Elements of Fantasy: Gods, Devils, and Super-Beings

An amendment to the pledge in the first post: I will add to this blog at least once a week. That’s the commitment, which I may exceed at my discretion, as now.


The elements of fantasy fiction – by which I mean those parts which make it fantasy and not just fiction – bear a close and symbiotic relationship to the elements of religion or spirituality or both.

I’m quite serious about this. It’s true that fantasy does not depict the real world as we know it. If it did, it wouldn’t be fantasy. But something weird and different about the fictional world is not enough to make it become a fantasy. It has to be a particular type of weirdness, and that type of weirdness is shared by religious thinking and spirituality. There is a distinction between the two in that religion at least claims to be describing the real world, while fantasy insists it isn’t doing this, but the truth is that religion doesn’t do it as much as most religious believers think, and fantasy does it more than most fantasy writers pretend.

Here’s the thing about statements: they’re not all simplistically either true or false. A statement may be a claim of fact (“the world was made in six days”), an assertion of value (“you should treat others as you would be treated”), or a metaphor (“Daenerys Targaryen is the Mother of Dragons”). When a religious doctrine makes a claim of fact, it is inevitably saying something either banal or false. (The world was not, for example, actually made in six days.) Religions have no access to the type of truth that goes into making statements of fact – religion is not science – and so a religious doctrine that makes a true statement of fact is also making an obvious one that everyone knows already. All other religious claims of fact are false.

The other two types of statements are more in the expertise of religion, and the third category, metaphor, is also in the domain of fantasy. Although fiction writers (including fantasy writers) aren’t barred from making values statements, either.

There is a type of truth in metaphor, at least potentially, but it is not a straightforward truth. Metaphor – and myth, which consists of stories built on a metaphorical foundation – come at the truth in sidewinder fashion, spiraling in on a target that can’t be approached on the straight and level. Language is only designed to describe things in literal terms if they are already known and familiar. It has to be twisted about to describe the new and different, and the more outside the common arena of experience a truth is, the more language has to be stretched in its meaning to describe it. And that of course is what metaphor does: it describes one thing as being similar to another thing in some way, so that words which straightforwardly describe the other thing can be used slantwise to describe what we’re actually trying to get at.

Myth is a type of metaphor. Either that or it’s a falsehood, but which it is depends entirely on how it’s interpreted. If we take it for a literal, straightforward, factual claim about reality, it’s just false. The sun is not a chariot being driven across the sky by a god. Your heart will not be weighed on a scale by the gods after you die. Winter is not the result of a temper-tantrum by Nature while her daughter is the captive wife of Death. Jesus (almost certainly) did not come back to life after he was murdered. But each of these myths has a deeper meaning (or more than one) for which it is a metaphorical expression, and those deeper meanings are true. The sun is the source of life and should be revered. What you have done in life survives you and the impact of your life may be good or evil in various measures. Winter and Death do have a profound connection. And death and rebirth is the transition by which the human spirit becomes divine.

The same is the case with the best fantasy. Fantasy doesn’t make (and unlike religion, doesn’t claim to make) literally true statements about the world we live in. But it does, or at least in my opinion it should, make statements that express mythical truth.

And that brings me to the subject of today’s writing.

The gods are a staple of fantasy. Not all fantasy deals with them directly, but most fantasy at least gives them passing reference and sometimes they are the main subject. But just because a fantasy calls some critters or other “gods” doesn’t mean that’s what they really are. There are actually three different sorts of super-powerful intelligent being that may be found in fantasy, which I call gods, devils, and super-beings. It’s not uncommon for beings that are called “gods” in fantasy to actually be super-beings, not gods, and it’s not unheard-of for them to be devils.

A god is not merely a very powerful and intelligent creature. A god is also an embodiment of something important about the world, or even of the whole world itself. This is the god’s Aspect. Apollo is the sun god and the god of art. Thor is the god of the storm. Hecate is the goddess of the magical arts and of death and rebirth. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty. In each of these cases, while the god or goddess as an anthropomorphic figure may be imaginary, its Aspect is quite real and powerful and important in the lives of people. The same is true of monotheistic deities, of course, whose Aspect is the entire universe. Can’t get much more important than that!

