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an essay by Alarra
Religion and
Fantasy Literature


Theories about religion abound in our world and reality; how do these translate into the worlds of fantasy literature?

In our world today, many search for meaning in life, and often through religious means. Eminent scholars theorise religion in attempts to bring it to a worldly, understandable reality. Others delve into the worlds of fantasy, through literature, as an escape from this reality. However, even in these other-worldly realms, the world-view of religion and its definition of life weaves itself into the stories, from those who believe religion is only a balm for society's disorders to those who believe religion is an intrinsic need of the human heart. To find how different arguments about religion are presented through literature, a limited sample of fantasy books will be analysed alongside some of the aforementioned theories of religion.

"Religions forces are...human forces, moral forces." - Emile Durkheim

In 1897, French sociologist Durkheim published his theory that society is held together by two types of bonds, one being the similarities that people share, such as religious beliefs and morals. By this, Durkheim is suggesting religion is needed to bring order and values to society. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy novel, several themes of religion can be identified, the first and foremost being that religion is a necessity in life: "Look, if people stop believing in gods, they'll believe in anything." (Pratchett 1995:258) The second theme is people turning to organised religion to address this need for order; however, they worship without faith or beliefs and so the religious side is neglected until people are just organised. Organised religion only seems to bring order to society, though individual people are not at ease.

Pratchett points out that the mindless worship of gods who are products of organised religion defeats the passion and purpose of religion. In response to this, the third theme of his book challenges people to consider if organised religion is just a ploy to lull them into a false sense of security. At the end of Small Gods, Pratchett's anti-hero of faith comes to an answer, an important belief about gods, and about religion as whole: "I should do things because they're right. Not because gods says so." (Pratchett 1995:348) Durkheim's theory implies that religion defines a person's moral conviction, but Pratchett is suggesting a person finds their own values, and if their intentions are good, then religion should confirm their morals.

"If God didn't exist, we would have invented him." - Albert Einstein

This controversial statement is well supported in fantasy literature, because fantasy writers are like gods, creating their own worlds and controlling the characters within it. Michael Moorcock's philosophy of "democratic socialism and Christian humanism" (Kaplan, C., 1997) distinguishes itself in one of his most contentious books, Behold the Man. In this novel, the main character Karl Glogauer is obsessed with the Crucifixion and travels back in time to search for the truth. When an accident sees him mistaken for Jesus of Nazareth, who has not yet appeared in history, Glogauer discovers the truth, though it is not the one he came to seek. In the reality of this book, Jesus will never be the saviour of the world because he is literally an imbecile. While this may seem blasphemous, Moorcock thus supports Einstein's theory as stated above, as Glogauer is forced to invent his own god. For Karl, his religion has been the only thing he can depend on in his life and before he even goes back in time his belief is that "When people need one, they'll make a great religion out of the most unlikely beginnings...The idea preceded the actuality of Christ." (Moorcock 1969:61) When he finds himself in Jesus' time without the saviour who can forgive him for the weaknesses that no one else can, he screams "I need God!" (Moorcock 1969:88), and in the twist of the book, Karl takes on the job of being the Messiah. He forgets that he is Karl Glogauer to conform to the expectations that he and the others of that time have of Christ the Messiah - for they too, to some extent, are inventing a god they need - to the point of preaching sermons and choosing disciples in accordance with the Bible, which has yet to be. But the final test of whether Glogauer has really created, and believed, in his own god is when he allows himself to be captured and crucified. By submitting to Jesus' fate, Glogauer finally finds salvation, as his creation of a god who dies for the rest of the world defines why he lived.

Small Gods also supports Einstein's statement, but Pratchett takes a different approach to Moorcock. While Behold the Man argues that humanity first creates gods in order to believe in them, Pratchett argues it is the faith that comes first, based on a person's fears, hopes and needs, and then "...gods come into being and grow and flourish because they are believed in." (Pratchett 1995:118) In Moorcock's book, the creator fears the god he make as he has imbued it with the characteristics he believes it should embody. In Pratchett's book, the god is the one who fears - fears for the day there are no more believers and it ceases to exist. Both writers, however, would have humans controlling the existence of gods and their importance in the world.

"Religion is not what you will get after reading all the scripture in the world. It is not really what is grasped by the brain.
It is a heart grasp." - Mahatma Gandhi

In Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, the religious character is a very confused priest, fresh from the seminary, who still equates true faith with the most knowledge of the set texts. However, in confrontations with vampires on one side and witches on the other, with neither defined simply as good or bad, he learns a valuable lesson about religion. Although like all believers who doubt sometimes, "he'd like the clouds to part...and a voice to cry out 'YES...IT'S ALL COMPLETELY TRUE!'" (Pratchett 1998:154), in reality, for him to have faith is to believe in God because everywhere he looks he sees something holy. Luckily for him, he knows that "If I didn't [have faith], I wouldn't have anything." (Pratchett 1998:211) Unluckily, he also believes that "faith wasn't enough. He'd wanted knowledge." (Pratchett 1998:154) But the harder he tries to grasp the concept of religion with his brain, by reading different scriptures, the more confused he becomes. The big change that results in him realising, as Gandhi declares, that religion can only be understood in the heart, is when he takes the advice: "Don't chase faith, 'cos you'll never catch it...But, perhaps, you can live faithfully." (Pratchett 1998:235) When once he followed his religion by reading his holy book and trying to help others by reading passages to them, he learns to help an old witch who is freezing to death by setting his holy book on fire - the only source of heat he can give her to keep her alive. Pratchett agrees with Gandhi completely; he believes that since religion is necessary, then people should be able to feel the hand of God in everything they see and do.

From the words of authors and eminent thinkers of this world, religion in the realm of fantasy fiction presents different arguments of religion, often raising more questions than it can answer. However, in conveying points that may have never been considered in such a context, fantasy literature arouses thoughts about religion that readers can explore in the world for themselves. From the books and theories discussed above, it can be seen that religion finds its way into other realities to bridge what we know and what we endeavour to know.



Harrison, M., Kippax, S., 1996, Thinking About God, Collins Educational, London

Kaplan, C., 1997, "The War Amongst the Angels: An Autobiographical Story", World Literature Today, vol. 71, Issue 4, pp.787-788

Library of the Future, 1994, "Durkheim, E., 1897, Suicide: A Study in Sociology", World Library Inc.

Moorcock, M., 1969, Behold the Man, Fontana, Great Britian

Pratchett, T., 1998, Carpe Jugulum, Corgi, London

Pratchett, T., 1995, Small Gods, Corgi, London

November 1999



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