Guest Blog: Darker Gods by James A. Moore
Darker Gods by James A. Moore
Religion as a Dark Force in Fantasy
It’s an interesting thing, religion. In the right hands and mindset it can make amazing things happen. Communities can get together and build villages in pretty quickly. Homes and farms ruined by natural forces can be restored in short order because neighbors and friends can gather together and work as a unit. Often times those units are started by the religious leader in an area. The Amish raise barns in a day that no single person could manage in a month.
But then we have to look at the other side of that coin. Atrocities have been committed in the name of God or gods. The witch hunts in Europe devastated tens of thousands. Wars were fought in the name of God, not because it was a different god, but merely because the ways of worshipping said god did not match up. Well, okay, and because there was land and gold to consider, but it was all done in the name of the one god.
The Crusades. The Holy Inquisition. Do you follow the right god? Do you know Jesus? Have you taken Him as your savior? Will a few days of torture show you the error of your ways? As the old song “One Tin Solider” said, do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end. The concentration camps and Holocaust happened because the Nazis found a way to blame their woes on the Jewish and a few others. Something similar seems to want to happen right now in the US of A and the notion unsettles me deeply. Religion makes scapegoating easy.
And so we have this very article. Darker Gods in fantasy.
Most times, not always, of course, the gods of fantasy settings are either benevolent or they can be negotiated with. Sometimes they have vast powers and sometimes they are very stingy with the miracles, but they’re still there and they usually have good motives. The Christian overtones in The Chronicles of Narnia are evident to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Christian faith, as one example.
On the flip side of that coin there are the Gods of Order and Chaos in the worlds of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Arioch, a lord of Chaos, offers his favorite follower, Elric, help at a moment’s notice if only Elric will remember to be an obedient follower. Sometimes even when Elric forgets, which is often. Still, however reluctantly, he will help his follower.
Let’s take a moment to define what a god is, shall we? For the sake of argument I’ll say that a god in a fantasy setting is a being of extreme power who, for the price of worship or the occasional sacrifice, can be coerced into aiding the heroes of a tale. Okay, or the villains. Mostly, however, it seems to be the heroes. In Greek myths the gods are often arbitrary in who they will help. In the Norse mythology they’re a bit more nihilistic, having already stated that they know when and how they will die and how they will be reborn when the time is right. Follow them properly and you’re not guaranteed eternal life, so much as the chance to fight by the side of the gods when the final days arrive.
The rules are often different in fantasy settings. The gods of Lankhmar, who are so horrific that mentioning them by name is punishable by death. They do not follow the typical rules of gods in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series of books. The Creator and the Elohim play their own semi-benevolent parts in the CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER, courtesy of Stephen R. Donaldson.
But let’s stretch this notion. Let’s look at Sauron from THE LORD OF THE RINGS (J.R.R. Tolkien, of course.). Sauron is powerful enough as to be very nearly undefeatable. Even when he is severely wounded, he is not killed and merely retreats to lick his wounds. Is he a god? Hard to say. He is certainly worshipped as one by the orcs and the goblins, who fear him and serve him. He is powerful enough to corrupt kings, advisors and sorcerers alike. When he gives a command, he is obeyed. What he wants he can take by force or by the use of his pawns. His power, the greatest part of it, is locked into a ring that, merely by being worn, corrupts the bearer. Surely if he got that power back, he would effectively be a god. So we can call him a malignant deity and the exception to the rule.
H.P. Lovecraft’s gods were not gods at all but rather aliens so vast in the scope of their power that mortals confused them for gods. Really, at that point what is the difference? In the end the Lovecraftian pantheon is indifferent to human beings or any form of worship. They might respond to a summons, but there is no particular desire on their part to be worshipped.
And then we have the darker gods.
In my own works the gods are not always benevolent. They can be, but it’s more the exception than the rule. In the Seven forges series I have a new pantheon of seven gods, the Daxar Taalor, who are very active in the lives of their followers, and actively aggressive toward the older and more established Fellein Empire. They have shaped their people as weapons against a long-standing enemy. The older gods, from several pantheons that have mostly faded away, are weaker, and have little energy left to them that they use to the benefit of anyone.
In The Last Sacrifice the gods are, well, not very nice. In the mythology presented, they have punished the world every time they have been disobeyed and this time around, they’ve decided to end the world, or at least destroy all life on the planet. There’s an out, but it won’t be one beneficial to the hero of the story.
The gods of old are angry gods, demanding gods and the sort of deities that insist on sacrifice and punishment. It’s in modern mythologies (forgive me, but for the sake of this article no religion is truly safe) that we see the notion of a benevolent deity. Depending on the interpretation The Lord and his son Jesus have set up the notion of a kinder, gentler world, where merely following the rules of good conduct are enough to ensure a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the old school religions, from Babylon on down the line, the gods are at best capricious, and at worst demanding of sacrifice and unswerving fealty. They can be harsh masters, or just plain indifferent.
Ultimately that’s the point of The Last Sacrifice. In a world where nature is cruel and gods are merciless, how much should one endure before deciding enough is enough? Even if you decide it’s time to fight back, how does one go about taking on and besting a god or a pantheon? And if the gods decide the world will end because of your actions, how do you justify all that you do?
Sometimes the gods are indifferent and sometimes they are angry. When and how do you fight back?