Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reading Notes: The Curse of Chalion, and the role of religion in fantasy novels

I finished reading Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion, this morning. I'm a latecomer to the wonder that is Bujold. I first came across her in this year's Hugo novel list, with the hilarious and awesome Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, which prompted me to get stuck into the Vorkosigan books (a journey frequently interrupted, but I'll get to end soon I hope). Although not particularly hard sci fi, the Vor books are undoubtedly science fiction, and also very witty and often funny. I wondered how Bujold's voice would work in a more fantastic setting, with the particular tropes that fantasy often employs.

The first thing to be said is that Chalion is a very good book indeed. It is original - ish - in its conception and delivered with Bujold's customary flair and facility; while not as funny as the Vor books often are, the author's dry wit is still evident throughout.

It's certainly not shy about utilising some of the more common sword-and-sorcery archetypes of fantasy writing, which is why I say it's original-ish (a magical curse, hello! a lone saviour with a dark past, you don't say! a villain who holds a fair maiden captive, how about that!) Bujold's glosses on these well-worn themes, though, are what make the story - the gestures to medieval Spanish court culture, the genuinely labyrinthine politicking and plotting, the subversion of the "helpless maiden" device in the person of the fearsomely intelligent and driven Iselle, the strength and appeal of the characters.

The main character of the book - the tortured saviour, who has to die three times to deliver the royal family from the curse that hangs over it (yes, l I know it sounds cheesy, but go with me here) is Lupe Cazaril, a 36 year old who looks and behaves older, largely due to what he has suffered  before the commencement of the action. Caz is not my favourite of Bujold's characters, to be honest - he's so much less vibrant than a Miles or a Cordelia (or even than Iselle in this very book). That said, I'd probably be less than filled with life too with the backstory that Bujold gives this poor guy.

Because of the course of events that is set in motion when Cazaril, as the secretary to the Royesse (Princess) Iselle, travels to the capital with Iselle, her brother Teidez, and their attendants, Cazaril ends up spending a lot of time mouthpiecing about religion, spirituality, the gods, death, life, the relationship between life and death, and faith. The religion Bujold constructs for Chalion is based around a quintet of god figures - the Father, Mother, Daughter, Son and the Bastard - and each divinity has its own characteristics, its own particular powers and adherents, and its own role to play.

This is a world in which the gods do not speak plainly to women and men, and do not, cannot, intervene in the world except via human consent. Bujold sets a very high store on free will, and on the gods' ability to act, to perform miracles, being constrained by human will and faith. Here, a god may intervene by providing, providentially, access to two fresh mules to a traveller in need, rather than with dramatic thunderbolts and pronouncements from on high. The gods are not superpower-possessing people; they are inscrutable, inhuman, unknowing and unknowable, immense beyond measure, ever-present yet ever-restrained by the potency of human minds.

I liked Bujold's vision of religion and spirituality very much, and found it persuasive and well integrated into her storyline in ways that are not always true of fantasy novels. I think it primarily based on the melding of a particular kind of Protestant Christianity, which is very concerned with the notion of free will and faith, and an almost Buddhist notion of self and souls. I'm reliably informed that the role of the fifth god, the Bastard, comes to the fore in the next Chalion book, which I'm looking forward to.

It made me think on what role religion and spirituality play in other fantasy texts I have read. They're often bound up with ideas about magic, prophecy and sorcery, of course, which are almost ubiquitous in classic fantasy, but there are some notable fantasy texts that are god-less and organised-religion-less (the most obvious example is The Lord of the Rings, but there are plenty of others). Where religion does have a part to play, though, it seems to me that the most common modellings are on Christianity (both of the Roman Catholic and Protestant variety, although almost always of historical, rather than modern, iterations thereof); Buddhism; or Viking / Greek / Roman polytheist, gods-as-powerful-people tropes. David Eddings' enormously popular Belgariad and Mallorean books, for instance, sport a pantheon of gods that are remarkably easy to tag with their various Viking and Roman origins.

I could go on, but I won't. The point I'm trying to make here is that I'm doubtful that any fantasy world's religion / spiritual practice is created of whole cloth by the writer. Of course, you could argue this of many themes, but particularly when it comes to the matters of the soul, people seem to gravitate towards patterns, themes and axioms that are known and familiar, to help to explicate the unknown, the unfamiliar. I don't know what, if anything, this means, except maybe that humans are creatures of habit, and that cultural programming runs deep.

In my own attempt at writing a sort-of sci fi, now paused while I try to get my feet under me with my new job, I've been intrigued to find that my world has a kind of vague mystical / animist ethic to it without having any systemic religion (that I have yet introduced, and as it's not in the plot plan, it's not likely I'll put it in now). The society I'm writing is dispersed and fragmented, and, for a very particular reason, could be considered post-religious in many ways. This tells me some interesting things about how I think about the basis of faith and spirituality and religion, and what I intuit might render them incapable of gaining serious traction in a society.

So I guess I think religion and spirituality, while they add depth to fantasy if done well (and completely destroy it if done badly), are rarely original in their conception and execution, and tend to draw from the already wide palette of real-world religious experience.

Do you agree, if you're a fantasy reader?

This is post 10 in NaBloPoMo. A third of the way there today - 10 down, 20 to go!

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