Monday, December 28, 2009

Holidays and Religion in Fiction

Christmas being last week and all got me thinking about the inclusion of holidays in fiction. Now, as with any scenario in your story, the holiday scene should move the tale forward or communicate something about the character via a seemingly peaceful interlude.

A perfect example is the Christmas scene in Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (Philosopher's Stone in the British edition). This scene, with Harry waking to more presents than he's ever seen in his life, is reflective of the character of the Dursleys and the past that Harry is dealing with. It communicates something about the character without feeling thrown in there at a whim.

Many other fantasy stories don't include holiday/feast day scenes at all. In considering that, I lean toward the thought that the main reason is the possibility of that holiday/feast day scene not moving the story forward at all. But perhaps another reason is that authors tend to not include holidays in fantasy because religion is one of those topics than can be almost totally ignored in any story that doesn't deal directly with it. I think that's why the religious fiction genre exists really. To give writers and readers the opportunity to create and enjoy stories focused on religion as a primary topic.

Consider this as an example of religion being pretty much ignored in fantasy fiction: The gods of the Lord of the Rings trilogy are modeled on Norse tradition -- chief god Il├║vatar is called the "All-Father" as Odin was -- but the only reason we know this is because of materials published later. I'm specifically talking about The Silmarillion and other works. Nowhere in the main text of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings do we hear even a mention of the gods of Middle-Earth. No invoking of the gods even to swear that I can recall, which is something fantasy authors are wont to do (myself included).

Religion has been a part of human existence since the first thinking people evolved. It explains the world around us, and gives the believers something to look forward to after death or strive for in this life. Why then do authors tend to ignore that facet of society in fiction? Is it because religion only sells in religious fiction? Or is it because the focus of the story doesn't require religion as a touchpoint? 

What do you think dear readers? 

P.S. The Ten-Word Novel Contest will close on Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time. Get your entries in!


L. T. Host said...

I think it's just a touchy subject. Like politics, there's no way faster (for a lot of people) to upset them than to not agree with their views. And a lot of religious types would see creating your own gods or mentioning the pagan ones as blasphemy. So most authors don't touch it because they don't want to offend anyone.

At least that's my theory.

Natalie said...

I think religion isn't directly addressed in most fiction, but that doesn't mean it's not present. Frodo takes the ring because he is the only one innocent enough to carry it. He suffers and carries it to it's destination so that humanity (and hobbits, dwarfs, etc) can be saved from the evil behind it. In the last book of Harry Potter, Harry literally gives his life for his friends and then comes back to life. I don't know that the authors were trying to do this, but I think they were both pretty clear Christ symbols. I notice symbols like this often (especially in fantasy).

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

Fair point, and that's what I assume many fantasy writers are thinking if they make a conscious decision to not include religion beyond it not furthering their story.

Natalie --

The "Christ example" of a hero sacrificing himself to save the world is much, much older than Christian thought. Prometheus did the same with giving fire to humanity in Greek myth, for example.

But I still get your point. There is religious symbolism in stories without religion being overtly mentioned.

Davin Malasarn said...

I agree with L.T. With all of the religious battles going on, I often feel like discussing religion will just cause conflict that has nothing to do with the story. Having said that, I do delve into religion in my current novel because the main characters themselves are going to a cremation ceremony that is religious. I felt like it was unavoidable in this case. Religion is fascinating to me, and I love it when fantasy or sci-fi books create fictional religious ceremonies. That's something I'm interested in doing myself.

Joshua McCune said...

I think that religion is such a polarizer that it is too touchy a subject to incorporate with any significant depth (unless you're Pullman and hate God :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I think L.T. has a valid point regarding writers shying away from reader "turn-off" because of religion.
I do think, though, that most still include religious values and messages in other ways.

Matthew Delman said...

Davin --

I do too! That's why I loved the sequence in LOTR where Denethor was going to "bury" Faramir. The funerary customs and faiths of fantasy cultures are fascinating -- especially when you consider how many lines of thought you have to juggle to craft it believably.

Bane --

Or unless you're Rowling and "encouraging witchcraft." Pfft.

Shannon --

I like to believe many fantasy readers are like Davin and I; people who enjoy reading about the culture as much as the story, and would love to see more mentions of religion in stories.

Side note to everyone: THE REDEMPTION OF ALTHALAS by David and Leigh Eddings is a good example of how to include religion in a fantasy story without it being monotheistic.

Susan R. Mills said...

Great point, Matt. I hadn't thought of it like that. The end of my story happens during Christmastime, but there really isn't a Christmas scene. I do elude to the holiday, though. Good question about why so many authors avoid mentioning the holidays.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Hi, Matt! I have an award for you at my blog. You already have it, but that doesn't mean you can't have it again! :-)

Adam Heine said...

It's weird. While I have no doubt many authors avoid it because it's a dangerous topic, when I read fiction I'm not offended by any religion I see at all (at least in speculative fiction).

What does offend me is overt preachiness: a story that is clearly designed to convince someone of something rather than tell a story. I guess it annoys me more than offends, now that I think about it. And it can happen in a story that has no religion in it at all (e.g. Crichton's State of Fear or the recent movie Gamer).

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

That's interesting that you end the story during Christmastime without a Christmas scene. Did you decide to not include said scene for a specific reason or is that just when the story happened to end?

Adam --

Speculative fiction is a different animal. I think folks who read a lot of spec fic are a lot more interested in visiting a vibrant fantasy world than they are in being offended by polytheistic beliefs.

And boy do I ever hate those message books. I mean, it's cool if you want to theorize a "what if?" scenario in your book, but don't make it so you get your views on X topic down my throat via fiction. That's just bothersome.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I just finished reading "The Lightning Thief" and talk about tackling religion head on! It is a story all about the gods (the ancient Greek ones), and the ancient beings before that. References to The God (the monotheistic one) are thrown in, but mostly left alone. It's selling like hotcakes to the MG crowd.