Religions, faiths, cults, and spiritualities (or lack thereof) shape and define our worldviews, personalities, and cultures. If you have ever been to a far off, exotic country then you know that religion is the most important factor shaping its culture. It affects what a culture eats, their music, their architecture, their calendar, and their views on the collectivism/individualism debate. As such, the religions of fictional peoples greatly influence their cultures. To understand a people’s religion is to understand their culture: be they Vikings or Elves, Chinese or Dothraki, real or fictional. Obviously, fantasy literature is sprawling with fictional religions. Understanding them may be the key to aiding you to a better, more intimate acquaintance with the ins and outs of their cultures.
Let’s take Tolkien’s Elves, for example. Why do they have such disdain for many of the other races? Why do they have curiosity over the death of humans? For what reason are the Elves so proud? The answer to all of these queries lies in the religion of the Elves and their place within it as the first born of Eru whose lives are fated and their souls gathered to the halls of Mandos. Or take Conan the Barbarian’s people. Why are they so warlike, so tough, so rigid? Because their chief deity, Crom, exemplifies these virtues. As you can see, the religion of a culture already shapes their general worldview, but it goes deeper than that.
In real life, many Hindus are vegetarians, Jews can eat some meats but not all, while other religions allow their adherents to eat whatever they please. Religion shapes not just their worldviews but specific, daily activities such as eating. In Tolkien’s vast mythos, the Green Elves of Ossirand are highly suspected as being vegetarians. What purpose could they have for it if it was not religious? They likely saw animals as fellow creatures before Eru, and valuing all life as sacred they declined from eating meat. For the worshippers of the Seven in A Song of Ice and Fire, the specific action may not be food related but it does effect the daily life of some. If a squire desires to serve as a knight, he must go and spend the night in a holy vigil, becoming anointed for holy service. The Faith of the Seven effects its followers’ careers and even the jobs they can have. If you do not believe in the Seven, then you cannot become a knight; believing is the prerequisite to being.
Just as many wars in real life are fought over religion, so too are fictional wars. The Narnians fight against the White Witch and her foes because their God commands it. The free peoples of Middle Earth would rather side with Eru and his freedom than with Morgoth and his industrialism. There is always this constant back and forth in fictional worlds between following the supremely good deity or its opposite.
Religion is important in real life for helping us understand customs, cultures, and conflicts. It is equally as important in fictitious worlds, and is often a major part of world-building for authors. Yet, it almost always gets seen as background material or minor exposition. The goal of this short article was not just to lightly argue the importance of fictional religions (believe me its light, I could go on about this for hours), but also to push the reader into a deeper understanding of their favorite worlds and universes in the hopes that we all may become fictional armchair theologians.
Article by Tripp Bond