dominant religion has no core doctrine, the opposite occurs. Instead of a foreign doctrine being condemned as heresy, it is instead incorporated into the dominant culture, thus augmenting the power of both.

Alexander the Great presented himself as a living god, and curried favour with the gods of the regions he conquered. In Greece, he held sacrifices, games and festivals in honour of Greek gods. In Egypt, he adopted the trappings of Egyptian religion, calling himself the son of 'Zeus-Ammon', a hybrid of the Greek god Zeus and the Eyptian god Amun-Ra. Similarly, certain Roman emperors became objects of worship, equals with the Roman pantheon. When the Romans conquered new lands, they subsumed foreign deities into their pantheon. Thus Greek gods were absorbed into the Roman pantheon, and later certain Egyptian deities as well.

Beyond Europe, the same story played out all over the world. Hindu gods appear in Buddhist scriptures, such as Hayagriva, Saraswati and Indra, resulting from their shared origin in India. Greco-Buddhism emerged from trade between Hellenistic and Buddhist cultures, possibly influencing the appearance of Fujin and Hariti. Daoist deities are freely worshipped alongside Buddhas in Chinese cultures. When Buddhism took root in Japan, Shinto deities were integrated into Japanese Buddhism, leading to shinbutsu shugo, the syncretism of the kami and the Buddhas. In the Akkadian Empire, King Sargon installed his daughter Enheduanna as High Priestess at the Temple of Nanna. Among Enheduanna's duties was to syncretise the religious traditions of Akkad and Sumer, legitimising Sargon's dominion in the religious and cultural spheres.

Against this historical backdrop, we can see how radical the Abrahamic religions must have appeared to the pagans of their time. Pagans with no core doctrine saw no difficulty in incorporating foreign gods into their own worship. The doctrine of Buddhism acknowledges the existence of gods, and believers have little trouble incorporating the worship of local deities alongside the Buddhas. In contrast, the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—denied all other gods but their own. From a purely cultural perspective, this ensured that their doctrine would be transmitted over centuries and millennia, free from foreign influences that might dilute the teachings.

What about the world of Guy Gavriel Kay?

The Jaddites, Kindath and Asharites occupy an uncomfortable middle ground between monotheism and paganism. On one hand, they adopt the hardline position of real-world Abrahamic religions, rejecting the influences of foreign religions. On the other hand, they have no doctrine, only central myths, much like other pagan religions.

Even worse, none of these religions have any standing whatsoever to reject the others' deities. Anyone can look up into the sky to see the sun, the moons and the stars. Since these celestial bodies exist, the only difference between these religious must be doctrinal, but in the absence of doctrine, how can there be any meaningful difference?

In Children of Earth and Sky, set after the fall of Sarantium, two Jaddites visit what was once the Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom. The mosaics once laid down by Caius Crispus are gone, replaced by Asherite stars hanging from chains. It should have been a poignant moment, especially for long-time readers. Kay's prose struggles to capture the intensity of the scene. And yet... when there is no meaningful difference between the sun of Jad and the stars of Asher, why should anyone care? All that has changed is replacing one mascot with another.

It's incredibly odd—and yet incredibly fitting—that the old pagan gods that still roam the shadows of the world have more substance and presence than the three allegedly dominant faiths. The pagan faiths have ceremonies, they have beliefs, they have believers—and most importantly, they have gods who leave a tangible mark on the world, through word and deed. None of Kay's three dominant faiths can claim the same. Though Kay describes them as the most powerful religions in the world, a deeper read reveals that they are but ghostly shades next to the pagan practiced they replaced.

A pagan holds that the gods are powerful and terrible beings who control many aspects of life, and so seeks to win their favour and their blessings—as many blessings from as many gods as possible. Failing that, they at least attempt to avoid offending capricious beings with frightful powers. A monotheist reserves his adoration for a single god, holding him as the source of all things, revering his teachings as the standard to live up to, and rejects all other deities. An atheist rejects all gods, period, and does not care one whit about religious laws and creeds.

Pagans do not think like monotheists. Neither pagans nor monotheists think like modern-day atheists. Kay's characters are nominally monotheists of pagan faiths, yet act like contemporary atheists who take no reference from religion whatsoever. Kay's civilisations are religious empires without religion, the differences between them boiling down to language, politics, and the ambition of their leaders.

The result is a hollow shell, a God-sized hole where faith should be.

Restoration of Faith

Some readers may not care about the absence of religion. Others may see it as a benefit. As for myself, I see only the God-sized hole, and what should have been.

When a book is marketed as historical fantasy, based on historical religious kingdoms, I expect to see religious characters acting in accordance to (or defiance of) religion. What I got were countries inspired by everything except the most important cornerstone of historical nations, populated by people lifted from secular twenty-first century societies. The mindsets of atheists cannot possibly give rise to religious societies,. No matter how powerful the prose, this approach to writing fatally undermines story, reducing what could have been a work of transcendent majesty to mere poetry.

For some people, it is good enough. Not for me.

Earlier I wrote that Kay marks the middle ground between Christian fantasy and post-modern fantasy. In drawing from history, his body of work does not go full-on grimdark or descend into decadence, yet it also emphasises the hollow treatment of religion and the emptiness of the characters and societies. The hole that could have been covered up by nihilism or darkness instead lies exposed.

As for myself, I choose a different path.

When men are plunged into a hellish world, filled with monsters and booby traps and black magic, it is only natural to turn to faith for comfort. Thus we have Dungeon Samurai.

In a world ruled by false gods and cosmic horrors, how can a man choose one god over another? Why would a man deliberately choose persecution at the hands of the rulers of the world? Why choose a God that does not show his face, instead of pagan gods that do, or New Gods who shower their followers with boons and their enemies with hellfire? Thus we have the Babylon series.

When the world worships wealth and power above all else, when laws and morality are defined by the whimsies of the rich and powerful, men will be tempted to pursue them at all costs. In such a dog-eat-dog world, the ultimate competition would be for a man to become a god. Why would a man refuse this? Thus we have Saga of the Swordbreaker.

And when a man rejects morality and traditions in the blind pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure, we get Diary of A Bomoh.

Postmodern writers view religion as a relic of earlier times, a hindrance to progress and pleasure. As for myself, I see all around a world of darkness and emptiness, and thus my greatest duty is to restore the flame—and to restore faith. I seed my works with lit candles, waiting to be found.

A dark world may be hollow, but that hollow can be filled with light.

Dare you follow me on this journey? Start here

No comments:

Post a Comment