Fantasy and spirituality
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Having just finished Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow, I got to thinking about how fantasy is uniquely suited to addressing deep questions. It uses and stretches the imagination, and encourages readers to think about mysteries.
I don't mean that all fantasy is spiritual or that spirituality is imaginary—neither of those things. And I am not coming up with any obvious examples beyond Tolkein and CS Lewis, neither of whose books I know well. Yet the idea intrigues me.
Am new to this group and to Library Thing . . . happy Friday.
I blogged about this. http://writersrest.com/2011/12/02/fantasy-is-spiritualitys-playground/
2 - Sometimes. Not always. I generally prefer books that aren't overtly religious, at least not related to modern religions.
Overt religion tends to be preachy, and even though I AM religious I can't stand preachiness in fiction. I was thinking more in terms of magic-users tending to be part of fantasy religious groups or the magic stemming from some kind of fantasy deity, but certainly not always, as you say.
I've always liked the religion in Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion series. The 5 gods and how they work in that universe, and the one miracle everyone gets. I am not religious at all (quite the opposite) but if it's well thought out in context I enjoy reading about it in fiction.
I loved the Hallowed Hunt how Ingrey conplains about that religion, about how much nicer it must be when one doesn't have to worry about the gods talking back to you. :)
As I recall it I would categorise The Sparrow as science fiction - space travel, aliens, right?
I am pretty much anti-religion when it comes to promoting organized religion in fiction (like C. S. Lewis. On the other hand religion can be a central part of great worldbuilding in fantasy novels - see for instanceMartha Wells Wheel of the infinite.
Many of Charles de Lints works are permeated with mystery and spirituality in the non woo-woo sense - and rarely gets preachy although his later works are a little too predictable and boring.
I've been generalising in a somewhat similar fashion about social criticism and science fiction vs. fantasy, and I have as little basis for it as you mention above:-)
I tend to think that social criticism is more prevalent in science fiction than in fantasy - I can't really recall any fantasy stories which addresses social injustice and the difficulties of different ways of organising a society. I think one reason is that there is a longer tradition in science fiction (like 1984 and Brave new world) another is that the narrative conventions of fantasy are different, and does not lend itself to this type of exploration as well. George Orwell provides the counter argument with Animal farm, but I choose to categorise it as an animal fable to avoid disproving my own generalisation.
I may be way of though. And I definitely lacks the vocabulary to discuss this in English:-)
Both sci-fi and fantasy run on imagination, though sci-fi is more concerned with human realities. I agree with amberwitch about that. "Where are we going?" is a key question in sci-fi, based on what I know of the genre.
Fantasy and spirituality can be natural partners in fiction, to the benefit of both. The sheer play and inventiveness of fantasy can keep a story from tipping over into preaching. The gravitas of spirituality can keep a story from tipping over into fanciful triviality.
The blog was a first attempt at explaining something that has been on my mind for awhile.
>9, 10 Thank you for these recommendations. They sound like good books.
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I'd recommend http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Not-journey-survival-ebook/dp/B0081C8TKC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336764344&sr=8-1 . Its really great but it does connect spirituality with the supernatural things happening in this book.
The association between magic and a form of spirituality is of course, central to Ursula le Guin's Earthsea sequence (A Wizard of Earthsea etc.). And Geraldine Harris wrote her Seven Citadels sequence (Prince of the Godborn etc.) partly to explore whether a (liberal) Christian rather than a Taoist basis might work in a similar way.
I am also fond of the rather cynical approach to religion in Jan Mark's Divide and Rule, in which a young man is chosen for a one-year religious role even though he doesn't believe in the religion; and the unspiritual but more sympathetic approach to pagan religion in Peter Dickinson's The Blue Hawk. More recent fantasy authors with some deep thoughts about spirituality include Madeleine L'Engle and Diane Duane.
The most interesting of C. S. Lewis's fictional works is borderline fantasy with a spiritual element: Till We Have Faces.
I think fantasy lends itself extremely well to aspects of spirituality (the frequent appearance of spirits, magical abilities and parallel realms fits in well with much spiritual thinking, for example).
