(the following contains SPOILERS from Myth and Incarnation and When Dragons Die)
Exploring Faith Without Didacticism
In the introduction to the combined edition of When Dragons Die, I mentioned that in my youth I wrote stories to project my beliefs onto the reader. I’ve grown out of that desire, and now prefer stories that engage topics, but leave freedom for each reader to experience the tale in their own way. This is particularly true in the area of faith and religion. I never want to decide things for my readers.
For example, it’s said in the books that there is no afterlife. This is one of the central mysteries to the sorcery tradition, and the reason sorcerers don’t fear entering into contracts with demons. If there’s no afterlife, there’s nothing to pay in the hereafter.
As an author, I committed to leaving that question open. The narrator never states that as fact… it’s only presented as a belief of one particular sect. There are faiths and people who believe in rejoining their ancestors in the afterlife, and the narrator never validates them either. The world of Ahmbren presents no evidence one way or the other (the only instance of ghosts or spirits are those that are unnaturally bound). Even Anuit’s ability to see the decomposed soul matter is challenged by the idea that she doesn’t know if there’s something deeper that doesn’t pass on.
One of the reasons for not being definitive in the books about the presence of an Almighty, or an afterlife, is that my own views on such things have evolved over time. If I write definitively from one point of view, it makes it difficult for me to engage and continue interest in the story’s world when I grow to a new perspective. So, instead I choose to build characters of faith (or lack of faith) who act in the world. They may or may not convince other characters of their convictions, and they may or may not resonate or convince certain readers… and that’s okay. There will be other characters of other perspectives, just like there are in the real world.
At the end of When Dragons Die (Vol 3, The Tides of Artalon), Attaris expresses anguish over his dead wife. The three heroines have just descended the tower after penetrating the mysteries of gods. He has heard Anuit say there is no afterlife, but he wants to hope:
“One thing,” Attaris said. “If the gods are gone, or maybe they just weren’t what we thought they were… I’d really like to see Hylda again. Did you see anything in there… do you think there’s an afterlife?”
“No,” Anuit said. “I’m sorry.”
Aradma looked into Attaris’ eyes. “I don’t know,” she finally said after giving it thought. “I don’t think the gods knew either.”
“I hope in one,” Arda replied.
Attaris looked at his old friend and nodded, satisfied with that answer. “Then I will hope with you, lass. I will hope with you.”
And sometimes that’s what faith boils down to. An irrational optimism and hope, despite an absence of evidence.
The Ahmbren Chronicles: A Faith Journey
The Ahmbren Chronicles isn’t intended to be a faith allegory. It’s not written to teach, convince, or instruct. I meant the books to be a fantasy adventure, set in a world as layered and nuanced as our own. Because of that, it hits upon topics like religion, skepticism, relationships, sexual orientation, drug addiction, and more. It’s a world of magic, without reality being watered down by make-believe. I wanted The Ahmbren Chronicles to reach as deep as mythology, but with a modern voice.
But, there are aspects of my faith journey reflected in each book. The first, Myth and Incarnation, is about how the written myths and prophecies don’t hold up to reality. They warp over time, through transcription or interpretation, as historical contexts change. The religion of my childhood was Christianity, and the idea of greater beings humbling themselves to become human, to work from within human history as participants, as opposed to acting on it as an external force, is the central theme of the book. And, the idea that you can’t know mortal life without experiencing it as mortal is championed by the book when the Archdragons’ plans unravel. They couldn’t calculate for mortal life and uncertainty, and once they become mortal they fail to fulfill their own plans. Myth and Incarnation is very much about conventional religion, and gods, and their relationships to mortals.
When Dragons Die evolves out of the failed plans of gods (and religion). I wrote this during a time in my life where I had walked away from all religion. I declared myself a skeptic (although never going so far as to call myself an atheist), and abandoned all codified faith practices. Aradma, who serves as the central argument of When Dragons Die, was intended to be my rational skeptic, a new ‘savior’ for a world broken by gods, dragons, and demons. As I wrote the book, however, I realized that my perspective wasn’t as straightforward… and, of course, I wanted to preserve the freedom of interpretation for readers of faith who take the journey through the Ahmbren Chronicles. Two other characters emerged: Anuit, who was darker than Aradma. If Aradma was skeptical, at least she retained an unbridled optimism in Life and its purpose. Anuit was a survivor, a cynic… in hindsight, probably the closest to a nihilist. Aradma is the positive outlook of skepticism (and reflecting a kind of atheism), but Anuit the opposite. And then there was Arda, the paladin of the Light, a lady of faith without religion or gods. She redeemed Anuit, and through Anuit, redeemed the dark view that Anuit held of the world.
