A priest in a novel

There was a whole other essay that spun off into to far too many tangents. Metaphors, analogies and examples gather their own velocity and head off in directions that take them beyond what is useful. However, I ended up with this instead, which works on its own.

I’m thinking about reader expectations and how they apply to genres and also how knowledge of an author’s beliefs shapes those expectations. For this essay consider a character, we’ll call them Helen, who is a priest or a nun or some other kind of cleric. The point being they are overtly and officially tied to a religion and in a social role whose purpose is that they act as an intermediary between people and god(s).

Imagine we encounter Helen early in a story. How does genre shape what kind of expectations we might have about god and gods in Helen’s world?

Imagine Helen is a character in a contemporary “literary” novel set in the present day. Helen’s presence by itself doesn’t imply anything very much about the role God or gods will play in the story. Further, Helen will have theological beliefs as a character that we won’t necessarily expect to be assertions about how the world she lives in actually is. Similarly, those beliefs may or may not reflect those of the author.

Imagine Helen is a character in a fantasy novel. It’s not 100% certain but I’d suggest we are more likely to expect Helen to have some actual access to a supernatural and god-like being. If Helen expresses theological beliefs, it as a minimum suggests these may be part of the wider world-building i.e. she is being used as a character by the author to brief us on some aspects of how this fantasy world works. The connection between the theological mechanics of this fantasy world and the author’s actual theological beliefs is complex. The author may be bringing with them unexamined ideas about the nature of religion or they may be purposefully examining some of their own beliefs or what they present may be utterly different to what they believe. The text alone may be inadequate (while containing clues or indications).

Imagine Helen in a novel set in a future society. She might be a hint that the story will have a supernatural element, she might be more like our first example but I think my initial expectation (until the rest of the novel made it clear) was that the author has view about how religion operates in a society. The author may or may not agree with Helen’s views and may but without further evidence, I’d take Helen’s social role as the author asserting some belief about how religion operates. I’d be very interested in what the author had to say about religion in contemporary society. However, without knowing more, I’d be cautious about saying what the author believes about the mechanics of religion based on the text alone.

I could go on. Horror or urban fantasy would have their own twists on those examples.

I was brought up as a Catholic and I was still a practising Catholic (if a sceptical one) when I first read Lord of the Rings and (more relevantly) The Silmarillion. I was older when I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series and I think had shifted more to atheism by then*. In both cases we have Catholic authors bringing with them Catholic beliefs to worlds where religion and the supernatural play a significant role.

The overt fantasy theology in The Silmarillion (or rather, in the Ainulindalë at the beginning of the book) is usually taken as telling us something TRUE about the setting of the book (i.e. these are real gods that exist within the setting) that we know not to be the actual theological beliefs of JRR Tolkien but within which we can see Catholic ideas once we know that they are there. Could a protestant have written the same story? I’m not sure that question makes sense as a counterfactual given how personal authorship is, so let me rephrase it. If the author of The Silmarillion was anonymous and we knew nothing about them how confident could we be of what their religious beliefs were based on the text alone? Hard to say given how much we know about Tolkien but I would say it would be very difficult to make confident assertions.

We could, reasonably, conclude that the author had thought a lot about god and gods and we could note that they adopt in the story a unitary, ultimate god from which the other gods derive. However, we wouldn’t know if that reflected the author’s beliefs e.g. the Ainulindalë presents a polytheistic theology with elements of monotheism that is different from Catholic beliefs.

Flipped around, it is still legitimate given what we DO know about Tolkien’s actual beliefs and reasonably draw conclusions about how they shape the fictional theology of his world. The significance of some (eg the primacy of Ilúvatar) grows and the significance of others lessens or is reshaped (eg to what extent the gods and demon gods reflect angels).

With Gene Wolfe’s Urth the Catholic influences are more overt in the society he presents. Without knowing about Wolfe’s actual beliefs, the novels clearly are written by somebody interested in and informed about Catholicism and Catholic societies. That Severian becomes more Jesus-like and more messianic (often unwillingly) throughout can also be easily seen without knowing what the author’s beliefs are. However, the ambiguities in the stories are substantial. Severian’s order is clearly modelled on Catholic priestly or monastic orders but they are torturers and deeply morally ambiguous. Severian is becoming a literal saviour of humanity but his powers derive from the intervention of benign aliens seeking to literally get the sun working. If the author of these books were an enigma, it would be hard to conclude whether they were a devout-but-critical Catholic, an ex-Catholic or just somebody who was fascinated by Catholicism aesthetically.

Again, flipping it around, seeing how Gene Wolfe’s beliefs influence his work is certainly illuminating. We can draw meaningful conclusions with the additional information that help inform and enhance the work. It becomes easier to see what Wolfe examines in the work and what might be unexamined assumptions about the world.

Ah, I’ve reached the end of this without having a conclusion. The author isn’t dead but texts are undetermined by authorial belief. Knowing what an author believes informs a text but inferring an author’s beliefs from a text is fraught and even more so in a fantasy or science fictional setting.

*[It was more of a slide than a sudden disenchantment or loss of faith]


7 responses to “A priest in a novel”

  1. Sounds like you started with Book of the New Sun and ended up with the rest of the essay as prelude. Wolfe is particularly tricky on matters of authorial intent. What about the adventures of Latro? I don’t recall any monotheism in those books at all.


    • I actually wandered down here from an essay I ditched for incoherence (even by my standards) on that Attack Helicopter story 🙂

      Latro’s relationship with gods is interesting but also the Greek gods as Wolfe portrays them are not so very different from the encounters Severian has with undines and aliens in the New Sun books. That’s part of the joy of Wolfe as a writer, the stories keep unpacking themselves in your head for years afterwards for good or bad.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A Canticle for Liebowitz, on the other hand, wears its Catholicism on its sleeve, and I had no qualms concluding that its author was a practicing Catholic.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Speaking of priests in novels, I first figured out how sex works by reading a purloined copy of The Thorn Birds out behind the portable classrooms in seventh grade. There were probably better ways to find out.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This was fascinating. I do wish it had a conclusion but I very much like the points you make along the way. I find myself thinking about the works of Jack Vance, in which religion is always baroque and pointedly ridiculous, yet all too realistic for that. It is this element, I guess, that made me think of Vance as far more to the left than he in fact was. I would have pegged him for a non-believer at any rate, but as you point out, this is a risky assumption to make.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There is also the difference between believing something to be true and being emotionally drawn to something. A person whose belief is atheist may be emotionally drawn to elements in one or several religions, while a religious believer may emotionally loathe the contents of their beliefs (I guess less common in secular societies). And a believer in one religion can of course be emotionally drawn to elements in another. Since stories are not treatises, I think this element of “being emotionally drawn” is as important as conscious beliefs.


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