The stereotypical epic fantasy is set in a pseudo-European, pseudo-medieval world. One of the major differences between such a fantasy world and the real medieval Europe is fairly obvious: there’s magic that actually works.
But there’s another difference that’s not quite so obvious. In the real medieval Europe, there was widespread belief in God, and religion played an important role in many people’s lives. In much of epic fantasy, faith in and worship of God is largely absent. Sometimes God is replaced by multiple gods (as in the Belgariad by David Eddings), and sometimes there are multiple competing religions (such as the various religions in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire). But often the role of God is simply relegated to that of Creator who plays no role in people’s lives, as in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time:
“The Creator had made the world and then left humankind to make of it what they would, a heaven or the Pit of Doom by their choosing, The Creator had made many worlds, watched each flower and die, and gone on to make endless worlds beyond. A gardener did not weep for each blossom that fell.” [A Wheel of Time Wiki]
Recently, while listening to the audiobook of Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, I was struck by how well the author incorporated belief in God into the story.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in a pseudo-medieval world, but instead of pseudo-Europe, it’s… wait for it… pseudi-Arabia. [rimshot] The author draws on Arabic mythologies and cultures for the world, and the major characters believe in God and follow a religion with many parallels to Islam.
That doesn’t mean the characters are all the same in their approach to God. The main character is an aging ghul-hunter whose magic often involves quoting scripture at the foul creatures he fights, but who wonders why God allows poverty, injustice, and evil. His apprentice is a devout dervish who sees sin everywhere and tries to follow a righteous path despite temptations. And other characters have still other attitudes toward God.
What impressed me was that the use of God in the novel felt realistic. In other words, this is what pseudo-medieval pseudi-Arabia would be like if you added magic but didn’t take away God. I’ve been trying to think of epic fantasy that does the same in pseudo-medieval Europe, and I’ve come up blank. (Maybe I’m forgetting something obvious, or maybe I just haven’t read widely enough in the genre.)
Saladin Ahmed, who is Muslim, has done an excellent job of portraying an analogue of his religion in a fantasy world. Probably the best example of such by an LDS author is Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, but it’s set in an alternate frontier America rather than pseudo-Europe. Maybe because our religion was so recently founded, a pseudo-Mormon pseudo-medieval fantasy would feel anachronistic. But it might be interesting to see.
[Note: This post was updated to correct my misremembering of the religions in the Song of Ice and Fire series.]