Where religion and fantasy meet

By Matteo Gagliardi

As I’m reading Lord Of The Rings, I’m filled with a kind of fanatical ecstasy that I would only ever associate with people who take their religion really, really seriously. As sad as it sounds, I try to sing along with the characters’ limericks in my head and become so invested in the storyline that I, myself, could very well be in some spiritual hinterland called Middle Earth. When The Hobbit came out in cinemas, going to see it was one of the closest things I’ve had to a “religious experience”.

It’s often made me wonder, is there any real difference between fantasy novels and religious stories? Are fantasies just the adaptation of religious stories to modern society? Or perhaps religious narratives were fantasy stories of old?

When you look into it though, religious and mythological narratives and the genre of fantasy share some striking similarities. And before you start blasting me for trying to state the obvious, I’m not just referring to their shared usage of supernatural and other metaphysical themes – we’re talking literary devices here. As you will see in the following examples, religion and fantasy are bound together through the very writing techniques used by their authors.

The journey motif

Everyone loves an adventure story. There’s something about the notion of leaving your humble abode to embark on a journey to some distant, mysterious land as part of some quest or escapade that speaks to our appetite for fantasy – our desire to escape our own mundane comfort zone to get whisked away in some fantasy land. The same applies with religious stories; people are easily entertained by the idea of transcending their everyday lives by going on a spiritual journey.

So the journey motif isn’t confined to stories like Lord Of The Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Harry Potter and the like, but is also a common feature in religious stories. Take Genesis, the whole book of Exodus (an exodus is essentially the journey of departing a nation after all), or many other books in the Old Testament and Torah involving banishments, searches, quests, personal journeys and so on. Or consider the stories of Jesus and Buddha, who both left their homes to undertake personal journeys, or Muhammad’s out-of-body astral adventure to Jerusalem.

The pervasiveness of Symbolism

Fantasy and religious stories are jam-packed with plenty of fat, juicy symbols. Some are pretty straightforward, such as how Tolkien’s ring represents the corruptibility and addictiveness of power or how the Golden Calf in the story of Moses signifies idol worship. But some are a bit more complex and drawn-out; for instance, the whole story of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is just an allegory of Jesus’ resurrection (sorry to ruin your childhood…), while the Hindhu text,Baghavad Gita, uses a physical war-zone to allegorise the internal struggle against vices and how courage and fortitude are needed to overcome it.

Symbolism is the backbone of all religious and fantasy stories. Symbols are the portkeys (see what I did there?) between reality and the mystical realm portrayed in the narrative. They expose links between them to make the latter more relatable (or is it to make our world more relatable…?).

Characterisation of archetypes

In most fantasy and religious stories, the characters seem to fall under obvious black-and-white categories. There’s almost always a hero as the focal-point of the plot (Jesus, Harry Potter, Muhammad, King Arthur, etc.), an all-knowing guide (God, Krishna, Dumbledore, Gandalf, etc.), his friends and companions, and a villain (Satan, Voldemort, Sauron, etc.). This is because both genres speak about the conflict between good and evil, which readers face in our own lives (with our own guides, companions and, unfortunately, enemies).

Moreover, characters in both types of stories represent archetypes; universally-known personality types. These include: the warrior, the damsel-in-distress or lover, the child, the trickster, the underdog, the mentor, the wise old man or woman, the threshold guardian (the equivalent of level bosses in games) and the martyr, among others. Next time you read a fantasy or religious story, be sure to look out for them. They’re there to further draw you into the story by positioning familiar characters around the focal-point.

A self-coherent setting

Fantasy stories are primarily characterised by settings that are internally consistent. This means fantasy authors create their own imaginary worlds and establish their own sets of rules to govern them, which they consistently follow throughout the narrative to maintain coherency and credibility. This justifies the allusions to magic and supernatural themes, which become logically consistent within these fantasy worlds. Once Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy discover that their cupboard is a portal into Narnia, they unveil a world where animals are cognisant and loquacious, and where magic and witchcraft are possible (a realm which has its very own cosmology and laws of physics); it would be harder to imagine these things without the idea that the cupboard was a gateway into another world.

The same effectively applies to religious stories. Once you accept the central premise of the Bible (that it is the “Word of God”) all of its stories become logically consistent within their context – they become self-coherent. In other words, the stories become legitimised by getting a seal of approval, so to speak, from God Himself. If you place Jesus’ miracles or Moses’ parting of the Red Sea or the story of Noah’s ark (pretty much any Bible story you can think of) outside of this context, they lose their coherency.

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