Over the weekend, my wife and I saw Deliver Us from Evil. As a horror film it’s well worth seeing, but today I want to focus on one element of it: the priest.
In many horror films, a priest is a wasted character. He’s there to show us how bad the bad guy is (ooh, the priest is powerless against the bad guy. Couldn’t have seen that one coming), or he doesn’t really believe (the crisis-of-faith or evil-as-idea priest), or other similarly impotent options. I call this a wasted character because the character’s flaw renders the character useless for the role.
But in Deliver Us from Evil the priest has a past, and a pretty serious flaw, and yet both drive him further into his faith. And when the time comes for him to match his faith against the great evil, his faith holds strong.
It isn’t quick and easy. It doesn’t guarantee saving everyone. His faith is not, if you’ll pardon the expression, a deus ex machina. But it’s real and it fits his story role.
Now on most days this would have spun me off into thinking about horror and religion. But today, for some reason, my mind ran off in the fantasy direction.
Priests in fantasy can run into the same issues that they do in horror. Worse, in some ways, because in second-world fantasies (set in other worlds, or intersecting other worlds, as opposed to urban fantasies which are supposed to take place in our world, with a few modifications) the religions are invented.
I suspect the direction of my thinking is my wife’s fault this time. She observed a month or two – during an episode of Game of Thrones – that the Red God seems to have all the power. The Seven of the southerners can’t do anything. The septons and septas are powerless, for all their devotion. It’s unfair.
Now I can’t recall how true that is in the books, but it’s certainly the case in the show. Priests and priestesses of the Red God can raise the dead, call forth shadow demons, and still more besides, but the septons and septas can’t do much more than offer a few kind words.
Which got me thinking – George R. R. Martin obviously chose to make religion a plot element in the story. Which is perfectly fine, of course. But does it have to be that way? Is the nature of fantasy, as a genre, such that the presence of religion in a story must make of it a plot element?
Do the gods have to either be absent or battling each other for our souls?
If you haven’t read it – and I think you should, because it’s an excellent novel – it’s fantasy in the tradition of the tales of the Arabian Nights. Religion is as much a core element of the setting as the land and the cities themselves. The two main characters are both devout believers, but in very different ways, and with very different ideas of what devotion means.
But it doesn’t stop there. The monotheistic faith is also common to the villains. The monsters are not enemies of the faith. They know their place in the hierarchy and their role in creation.
And yet, best of all, there’s no sense of religious treatise to the novel. I suspect that most readers finished the book, enjoyed it, and never thought much about the belief systems of the characters. It’s part of the world-building, not part of some agenda.
I notice the religion in stories because a) I’m a writer, and b) I have a degree in Religious Studies.
In my own novels to date I’ve leaned the other direction so far. In both Magician’s Choice and Sleight of Mind the religion of the characters informs their viewpoints, but has little if any direct impact on the story. (Full disclosure, the same cannot be said of my short fiction. “The Curse of Valassa” very much involves two priests battling for the souls of humans.)
What do you think about religion in fantasy? Do you like it as a plot point? Do you prefer it in the background as window dressing? Or do you like to see it central to the story, where you can’t miss it (even if you don’t necessarily pay attention to it)? Chime in below!