To God or not to God

Hello all,

The majority of my thinking this past week has been on my fantasy series, since it’s what I’ve been writing the most of. I’m very much a believer in macro-world building, that is to say knowing what all the world is like in order to enhance the setting before undertaking any of the micromanagement. So, I like to know what the universe is like before knowing what the kingdom is like before knowing what a city is like. Others like to build up from the micro, but I’ve never found that satisfying.

The biggest challenge then is how was the world you are designing created? If you’re writing something set on Earth then you don’t need to worry about this so much, unless you’re writing a historical novel (or an historical novel, for those who are massive fans of old proper grammar! =p ) in which case it would be good to know the ideas of the time period and area you’re writing about. But for a fantasy world the creation is up to you. So, to God or not to God, that is the question.

Gods and goddesses are common in fantasy worlds, but I’ll be referring to the ones I’m most familiar with – those of Tolkien and of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

The archetype for all fantasy novels of course is the great J. R. R. Tolkien. In his fantasy world, the world of the Lord of the Rings, there were gods of a sort. There was Eru, who created all of the world that is – Eä. He was called Ilúvatar, meaning All-Father, a nod by Tolkien to Odin of Norse mythology and the Judeo-Christian deity YHWH (also called Jehovah, the LORD, or God), and his name Eru means the One or He Who is Alone. He made existence, but it was not Eru who ruled directly in Arda (the world itself in which Middle Earth was a part). That task was given over to those of the Ainur (beings akin to the angels of Judeo-Christian tradition) who chose to enter Arda. They were divided into two orders – the Valar (the Powers) and the Maiar (the Excellent/Admirable).

The Valar are perhaps less well known to more casual readers of Tolkien. The name Elbereth will be familiar to them, for sure, since she is mentioned so often, especially by the elves who she is beloved of. Known by many other names, her proper name is Varda, suffixed Elentári (the Queen of the Stars). She created the stars, the sun, the moon, and many other lights besides. She is the Queen of the Valar. But there were fifteen Valar who entered Arda. You can find more about them in the Valaquenta in The Silmarillion. Included amongst their number was the first Dark Lord, Melkor, called Morgoth (the Dark Enemy of the World). He was Sauron’s master in the early ages of Arda.

The Maiar were lesser beings again than the Valar, who in turn were less powerful than Eru. Amongst there number were Olórin, who went on to become Gandalf (yes, that old man was actually older than Arda itself!), Saruman, Radagast and Sauron as well.

Tolkien’s gods/angels are complex and have a very involved history and a huge collection of names. There are several orders, just as you find in the traditional understandings of Christian heavenly hierarchy. There are obvious parallels between Melkor and Satan, Eru and YHWH, the Valar and Maiar and the choirs of angels. Much literary criticism has discussed this. But it’s hardly surprising – Tolkien was a Catholic and a philologist. His interest lay in language, and mythology has always been an extension of language. Indeed, it has been suggested that it is language.

What of other writers? Well, Robert Jordan has the Creator and the Dark One. The Creator is called only that, directly paralleled with YHWH. The Dark One is properly named Shaitan, the Arabic name for Satan used by Arab Christians and Muslims alike. But then there’s also the Wheel of Time. It turns as the ages go past:

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”

There’s the semblance that the Wheel knows what the world needs – it spins out the Dragon Reborn to oppose the Dark One in every Age, and spins out other heroes of legend as well. But it is the work of the Creator, and the Dark One seeks to break it. There are parallels to the bhavacakra or Wheel of Life of Buddhist tradition. Eastern philosophies are very much present in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – the symbol of the Aes Sedai of the Age of Legends, which Rand adopts later, is an inverted taijitu with the dots removed.

The biggest effect in these two examples seems to be interest. Tolkien’s interest in philology and his devout personal belief in Catholicism seem to have influenced his choice of gods. Robert Jordan’s use of eastern philosophy to inspire and inform his world, as well as the familiar Christian imagery of good and evil, God and Satan. But what about me? I’m an atheist (a Humanist to be exact). I find evolution fascinating, and the way it informs our knowledge of the world is mind-blowing. I love watching chimpanzees at the zoo, knowing that 98% or thereabouts of our genetic make-up is identical. So, to include gods seems to me to be a little strange a choice for me. But then I grew up with the stories of the Greek heroes and I studied Latin for seven years. The mythology of Ancient Greece, Rome, and the Norse myths are also fascinating. To God or not to God: it’s a tough one.

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