Or: Somehow, I Doubt the Ability of Your Creepy, Mortal Bug-Gods to Grant Redemption in the Next Life, And It’s Okay if They Can’t
Hey, internet. I’m back a week early, due to Vwampage’s stint in the wilderness. You’ll hear from him next week. Also, I’m here to announce the introduction of mini-posts! These will be random little posts we put up on not-Thursdays (or even on Thursdays. Behold our whimsy!) for the sake of talking about things we don’t really have that much to say about. I make no promises about what these will be, but be prepared.
But yes. The post. I’ve quickly realized that I’m going to be the negative one in the group. I’ve come to accept that all of my post ideas are complaining about something. I tried to find a different theme for this week, but alas. (Actually, not really alas, I find this fun.) Therefore, I bring you a commentary on Christopher Paolini’s religions (and why he’s doing it wrong, because I’m that person).
So, spoilers for The Inheritance Cycle.
For those of you unfamiliar with this book series, it consists of four books and follows the life of a boy named Eragon, who is a dragon rider and must overthrow the Corrupt Government of Doom. I haven’t actually finished the series, but I assume he does so.
The setting is a vaguely medieval world dominated by elves, who lock themselves away inside the woods, dwarves, and humans divided into the evil Galbatorix’s kingdom and the land of Surda. As it stands, pretty much par for the course. What is find interesting is the fact that Paolini goes further and makes up several religions for this world. What’s more interesting is that Paolini seems to have done this without really considering why these things all exist together or really thinking about the full implications of what he writes about them.
The Elven Medieval Enlightenment; or: Sometimes Things are Things and Your Word Games are Tedious
I will begin with a fan favorite (to whine about): the Elven Religion. Also known as the Elven Militant Atheism, Don’t You See How Much Better Elves Are Than Anyone Else. The main problem with this is that it’s largely an author tract, which is annoying 98% of the time. Don’t include author tracts. It’s even more annoying than when C.S. Lewis started making super obvious allegories in the later Narnia books. (Or maybe that was just me. When they got to the end of the world and there was a lamb there I was like “you’re not even trying anymore.” I have friends that were fine with this though.)
However, even if we ignore the fact that this is the author telling you what you should think, the elven atheism has some issues. It’s conceptually interesting. You’d expect a vaguely medieval people to be religious, even if they’re elves. Especially if they use magic. Yet, this atheism isn’t really inserted in an organic way. It’s very Enlightenment-y. The elves don’t have a religion because they base their worldview on scientific observation and they haven’t seen anything that would indicate the presence of a god or gods.
This sits very awkwardly in a world where the only other scholars appear to be archivists and the like, with no hint that science has taken root with any other people. Elves and humans had interacted before Galbatorix’s reign, a mere century before. If the elves had this scientific worldview, you’d expect to see traces of it in human culture as well (and hints of human culture in elven culture, but that may just be going too far). Unless the humans had reasons for rejecting the scientific worldview, but there’s not really any evidence for this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having science in your mostly medieval world, but there is something wrong with having it restricted to one group that you portray as the paragons of awesome. It makes it not mesh very well. Some of these concepts did exist before the Enlightenment, and atheism certainly did. The incorporation of some of these elements would have made the elven atheism fit in much more comfortably with the rest of the world.
Another thing that would have made this atheism more believable would be consistency of the worldview. The elves do not believe in an afterlife (not that you couldn’t feasibly have an atheist group that none the less had an afterlife, but I doubt Paolini conceived of this). It’s this piece of knowledge that first causes the elf Oromis to explain the elven worldview to Eragon. They believe that, as Oromis’ dragon Glaedr says, “once the body dies, the soul dies with it” (somewhere in Eldest). This, however, is contradicted at every single chance. And not by the other characters, but by Glaedr.
This happens first when Oromis dies. The text and Glaedr himself talk about Oromis “passing into the void.” Voids are things. If Oromis ceases to exist at his death, then he may pass into nothingness, but he cannot pass into the void if there is truly nothing that exists after death. Passing into the void, much like passing into the abyss, which is used in the Bible to describe dying, is based on the idea that you exist after death and that there is a place where you go. It may not be heaven or hell (though, it could be hel–lame…pun? Is it a pun if it’s based on a the word from which another word was derived?) and there may not be any judgement, but it’s still a place. There are/were a whole host of religions that posited an afterlife of just kinda chilling for most people. But it was an afterlife, even if your soul just sat there in a cave.
