Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

Fantasies of religion often approach their subject obliquely or through misdirection. Nowhere is this more true than of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). It begins in London with the recruitment of the poet Gabriel Syme by Scotland Yard to infiltrate a worldwide council of anarchists. When he does so, however, he discovers that each of the other members is also a spy with a similar mission. Each is codenamed for a day of the week – Syme is Thursday – and each takes their orders from the mysterious Sunday. Sunday himself is a figure increasingly mysterious the closer he is approached; his pronouncements imply that he is of more than earthly power. The book can certainly be read as an allegory of the Christian work of the difficulty of understanding God; but it is a very unorthodox kind of allegory. Both The Book of the New Sun and The Man Who Was Thursday were written by Catholics and may be read as providing paths to a religious understanding. John Crowley’s Ægypt quartet is neither as directly scathing as Morrow, nor as orthodox as Wolfe or Chesterton. It tells several stories, each nested within the other, but the most recent – the one from which the others seem to subtend – is that of Pierce Moffet. His academic career in New York having failed, he goes to an upstate rural retreat. There, in the village of Blackbury Jambs, he encounters again the work of the historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, whose books he read as a child. Kraft lived near the town, and Pierce is asked by his descendants to see if he can complete the novel Kraft left unfinished at his death. However, the plot of Ægypt matters less than the density with which it’s embedded with meditations of all kinds – some from fictional texts, some real – about history, religion, and how we make sense of things.

All the fantasies of religion described so far take Christianity as a starting-point, but the label can equally be applied to works which revise and critique other religions, including pantheistic ones. Prominent examples of the latter approach are Neil Gaiman’s linked novels American Gods (2001) and Anansi Boys (2005). American Gods sets out to answer a relatively simple question: if the USA is made up of immigrant populations of all kinds, each bringing with them their own religious stories about the world, what happens when all those stories interbreed? The book begins by following a recently released convict named Shadow, who is recruited by a mysterious man named Wednesday to work for him. Wednesday, it transpires, is the Norse God Odin, and he represents a group of similar deities, including Egyptian and Indian ones. They find themselves in opposition to more American gods, such as the deracination of culture and experience by consumerism. Though nothing is as it seems initially – no god is entirely to be trusted – American Gods does in the end bring home a sense of the costs of the New World. Anansi Boys is different from American Gods in tone and, although it shares some of the same assumptions, cannot be considered a direct sequel. The action of the book, much of it comic, follows the negotiation between a Londoner, ‘Fat Charlie’ and Spider, a brother of whom he had been unaware, for the legacy of their father – an incarnation of the African spider deity Anansi – but it also embodies the tension between tricksterish fantasy and the mundane world from which Charlie originates. Both Gaiman books have in common a sense that gods are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things, and that they exist to the extent that we can vest belief in the stories.

Stories, though, are sometimes treasures to be concealed or uncovered. In the context of fantasies of religion, this often means that a deity’s existence or power is guarded by a secret society of some kind. The American fantasist Elizabeth Hand has written several books featuring one such society, the Benandanti, of which the most well known is probably Waking the Moon (1994). The Benandanti are described in the novel as a kind of puppet-master secret society, protecting the mundane world – and, indeed, shaping it – by holding back the return of the Moon Goddess. The Benandanti do have their roots in real events – specifically, as a kind of anti-witchcraft force in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries – so Hand is able to use the weight of history to amplify and enrich the debate at the story’s heart. Finally, it is worth considering a work in this vein not set in our own world, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods (1992), part of his well-known Discworld sequence. Its premise is that deities in the Discworld exist (like Tinkerbell) to the extent that people believe in them. The deity Om, now almost forgotten, is disappointed when he tries to manifest himself in the world: there is only enough belief to make him incarnate as a tortoise. He speaks to Brutha, a young but dim initiate in the church of Om, and the last remaining true believer in him. The body of Small Gods comprises Brutha’s slow earning of wisdom, but the most striking image from the book is that of the small gods themselves, encountered by the protagonist during his wanderings. These are the deities left entirely without believers but who may be associated with a specific place such as a crossroads. Hence, Pratchett imagines a Discworld in which gods are as plentiful as microbes are in our own world, and in which everything is holy. What seems to tie all of these novels of faith and fantasy together is what the individual writer brings to shape their material – it may be an urge to critique or revise existing dogmas or it may be that the writer feels certain ideas about our past and culture can only be made apparent by going beyond the facts and physics of the world we know.

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