Throne of the Crescent Moon and the use of God in epic fantasy

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.]

About Eric James Stone

A Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominee, and winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, Eric James Stone has had stories published in Year’s Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and Kevin J. Anderson’s Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. One of Eric’s earliest memories is of seeing an Apollo moon-shot launch on television. That might explain his fascination with space travel. His father’s collection of old science fiction ensured that Eric grew up on a full diet of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. While getting his political science degree at Brigham Young University, Eric took creative writing classes. He wrote several short stories, and even submitted one for publication, but after it was rejected he gave up on creative writing for a decade. During those years Eric graduated from Baylor Law School, worked on a congressional campaign, and took a job in Washington, DC, with one of those special interest groups politicians always complain that other politicians are influenced by. He quit the political scene in 1999 to work as a web developer in Utah. In 2002 he started writing fiction again, and in 2003 he attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. In 2007 Eric got laid off from his day job just in time to go to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has since found a new web development job. In 2009 Eric became an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. Eric lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.
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15 Responses to Throne of the Crescent Moon and the use of God in epic fantasy

  1. Wm says:

    I completely agree.

  2. Wm says:

    Eric’s assessment of the novel and why it’s of interest to Mormon readers/writers.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    One example that comes to mind is Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni universe books, which present a pretty close analogue to a (decentralized) medieval Catholic church. Intolerance on the part of the church is one of the main challenges faced by practitioners of magic, but there are also examples of positive attitudes on the part of churchmen, and the magic-using protagonists are themselves believers — in fact, some of them are themselves churchmen (or become such). It doesn’t include the element Eric describes of how religious belief impacts day-to-day life among ordinary people, but then the whole series really is about nobles anyway…

    A more distant, if-you-squint parallel is there in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series (if you accept the series as fantasy rather than science fiction, which is one of those things people disagree about). Each guild has its patron saint, and there are wandering orders of those who worship a Conciliator, though no established religious hierarchy is presented.

    I’m sure there are more, but they don’t come to mind at the moment…

  4. Wm says:

    This is a pantheon rather than a single deity, but: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt are the first examples that come to mind when I think of medieval-flavored fantasy that treats religion with complexity and seriousness and more than just world-building trappings.

  5. _Song for Arbonne_ by Guy Gavriel Kay has a strong religious element, that’s important to the plot.

  6. Mark Penny says:

    Quite a few of the stories in Monsters and Mormons combine Mormonism with folkloric magic. The early saints probably lived in a world where religion predominated (at least in church) but magic popped up around the corners.

    Islam, as I understand it, hasn’t even tried to separate magic and religion. It’s the Christians who want to divide magic, religion and science. Hence, I suppose, the tendency of European fantasy to either exclude Christianity or replace it with pagan or animistic analogs. Or do like Dragonslayer and make it look a bit silly or like Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King and show Christianity and older religions in conflict.

  7. Meg Stout says:

    I’m glad Wm mentioned Bujold’s Chalion as a fantasy world where religion is vital. Chalion is a close parallel to 15th century Castile and Bujold’s pantheon of Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, and Bastard were vitally important, and the differing interpretations of that pantheon allowed a reflection on the actual religious divides of 15th century Spain. Though Christians and specifically Catholics don’t think of themselves as worshiping a pantheon, the Father and Son “feel” like two sides of God the Father and a triumphant Christ. Mother feels a lot like Mary, the mother of Christ. To me, Daughter read like Persephone or maybe the maiden Mary before the Annunciation, and the bastard reads like a suffering and crucified Jesus somehow separated from resurrection and eventual triumph.

    A problem with including belief in God is that so many people either reject God or their concept of God is the one voiced by Jordan – an entity so little concerned with the lot of man that the outcome of our lives and this world are left to chance and the posers who are willing to clothe themselves in the name of a God and enforce their vision by means of falsehood, dogma, and threats. So mentioning God to these two populations (the godless and those distrusting leaders who claim to follow god) is a turn off. While those who do believe in a God will see an honorable and good hero and see the light of God in that hero’s journey, whether the author explicitly includes God or not. It’s a win win.

  8. It’s not a novel, but Dragon Age is an excellent example of religion in a Medieval Europe fantasy setting (they weren’t shy about their European anaglogs, Ferelden is England, Orlais is France, Antiva is Spain, etc). It’s not Catholicism, but the central religion is monotheistic and has a lot of parallels from Christianity. One of the central personal conflicts, especially in t he second game, is wound up in the religion.

  9. I’d be really interested in further research on parallels between Mormon and Muslim writers in Western countries. It seems to me that there are some similar dynamics affecting both of our communities in terms of having alternate historical/mythological sets, having some values and practices the bulk of the literary community would love to have us renounce and condemn, and in taking God seriously.

    Anyone done any informal work on this already?

  10. Adam G. says:

    It depends on what you mean by ‘epic fantasy,’ but I think Gene Wolfe’s Wizard-Knight duology fits the bill. It doesn’t have a pseudo-Catholic pantheon, or even religion, but supernatural and subnatural entities are expected parts of life. The hero is deeply influenced by his interactions with Asgard, St. Michael, elves, and devils (in the context of the story it all makes sense, I promise)

  11. Arwen Riddle says:

    Megan Whalen Turner’s books have an interesting take on religion. Her mythology is fascinating and her setting is loosely based on Greece.

  12. Jan Burton says:

    Once I asked him, God that is, if he minded being used as a character in a Science Fiction novel. This was by way of prayer. I did not want to offend him or to be blasphmus, I did not know what that ment but I was sure it would be trouble.

    He replied he did not mind.

    I have always found that faith, along with hope and charity makes a particularly stable foundation when creating fantasy. I think your mussleman example probibly discovered that stability. I disagree that midevil time period is essential, I usually go for present time or future time or even next life time, the terrestial world if you will. I like the idea that “religion be vital”.

    So perhaps you have found your nich. You seem to have a good idea that deserves to be addressed. GO FOR IT.

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