But as fantasy, along with SF, is often about world-building, there is a sense that each and every writer is a kind of demiurge bringing that world or worlds into being; and part of that world-building is about defining the religion, gods, morals and rituals that characterise that world. SF is more about placing humans within a different physical environment extrapolated from our understanding of physics, fantasy more about creating a magically enhanced world similar to our own, whether in the present or in the past.
I can recommend anything by Ursula Le Guin. Her writings are very much about how recognisable humans have to react morally in the situations they find themselves in, regardless of whether she is writing fantasy or SF. Despite being (I think I am right in saying) an atheist, that moral sense, one could almost say spiritual sensibility, is never far from the centre of most of her novels (or at least the handful I have read).
Don't let's forget Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. HDM is my personal favorite of all fantasy trilogies, and my favorite scene in all of fantasy literature appears in the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Pan on the dock (regarding which I say no more to avoid SPOILER). Maybe Pullman's been overlooked so far on this thread because of his atheism, but that's in no way inconsistent with "spirituality" and HDM would be consistent with the beliefs of some Unitarian-Universalists (though some only, considering the enormous diversity among UUs). Pullman can sometimes be as preachy as C.S. Lewis, and of course Pullman specifically wrote HDM as a counter to Narnia, but Lyra (along with Will, the supporting characters, and the daemons) is just such a great character....
I agree. HDM works precisely because Pullman is familiar with Biblical themes rather than that he's an atheist with an axe to grind: he recognises the potent themes in particularly the Old Testament which speak of universal concerns rather than narrow dogmatism. I like for example the way he uses the Adam and Eve story to bring redemption rather than their tasting of forbidden fruit inaugurating disaster for humankind. It balances up the OT myth so that we have Paradise (of sorts) Regained. The trilogy is a deeply felt and complex story, and at heart a deeply moral tale.
And, of course, it helps if you have three-dimensional characters you can empathise with...
>13; I'm always happy to see a mention of the Seven Citadels series, some of my favorite books. There are clear parallels with the Sufi work, The Conference of Birds, which I enjoyed not long ago in the verse translation by Dick Davis.
I liked Pullman's HDM well enough but in the end I'm always annoyed by child-messiah stories. Enough already with these kids born to save their worlds! Overused and really not that interesting. You know how these stories are going to end. Has their ever been one where the "chosen one" didn't save the world? (For a subversive take on that theme, I love Good Omens.)
There are so many more interesting ways spirituality can enhance a fictional world and a story. Seconding Wheel of the Infinite. Also going back a ways, Zelazny had lots of fun with religion in Lord of Light and To Die in Italbar. Neal Stephenson Anathem is (among other things) an interesting look at what areas of human thought and endeavor can form the basis of a belief system.
18: Perhaps you ought to read Prince of the Godborn and its sequels: it might not end exactly how you expected.
19. Thanks for the suggestion. I'd be so glad if one finally didn't end as expected. But honestly, I'm so sick of the whole idea that anyone is "born to be ________" (fill in the blank), I'm not sure I can get up much enthusiasm.
I also find the concept of the Chosen One or 'the one' who is prophesied an over-used and tired cliché, so it takes a rare writer to allow me to suspend my disbelief. My main problem (and I suspect yours too, WildMaggie) is that any suggestion of a demiurge or Fate predetermining final events in a story is (a) a bit of a cop-out and (b) part of that predestination / God-playing-with-humans trope that too many people buy into, believing it to be the real thing.
Don't get me wrong. There is a long tradition of myths and folktales using this motif, and it can be very psychologically satisfying on certain levels. It's like the expectations raised when listening to music of many differing genres: you anticipate a beginning leading to a middle and concluding with an end--a cadence, a final assonant chord, a fortissimo, or a controlled fade. If all the signs point to it then it's cruel to always deny the hoped-for resolution.
But sometimes art needs to reflect life, and I'm afraid it's rare that our endeavours or careers reach a pleasing closure in the way that much fantasy seems to usually predict. I'm now very much looking forward to reading Good Omens, which, coincidentally, I happened to buy the day before I read your recommendation. (Weird or what? It must be Fate... ) Prince of the Godborn looks promising too!
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