Mysticism, Cosmology and Religion in Fantasy

I’ve recently found a fantastic threepart series describing a framework for writing different forms of religion in fantasy (and, by extension, science fiction). The thing is, I realised that very few alternative-world novels actually do this very well. There are those that do aspects of it, but very few get the whole thing.

Fantasy Faction outlines three elements that a fantasy religion should have; explanations of where the sentient races in that world come from (world origins), where they’re going (life after death, or not) and how to act while they’re in the world in question (codes of conduct/rituals). All three are needed to make religion and particularly mythology seem plausible.

But quite often it doesn’t work that way, and one or more element is missing. To look at the Dune series for example, there are some interesting philosophical points made about the nature of prediction and the social and particularly political consequences are quite well explored. However, there is little of the other two strands, which aren’t given much thought. It seems generally assumed that religion is a social tool, with no deeper cosmological significance at all.

A Song of Ice and Fire goes one step better and looks into the social and political effects of the world’s many religions as well as what the faith of various religious characters means to them and influences their action. However, this doesn’t seem to relate to the cosmology of the world, with effects going on that aren’t really linked to aspects of the religions presented. For example, the seasons of Westeros are irregular and severe, but this major event doesn’t seem to feature in any of the faiths present on the continent. Also, the stories of the various tribes of men are present in the religions (like the fact that the First Men of the North worshipped the old gods, which the northmen continue) aren’t linked to the origin of men or the cycle of the seasons. This may be revealed in future books, as cosmological mystery is a big part of the story, but so far the pieces don’t make the whole jigsaw.

Then you have fantastically detailed cosmologies like this, which I suppose are my main bugbear with this. They are really detailed systems, which make fantastic cosmological pictures, but don’t relate to the lived experiences of the faithful. This is how religion seems to function in vanilla Dungeons & Dragons, with gods claiming the people of the same alignment, without much in the way of social structures or the impact that this cosmology has on the lives of everyday people. Many fantasy settings either take this pattern or just take a social structure of priests that doesn’t have much impact outside of their own enclaves. In much the same way that they use magic, in fact.

To me, these things are linked; religion and magic are vocations, not things that are an experiential part of the universe that they inhabit. And rarely tied in to the experience of living a faith. The mythology is a part of the world, but not part of the lives of the characters. In most of the examples I’ve given here, religion is a matter-of-fact thing, that is either shown to be true and a fact, or not the case at all. There are some that blur the line slightly, but those are few and far between.

Some good examples of this are the Imperial faith in the Warhammer 40,000 wargame, and some of the presentations of faith in the Elder Scrolls series. In these cases both the overarching cosmology and the lived experience of followers is presented, along with most of its social effects. However, on occasion the cosmological and the religious separate. This is clearer in the Elder Scrolls, where the movers and shakers in the cosmology, particularly the player characters, didn’t have to have a religious element to them. Once again, religion is tacked-on and optional in the cosmological interactions, religion a mantle to be used and completed (particularly in the computer game setting of TES), with little regard to the experience of the adherents or the particularly religious nature of the tasks involved.

Perhaps the worst offender for all this is the Magic the Gathering multiverse. While it’s said that planeswalkers have been worshipped as gods, and there is a fairly detailed outline of how the multiverse functions, with rules and the like, but there’s no mythos behind it; it’s just as matter-of-fact as the D&D planes and gods.

Maybe this is down to what I thought was the best insight from the three-part series I linked above; that religion, science and magic interact and overlap in various ways. But they all need to be there. Work this out in a Venn diagram. The three elements aren’t necessarily opposed even in this world; Medieval theology had its own logic and reason, based on an understanding of the world that was profoundly coloured by religion. Religious leaders were for a long time the scientists also. Magic (however it works in any given setting) may impinge on science (in how it is understood, is practice and the rules of the universe) and impact on religion (as a heresy, divine blessing, or anything in between). But they all need to interact somehow with the social fabric of a world in order to make it convincing.

To sum up this somewhat garbled post, I will mash a quote from anthropologist Csordas: in much fantasy and science fiction, society creates religion as self-affirmation. In a world where religion and cosmology have a real influence on the lived experience of its inhabitants, cosmology and religion would create society as self-affirmation.  This perspective needs to permeate more fantasy and science-fiction, if it is to even pretend to use religion and mysticism properly.


OK, this post seems really garbled. I may come back and edit it into more sense. I wanted to see what other people thought, though. Please, if you have any thoughts on this at all, leave a comment below!

I’ll also be back soon to outline some more of Magic: the Multiverse. The basic mechanics are now up, but things like combat time, injury and above all spellcasting rules will be detailed soon.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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1 Response to Mysticism, Cosmology and Religion in Fantasy

  1. I have never really delved into the role of religion in fantasy. Granted, I have not been a huge reader of fantasy for some time. This is interesting, and in many regards permeates not only the craft of fantasy-writing, but any fiction at all. The author is charged with creating a world that is guided by the physical rules of the setting, and the spiritual rules of the characters created. Whether a religion is explicitly developed or not, there will always be a belief system behind the words that acts as a sort of hidden spiritual setting through which the characters must find their way.

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