Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The God in the Pentagram: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Fantasy

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The God in the Pentagram: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Fantasy

Article excerpt


ONCE UPON A TIME, AS CERTAIN NARRATIVES HAVE IT, SOMEONE SENT ME A call for papers for an essay collection tentatively titled "Religion and Fantasy." Since I felt unqualified to pursue some senses of that polysemic word fantasy--fantasy as opposed to Freud's reality principle, fantasy as day dream, fantasy as wet dream, fantasy as the "setting for desire" (Laplanche and Pontalis 26)--I turned to the more familiar turf of fantasy as genre fiction. But a cursory scan of my bookshelves showed that religions are very seldom depicted in recent fantasy. At this stage, I was still taking "religion" in the basic sense as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: "One of the prevalent systems of faith and worship," based on "human recognition of superhuman controlling power" (1029).

Superhuman, or at least super-natural beings, such as elves, goblins, werewolves, and literally superhuman beings such as giants, do abound in modern fantasy; but to my further surprise, gods, Christian or otherwise, that is, superhuman and supernatural beings presented as in, say, Norse mythology, very seldom appear as functioning visible actors. There are, of course, exceptions: the Dunsanian/Lovecraftian tradition of monsters or demons worshipped as gods or Tom Holt's comic treatment of the Norse gods in Expecting Someone Taller (1988), for instance. Most come from young adult or children's fantasy: C. S. Lewis's allegorical presentation of Christ as Aslan in the Narnia series, thinly disguised deities in Madeleine LEngle's A Wrinkle in Time (1976) and Diane Duane's Wizard series, or Philip Pullman's decrepit Authority in The Amber Spyglass (2000). But honest-to-god, if the pun may be excused, full-scale, seriously treated and functioning deities, across a range of modern genre fantasy, no. In fact, the texts that might most often be cited as epitomizing fantasy as of 2008, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, firmly exclude any form of gods, and of established religions as well.

This lacuna may spring from fairly straightforward cultural, historical, and structural reasons. Though the ways in which a section of modern fantasy represents gods and/or religions have shifted significantly over time, these depictions suggest the presence of a third, more elusive element in the mixture: that is, an attempt, either literal or metaphorical, to convey an experience of spirituality, whether religiously based or not. There is even some evidence that audiences themselves may seek more than the frequently proposed satisfaction of wonder in reading fantasy (Attebery 16-17). For some, the desire may include a more transcendent experience, and, in reading some texts at least, this desire may be fulfilled.


It would be impossible to treat the entire "vast deposits of story" mopped up by "fantasy," this "extraordinarily porous term" for what "this culture or that--and this era or that--deems unrealistic" (Clute and Grant 337). Even the field of modern genre fantasy exceeds the scope of an article. For sheer practicality, I will focus on work marketed as adult fantasy, from the early 1980s to 2007. And though numerous single or peripheral or critically acclaimed texts may vary strongly from these hypotheses, I will concentrate on a group of what might be termed centerstream fantasy: that is, work by writers whose publishing frequency and/or repeated appearance in mass market paperback indicates their popularity. (1)

Further parameters need setting for the senses of "religion" and "spirituality." Sociologists have attempted to define religion for over a century, in a succession that bristles with notable names, from Durkheim and Weber to Berger, Parsons, Talcott, and Geertz. The most important approaches, however, divide between the substantive and the functional. A recent substantive revision of Weber would make religion "a patterning of social relationships around beliefs in supernatural powers, creating ethical consequences" (Swatos and Gustafson, qtd. …

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