So I’m a Witch. I’m also a fantasy writer. I’m also a fantasy reader. This poses problems.
I don’t think I need to tell you about the enormous overlap between Pagans and fantasy enthusiasts. To some extent, I think it’s a healthy and predictable overlap: we like nature and ceremony and fairies, and fantasy fiction provides them in abundance. But I also think we always run the risk of letting our love of fantasy bleed into nostalgia and wishful thinking.
For instance, right now I’m reading a terrific fantasy novel: Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier, a Druid in OBOD. The novel is about pre-Christian Celts and Druids, and is super good, and you should go out and get a copy right now. Obviously I can’t speak to Marillier’s intentions when writing the novel, but I have noticed that so far, her portrayal of Druids is pretty idealized. They’re wise, they’re aloof, they feel most comfortable outdoors. That doesn’t ring true to me. Druids were (are) flawed, messy human beings, just like the laypeople around them, and I’ve never known of a religious order that didn’t deal with the same conflicts and politics as lay society. Reading a novel in which my co-religionists are portrayed as spiritually perfect makes me deeply uncomfortable. (Let me stress, though, that I’m only about 50 pages in, so maybe things get messier.)
Then there’s my own fiction. In the YA novel I’m working on, people pull energy out of the earth to work magic. (Rule number one of fantasy: you gotta have your magic system figured out, otherwise you end up with a world populated by superheroes.) I write a scene in which people are pulling up earth energy to work magic…and then I go to a Reclaiming ritual in which I ground myself to raise a cone of power. I write another scene in which characters pray to their gods in the woods…and then I go do a devotional in the local state park. My Paganism isn’t usually on my mind when I work on my novel, but then I look back on what I’ve written and the influence is unmistakable.
And then I think–does Paganism influence fantasy, or does fantasy influence Paganism? I’ve known people for whom it’s the latter. Sometimes I fear that I’m one of them.
Because here’s the thing: I want my spiritual practice to be beautiful, and I want it to be green and numinous, but I also want it to trouble me. I want to learn to let go of craving and clinging, to avoid spiritual materialism. I want to find a power in myself that will change the world around me, rather than lead to self-absorption. I want to honor the gods, not turn them into trinkets.
I want to engage in spiritual play, but I don’t want to play pretend.
I suppose the best way to avoid nostalgia and wishful thinking in my fantasy writing is to focus on telling a good story, with flawed characters in an imperfect world. But even if I manage to keep my spirituality and my fiction separate, readers will still bring in their assumptions (if I go public under my real name, that is). Notice, for instance, the assumptions I made about Juliet Marillier? I don’t know if I would have noticed her treatment of Druids if I hadn’t read her bio before starting the book.
In the meantime, let me stress that Flame of Sevenwaters is fantastic* so far and you should read it. And I hope whatever you’re reading at the moment is giving you pleasure and joy.
* No pun intended.**
**Aw, heck, who am I kidding? I totally intended that pun.