Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fantasy & the Supernatural: What Authors Can Do

Welcome back to the CSFF Blog Tour for Patrick Carr’s A Draw of Kings!

As I said earlier this week, I’ve already reviewed this particular book…as well as the previous two books in the series, A Cast of Stones and The Hero's Lot. Since I don’t need to bore those who have already read my reviews (summary: I really like the series), I want to ruminate instead on one of my favorite elements in The Staff and the Sword series and one that I think makes this story unique.

That would be the story’s medieval-world feel in general, and Carr’s re-imagining of the medieval church in particular.

Religion can be challenging to insert into a story, not just because it’s controversial. Plenty of people complain about heavy-handed Christianese, and just as many people complain about the lack of a religious message. Part of the challenging is just deciding how (or if) a writer wants to handle religion. Fiction allows writers to use a wide range of nuances as they develop their story and their world, and fantasy is no different from the rest of fiction. If anything, fantasy gives writers even more possibility to pick from, because writers get to create or reinvent their world in ways historical fiction or contemporary romances can only imagine.

If you think about it, the two big myth-makers bookend the entire spectrum from an overtly Christian mythos to a more subtle, almost invisible supernatural presence.

I’m talking about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien of course. I know from experience that people who read only The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings tend to think God got left out of the stories. Tolkien has a very clear history to his Middle Earth in the stories of the elves, the dwarves, and the wars against Sauron, but there is no obvious God-figure, no one ever mentions a divine being, and Gandalf doesn’t point Frodo to ancient book of knowledge to help him define right and wrong.

Now, if you mention this to any Tolkien fan, they will instantly say, “But there’s The Silmarillion.” And there is, certainly. As Gandalf tells Frodo, “There are many powers in the world, for good or for evil.It’s just that Tolkien apparently doesn’t see a need to make any overt references to the highest of these powers, the creation story or the rest of the mythos he develops in The Silmarilion. That’s one end of the spectrum.

At the other end is Lewis’s Narnia, where Aslan rules as High King over all High Kings, the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. As Lewis pointed out, Aslan is not an allegorical stand-in for Christ, a metaphor on the level of Mr. Do-Good in Pilgrim’s Progress. Aslan is Christ as he might appear in a world inhabited by talking animals. Aslan himself tells Edmund and Lucy that they must learn to know him in their own world as well.

Fantasy authors can get away with things like that. 

So, what does this have to do with The Sword and the Staff?

Traditionally, the medieval world has been a popular setting for fantasy quests, among both good authors and not-so-good authors. It’s a world that seems to invite dragons and ogres. Sometimes the world exists as a medieval-style land on an unknown world or a hidden continent, but other times it is superimposed over the real medieval Europe. When the latter happens, the world may take on real aspects of medieval Europe,such as the cultural mix or even certain historic events. This is fantasy, after all, and authors can write their own version of history.

Similarly, in The Sword and the Staff series, Carr takes on the medieval church, while giving it his own twist. In Carr’s world, the church exists as one of the central pillars of society, second only to the king—if even that. The church’s structure closely mirrors the Catholic church’s hierarchy with its village priests, benefices, and archbenefices.

At the same time, this is a church that lost access to the Book hundreds of years before and has based its theology on tradition since that time. This being a fantasy series, Carr throws some other elements into the mix as well. The church serves a trinity—Deas, Eleison, and Aurae—while fighting against the village herbalists who claim to speak with spirits, including the unknowable Aurae. Meanwhile, the church backs up its traditions with its readers—men who can hold a question in their head and carve all of the possible answers into special blocks or stones for casting lots. Each reader can see only the answers he has carved, but an omne can read any other reader’s lots as well as his own.

All this becomes critically important when it comes to finding an heir for the dying king and for learning how to preserve Illustra's barrier against the demonic powers trying to overpower the kingdom. Without the Book to guide it, the church can only use its readers to hunt out the answers it needs. That ability, though, is threatened when a churchman learns that some people might indeed be able to hear Aurae speak.

In other words, Carr has history and fantasy working together. Plus, it makes a really cool mix, and it’s just another reason why I love both medieval worlds and fantasy in general.

(If you want to see what other bloggers are saying about this book or the series, you can find a list of the posts here.)

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