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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Of Gods and Magic

Updated: Jun 23, 2018

Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada blog: Of Gods and Magic

I know what you’re thinking. I’ve led with Superman. Must be some kind of mistake; the Man of Steel is neither god, nor magic. Or is he?

I can’t be the first to observe that recent cinema adaptations portray Kal-El as a Christ-like saviour. Sent to earth by an all-powerful father, destined to inspire flawed humans to greater things, worshipped by millions as a god on earth, Henry Cavill's Superman has taken on a level of divinity far beyond previous incarnations. I’m not saying Jesus had a mean right hook, shot lasers from his eyes or pranced about in coloured tights (though, who’s to say what happened at the Halloween ball at Nazareth), but it’s hard to miss the parallels.

The opening credits of the 2017 Justice League movie has a singular message: a world without Superman is a dark and lonely place. I’ve always felt the same reading/watching a fantasy series without gods.

There are exceptions. Star Wars has a religion, but the galaxy far far away seems to be absent deities to give it focus. If there was a chapel at Hogwarts, then I missed it. In Robin Hobb’s Farseer epics, and those focused around the Liveship Traders of Bingtown to the south, the greater world featured resurrected dragons and an ancient people known as Elderlings that left behind a great and forgotten civilisation. I recall no mention of religion beyond vague references to the founding deities Eda and El (that name again?). But neither the ancient gods, nor any supporting religion, had any bearing on the plot.

The same can be said of Tolkien. In his biblical manifesto The Silmarillion, the author chronicles all manner of mighty entities that once walked the face of Middle Earth. It references the founding god Eru, whose adversary was Melkor, but they were both presence-not-required for The Lord of the Rings saga. I recall no mention of churches or temples in Rohan or Gondor, Rivendell or the Shire. Great beasts to be feared roam the plains and forests, but who to take your soul if one should pounce and render you limb from limb?

A rare explanation of the afterlife is given to Pippin by Gandalf the White when things begin to look a little dire during the siege of Minas Tirith:

Pippin and Gandalf: The Return of the King.

Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass... then you see it!
Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores... and beyond. A far green country, under a swift sunrise.”

Watching the film adaptation of The Return of the King, it’s hard to tell whether Gandalf really believes it, or whether he is simply trying to make Pippin feel a little less anxious about the possibility of meeting a very violent, very bloody death. And very soon.

One can hardly fault Tolkien’s work for lacking depth, and it’s not for me to question his decision to leave his masterpiece so conspicuously godless. In a world as rich and complicated as Middle Earth, it may well have been one layer too many.

Blood and fire

Things are different in Westeros. The gods are part of the landscape, the culture, the past, present and future. George RR Martin needs them for plot and politics, and to add depth and definition to the diverse tribes living both sides of The Narrow Sea. Would the Ironborn be such terrifyingly hard bastards absent the beachside rite of passage to the drowned god? What would the hardy northerners be without their old gods, and the mysterious heart trees in the godswoods? Most of us are still trying to figure out whether the Red God is good or bad. Holding back the darkness is cool; ditto, flaming swords and reincarnating dead Targaryens. But burning innocent girls alive? Sons of Kings? Conjuring black smoke demons? Not cool, R’hllor.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, the iron throne is not the only position of power to define the future of Westeros. Most people want to know which king will rule. I want to know which gods.

Beric Dondarrion: renowned throughout the riverlands for his toasted marshmellows.

Moon and stars

I touched upon the magic of the Dragonlance Saga in an earlier blog post: The Shape of Magic: Part II. This is not the first time, and it most certainly will not be the last. You see, when the theme is gods and magic, Weiss and Hickman wrote the template.

The magic of Krynn comes from the three gods: Paladine (*cheer, clap*), Takhisis (*boo, hiss*), and Gilean (*meh*). Clerics draw their healing power directly from the gods to which they are aligned. Mages do likewise, but via the three moons: white for Paladine, black for Takhisis, and red for Gilean. It’s a clever formula: good + evil + neutral equals balance. A tilt too far in any direction is considered bad.

But what if…

…the gods went missing? In Dragons of Autumn Twilight, we learn that they have abandoned Krynn. The missing constellations are referenced often, a constant reminder of the godless dark age that holds post-cataclysm Ansalon in its cold, gloomy grip. It leaves one in no doubt Paladine and co. have left the building.