It’s also problematic that, when Oromis dies, Glaedr’s mind retreats into his heart of hearts and his body dies. Now, his mind is alive. It never died. And maybe you can make a case for the mind being different than an actual immortal soul, but obviously, there exists a non-material “you.” Your body can die without your mental self dying, at least if you’re a dragon.
Again, this by no means means that the elves or dragons must secretly believe in gods. It just flies in the face of what Glaedr said in the previous book and makes the whole thing feel inconsistent.
Regardless of the whys and wherefores of the elves’ (and dragons’) religious views, a consistent worldview should have taken priority. Ultimately, the importance of such things is how it affects character interactions. Paolini, instead, seems to have put in a bit of a rant, and then not followed through with its implications. It would be fascinating to see how the atheism of the elves and the polytheism of everybody else played out, not in direct conflict, but in the subtleties of the assumptions of each character. Not fleshing out the elven worldview didn’t allow for this chance.
Not that the other worldview were completely well thought out.
The Dwarves: Are They Right or Wrong? Perhaps Both, Maybe Neither
Confession time. I don’t really remember much about the specifics of the dwarven religion. Perhaps this means that it was okay. Maybe not, though. It’s mainly addressed in the second or third book and I didn’t really feel like going back to find it. They seem to be rather religious, and there’s a decent amount of rituals they perform. The way the religion as a whole is handled is…odd.
At one point, Eragon sees the physical manifestation of their god. But it might be a trick. Then we learn in the background section of Inheritance that the dwarves were created from stone by their god.
While Paolini has stated that dragons evolved. At this point, I just don’t know if I’m supposed to see them as right or wrong. Also, if their god created them, did he also create the other races? Because I’m sure their view of creation mentioned something about all these other creatures. Or is Paolini playing a “everyone is right” game. Because that can’t actually be. Especially in a world where no one seems to believe in subjective reality. Either the elves are right or the dwarves are right. If the elves are right, the god appearing and the creation story are incorrect. If the dwarves are right, the elves are wrong. And they can’t be “right for themselves.” Either gods exist in this world or they don’t. Even if the dwarf god is the only one that exists and he doesn’t care about anyone else, the elves are wrong. Just pick one.
The Human Religion(s): You May Be Doing Something Very Well, But for All the Wrong Reasons
Most of Paolini’s characters are human. As such, they all appear to be vaguely polytheistic. It’s a kind of background radiation polytheism. They mention gods existing, but they don’t speak of any gods in particular (except that one time with Nasuada, and I don’t really know if she’s a polytheist, monotheist, or a polytheist that behaves exactly like a monotheist). There is no prayer or ritual mentioned, yet they have these concepts in their culture.
All in all, this allows them to behave largely as secular, modern Westerners, but with swords. At the same time, perhaps this is just displaying a different view of religion than I’m used to. I belong to a religion in which rituals must be observed on a weekly basis at the longest and prayer happens daily. Not all religions work like this. From my limited understanding, in some European religions, gods were just kinda there. You asked them for help if you really needed them. This all make sense with Eragon’s single moment where he considered invoking a deity. He decided not to, because his problem was his to bear. As much as he seemed like a whiny, overconfident teenager, this may make sense in his worldview.
I remember one time I had a professor say that a big Viking saying was “I believe in myself.” We all giggled, because we imagined this:
However, the intent was to contrast with the Christian “I believe in the Trinity.” The implication was that one was reliant on one’s own self. Based on this, I assume that Thor may call up thunder storms, but you didn’t really have to pay attention to him in your daily life.
I’m not really sure if Paolini knows he’s doing this. Part of me wants to think he does. Another part of me thinks he doesn’t really want overly religious characters and is telling us all that we shouldn’t rely on gods. Even though the European polytheism that these religions may be based on has a fundamentally different view of how the god-human relationship works than most religions Paolini is familiar with. And most religions Paolini is familiar with posit a world in which you rely on God to breathe, so that doesn’t really work out.
The Other Human Religion; Or: We’ve Finally Gotten to the Bug-Gods
The last religion I want to discuss is the Religion of All Evils practiced in Dras-Leona. And, let’s be clear, it’s a religion of evil. There was one time where Eragon has a moment of cultural relativism, but outside of that, there appears to be no redeeming qualities in this belief system. Part of this is probably due to the fact that most of Paolini’s religions aren’t so much religions as a collection of trappings. The RoAE conducts its business in large, gothic cathedrals. It’s led by a legion of priests and priestesses, along with their acolytes. Because this is what religion looks like. (In all fairness, large temples and a professional priesthood replete with their own living quarters appears to have been found in a number of societies with no connection to Christianity. Though, the word “cathedral” and the spires are rather specific.)