Aradma triumphs at the end of The Tides of Artalon. Having learned that the gods they know are shaped by prayer and faith, she gets the world to reject them once and for all… she kills the gods. The runes die, and prayers are never more answered. All proof of a transcendent die, because Aradma shows the people of Ahmbren that the gods they believed in were not, in the end, transcendent.
When Dragons Die expresses the utter rejection of religion in all its forms, and the optimism of living a life of purpose free from the confines of tribal stories. Aradma holds truth as the highest value, Life as an ends unto itself, and joy as life’s greatest purpose. And, that mortalkind’s greatest gift is the ability to think and reason.
But although that’s a definitive statement for Aradma, and she shapes Ahmbren to her vision, it’s not a definitive state that fixes the people of Ahmbren in one point of view. The world moves on, and the world grows… and so do I.
Looking back, I resonate more with Arda’s response to the question of the afterlife. Even though Aradma reflects much of my own views, including the optimism and joy in life for its own sake, I still think about a transcendent. I don’t actively believe in an afterlife (Aradma’s “I don’t know” is an honest answer), but I know that I hope in one.
Aradma and Tiberan (her consort) were modeled after pagan imagery: the White Goddess and the Horned God, whose union brings life. Through this story, they restored the world to a natural state, under the auspice that truth is natural. The end of the book, unlocking the greatest mysteries of truth, involves the sacred union of life. They conceive of a child in those final chapters, whom they name Meara, (gaelic for “Joyful”). At the same time, Aradma is telling the world that joy (not the girl, but the experience of joy in living) is life’s purpose, and living is an end unto itself.
Through the magic of Artalon, the god Keruhn (the Horned God of Compassion), who arranged for Tiberan and Aradma to be there in that moment to free the world from the gods, was also present as they entered into physical and sacred union. Keruhn’s spirit was drawn into Aradma’s womb, and he was reborn as the girl Meara, truly mortal for the first time. Meara becomes a salvific figure, not through her actions as of yet, but as a sign of the times, a paraclete of sorts.
Faith Without Words
The working title of the next trilogy is Faith Without Words. I come back to the idea of Arda, the lady of faith, expressing the possibility that even though the gods were made by mortal ideas, maybe they still reflected a greater truth. Maybe the entire universe reflects and is intimately involved with a higher power.
The story starts with Meara. Meara has adopted “Joy” as a colloquial name to interact with the people of the world to hide who she is (the daughter of the woman who convinced the world to kill the gods). Joy used to be one of those very same gods, and when she was a god she had one unique aspect that separated her from all the other gods in the pantheon: the other gods fed off the faith of mortalkind, whereas Joy (Keruhn) put her faith in mortal kind. That charity of the spirit made her stronger than the others, and gave her the insight to orchestrate freeing the world from that pantheon.
As Joy grows up, she identifies more with Arda than her mother. She has a faith, although she can’t define it. She’s exploring the world and finding that even though the gods are dead (meaning, the gods don’t visibly answer prayers any more), people are still praying to… something. People turn to faith in a higher power, even in the absence of evidence. Her mother Aradma doesn’t understand this, but Joy does.
“Faith Without Words” refers to the idea of faith without doctrine. Words refers to labels, and definitions, and religion. I’ve found myself from time to time being asked if I believe in God. In my thoughts, I answer, “Yes, but there’s no kind of ‘yes’ I can tell you that you would interpret the way I mean yes.” So I find it easier to say “No”, because I almost certainly don’t believe in the idea or meaning of God the usual questioner has projected into that question. But when I say “no”, I also feel untrue to myself. Faith has become, for me, a quiet inner dialogue, so intimate as to be held between my soul and the transcendent. I feel that every time I try to externalize it, I speak falsely.
This next book, through Joy (Meara) and Arda, I’ll be exploring what it means to continue to have faith and hope, even in the face of no evidence. I don’t yet know where the story will end for Joy’s character. I know where Arda sits (the advocate for faith), but Joy’s story and perspective is not yet written. I am confident that however things end, Ahmbren itself will hold true to my belief that “Nothing in this [real] world requires a supernatural explanation.” (In the fantasy world of Ahmbren, magic is described as a natural force, and hence not ‘supernatural’.)
Either way, I will work hard to make sure the narrative story doesn’t try to decide anything for the reader. The transcendent will never make an appearance as a distinct and active agent (not even through deliberate coincidences). I won’t shape Ahmbren to prove faith to my characters, but I will have characters of faith acting in the world to shape it, and I hope that skeptical and faithful readers alike will enjoy the story.