What makes this so intriguing? Lighting a path through the darkness, Weiss and Hickman deftly navigate the social, political and spiritual issues of a people abandoned by their gods. False religions arise to replace the old. Many people flock to them is search of answers. They call themselves Seekers – they who seek the new gods. Spoiler alert: there are none coming.

Of course, the magic of the Dragonlance Saga is a gift from the gods. Which left the authors the unenviable task of untying a self-tied knot: in a world of god magic, how can there be magic without gods?

The Goddess Takhisis: The Dragonlance Saga.
The goddess Takhisis (©TSR, Inc). And that's on a good day.

Absent gods

This contradiction was as much an issue in The Waking World trilogy as it was for Weiss and Hickman. Book I wastes no time introducing the Absent God Aethelron, but you will have to reach the end of Book III to discover the circumstances of his departure. This blog is not going to reveal spoilers, or ruin the experience for those who want to take the journey to its conclusion. But you don't have to read far to get an introduction to the Angels Five. From Book I, excerpt IV – Gift of Angels

“The angels served Aethelron with unswerving loyalty, spreading his word and law throughout the mortal realm. In each was the personification of their lord’s five virtues: charity (Bronuin), love (Helior), honour (Garthor), and duty (Daenethor). The fifth and most holy virtue was personified in the great eagle Soletta. Unlike the nature of her element, this virtue was never lost. This virtue was creativity, whose partner is aspiration. It lay at the very core of Aethelron’s plan for Dellreigh.”

Deeper into the story, you get a hint as to their role, and the extent to which they meddle in the affairs of men. From Book III, Chapter 31:

“The girl’s voice was a whisper. Hopskotch barely recognised it as Flek’s. He squeezed her hand, as if it might coax the words from her tongue.
“I-it was large, larger than we – larger than this world or anything in it. It didn’t want me to see.”
“What? Wh-what was it?”
Her eyes glazed over once more, before returning to focus. They bored into Hopskotch’s with renewed intensity. “Wing, and feather, and fire – burning fire like the one at the heart of the world.””

What happened to Flek’s infant sister by the lakeshore is never explained in detail. There are two reasons:

  1. All narrative comes from a specific character, and none exist who would have a clue

  2. It needs no explanation

Some discretionary creative/imagination must be left to the reader. This blog is not to lift the veil on every bullet point of Aethelron’s plan for Dellreigh, but I will say this: it is not for gods to walk the earth, but they do like to meddle.

Alpha and Omega

Absent Aethelron and his Angels Five, there is no story. The god and the golden cicadas are intertwined, as much as the Whisper magic of fire, air, earth and water. It goes deeper. From Book I, Chapter 1:

From the far distance, he heard a soft voice singing. The chaos around Hopskotch froze and the world folded into stillness. The song was barely a whisper to his ears, yet it hummed with a power that was unmistakably good. Whoever – whatever? – was behind the voice was the opposite of the bad thing. Hopskotch knew this to be true. As long as the melody continued, he was certain the monster could not touch him.”

The song without words is one of the enduring and recurring mysteries within the pages of The Waking World trilogy. What is its origin, the source of its power? Is it an aspect of the Whisper magic of the Absent God, or something much older? In Broken Meadow, there is a clear divide between god magic and the earth magic (plant and beast) that pre-dated it. But wouldn’t it stir the pot if something else existed – something that might bridge the chasm between the two, a conduit capable of joining one to the other?

For thine is the kingdom

To throw such wildcards into the game is the privilege of a fantasy author. Gifts can be given, as easily as they can be taken away. We raise our heroes from humble beginnings or noble birth, lead them into danger, strike them down, sometimes even raise them up again (hey, it happens). I spent months agonising over who would make it to the final chapter, and who would not.

A friend once asked me how I found the motivation to keep writing after completing the first book. I didn’t even have to think about. It was the characters. They had become real to me. They had souls. And those souls were my responsibility. It inspired in me a greater empathy for the gods of Krypton, Middle Earth, The Six Duchies, Krynn, Westeros and others. How could it not? Without gods, there would be no stories.

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