(On another side note, Dras-Leona’s cathedral has a lot of statues. I really want to know what they’re statues of. I know what the statues are in my church, but do Dras-Leonans also have saints?)
As far as actual content of the religion, RoAE worships the Helgrind, a scary mountain just outside of the city. There, they sacrifice slaves and parts of their own bodies to the mountain. They also bleed themselves and the other priests drink the blood. This whole sacrifice is done with much ringing of bells and other pomp. We find out later that the followers of this religion hope to gain enlightenment in this life and forgiveness for their transgressions in the next. I was paraphrasing, but that’s almost a direct quote. So, it’s all kinda Christian-y, save for the human sacrifice (though, I feel that the vampirism my be a Eucharist commentary somehow).
But then! Then you find out that they don’t really worship the mountains. They worship the Razac. The Razac are, for those of you who don’t know, weird bug-things that like to eat people.
This is a secret. I’m not really sure if the laypeople of Dras-Leona are aware of what they worship. Maybe only the priests know. It was really unclear. Though, it seems to me that if the practitioners think they worship the mountain, they are, in fact, worshipping the mountain. Or maybe the citizens of Dras-Leona know what they worship, but don’t want the rest of the world to know.
But why would they not want anyone to know? If the Razac can do what the Dras-Leonans believe they can, why keep it a secret? Most people don’t like the Razac and find them creepy, but I’m sure they’d get over it if they really are gods. Do they not want people to know how to be forgiven in the afterlife? (Is there afterlife a place of judgement? No one knows!)
The thing about religion is, the people who practice a given religion don’t believe their gods are evil. Even if they have to expose infant twins to be elements because they offend the earth goddess. Even if they have to feed hearts to jaguars and practice cannibalism in order to keep their gods alive. Even if a god demands they sacrifice their own children for protection. These things aren’t secrets. The fact that I know these things mean that they’re not secrets. The Canaanites didn’t hide their child sacrifice from their Hebrew neighbors and they didn’t pretend it wasn’t for the god Moloch. The Aztec weren’t embarrassed that Xipe-Totec wore human skin.
I just don’t really understand why their gods would be secrets. I can see that, if their neighbors didn’t practice auto-sacrifice, the rituals would be off-putting, but what’s to be gained pretending that the mountain is the god, rather than the Razac?
The fact that they worship the Razac also brings up the good question “what is a god?”. The Razac are mortal. Eragon kills them. However, we see new Razac hatching. Are they actually the same Razac as before? Are Razac like creepy bug phoenixes? Because that’d be kinda awesome. Or are they just animals like everything else and they happened to procreate? In that case, Eragon, you jerk, you murdered their parents. But are they really gods? They’re very material. And I’m not seeing many supernatural powers from the Razac.
Also, why do the Razac grant the forgiveness of sins? Most gods don’t. As previously stated, a lot of afterlifes are just places for souls to be kept. Also, are the Razac even in control of the afterlife? They seem pretty cemented in this world. Even if they do have that control, heaven-analogues aren’t always granted based on purity. You go to Valhalla because you died heroically in battle, not because you fed the hungry. You ascend to the heavens rather than descend into Xibulba because you were royalty, not because you tended to the sick. Having the Razac be redemption incarnate seems odd. It seems like Paolini couldn’t actually think of the religion that wasn’t Christianity or rewards that weren’t part of the Christian worldview. Because, clearly, to follow a religion, people must be motivated by a paradise in the afterlife.
Except, that’s not how it works. That’s not even really how Christianity works. Because it’s not all about “if I do this, then this” but about “this is what is right and proper for me to do.” With a religion comes an acceptance of a worldview. Sometimes that worldview includes a “it’s proper for humans to worship gods” clause. Sometimes it’s more of a “pray for divine intercession on certain things” deal. It seems believable that people might worship the Razac. They’re scary and if you worship them, maybe they won’t eat you. Maybe they are gods, and then it’s just proper to worship them. But why would they need to redeem you?
I Guess There Should Be a Conclusion Now That I’m Done Ranting
So, yeah. Religion in fantasy. Not every religion is Christianity. Ideas travel between peoples. Atheism doesn’t have to be awkwardly Enlightenment-y in your medieval world. Your bug-phoenix-gods are kinda cool if you remember that they are not the Christ-figures of your novel. And please, please decide, if only in your own mind Mr. Paolini, if the dwarf god actually exists. Write accordingly.
#1:This is being posted at night, because I was off learning about pirates at an undisclosed museum.
#2:The only reason this post has pictures is because I wanted one of the Razac. And Chris Hemsworth.