Because these Aspects are real and powerful and important in the lives of people, there is a natural connection between the gods and human beings. The gods are not completely separate from us; they are not just “other people” who are much more powerful than we are. They are the elements of our lives personified. As such, they have a vertical relationship with us – our creators, our mentors, our teachers, our benefactors, those we consult about important things – and not merely a horizontal one. They are not wholly other; they are part of who we are.

Not all creatures in fantasy that are called “gods” fit this description, although some gods do fit it; Tolkien’s Valar certainly do for example, as do the gods and goddesses in Neil Gaimon’s splendid American Gods and its sequel Anansi Boys. On the other hand, the “gods” of Larry Niven’s Warlock stories (such as Rose-Kattee in The Magic Goes Away) are not gods at all; they are merely very powerful intelligent creatures with a horizontal relationship to humanity only – wholly other than ourselves. There is no reason at all, other than fear or cupidity, why any such being should be worshiped. The same could be said of the gods of Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series.

Are creatures such as these legitimate fantasy creations? Of course they are. They just aren’t proper gods; humanity in a story like that has been victimized by opportunistic superhuman tyrants who call themselves gods but aren’t. (Or perhaps, although no such story comes to mind off the top of my head, humanity might be assisted by superhuman benevolent despots. There’s no particular reason why a superhuman creature must be hostile if it isn’t a genuine god.) In addition to gods, properly so called, there are two other categories of vastly powerful highly intelligent being in fantasy, and also in myth: devils and super-beings. Devils are powerful beings who, like gods, have a vertical relationship to humanity, but it is a hostile relationship. They wish to destroy, enslave, corrupt, damn, condemn, or otherwise afflict us. They are the self-destructive side of ourselves personified, or the hostility of nature to our existence. It’s a fairly common theme, although with most fantasy nowadays hewing towards Pagan spirituality and avoiding anything with Christian overtones, less often seen than was once the case. Still, devils can slip into fantasy in disguise. Tad Williams’ gods are very close to being devils; so are the nastier examples of the Tide Lords in Jennifer Fallon’s series of that name. So, obviously, are Tolkien’s Melkor/Morgoth and Sauron, and the Emperor Palapatine – or perhaps the Dark Side of the Force itself – in the Star Wars saga.

The philosophical implications of gods and devils need not be developed to any particular depth in a fantasy story and of course, any such development should always be secondary to the development of plot, character, and theme, for fantasy fiction is fiction first and fantasy second. But there is room in a novel to explore such things if it is done in a way that contributes to the story rather than supplants it. The line between fantasy and mythos is not hard and fast. Indeed, the human characters in the best fantasy are living a myth or a legend themselves and the stories retell themes that are ages old in new ways and new voices.

The third category of superhuman intelligence, super-beings, is something of a catch-all. A person of vast power and intelligence with only a horizontal relationship to humanity and with no mythic significance is a common enough fantasy element and can make for an interesting story. A good example is, on one level, the Princes of Amber in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Not perfectly so, though; the mythic strongly intrudes, the Pattern and Logrus are clearly gods, not mere super-beings, and a few of the immortal somewhat-human denizens border on the mythic: Oberon, Dworkin, Benedict, and (in a diabolic aspect) Brand.

Yes, the super-being is certainly a legitimate fantasy element; yet, to my way of thinking at least, the best fantasy stretches beyond depicting the fantastic merely as fantastic and enters the arena of myth. The gods of a fantasy pantheon (if they are proper gods) should be such that a perfectly viable religion in the real world could be made of them. So what if they don’t exist as corporeal beings in the objective world? Neither do any deities which human beings actually do worship; their reality is found in the human heart, not in the observable world. If they do exist as corporeal beings in the objective world of a fantasy story – which is sometimes, but not always, the case – that’s how myth works. It’s a metaphor, telling a truth in sideways fashion that cannot be told straight. And it can also make a fine tale.


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Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

One response to “Elements of Fantasy: Gods, Devils, and Super-Beings

  1. Pingback: More Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy | Brian Rush

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