Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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Priests Of Power

Earlier this week I finished another short story and sent it off to an anthology where I hope it will find a good home. This particular anthology is for Swords and Sorcery short stories — and as you might guess from some of what I’ve written in this blog previously, S&S is one of my favorite subgenres of Fantasy. In fact, I’d say that the majority of the short stories I’ve written to date, as well as my novel, fall into that subgenre.

So I had a lot of stories I could have submitted to this anthology. Instead of picking one of the more obvious choices (which might have been the better tactic in terms of increasing my odds of getting the story accepted), I decided to try something a little off the beaten path: I made the protagonist of the story a priest.

Sure, he’s a crusading, sword-wielding kind of priest, but he’s still a priest first and foremost. And thinking on it, I’m hard-pressed to come up with any Fantasy stories that feature a priest as protagonist, aside from Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels (which have a bunch of priestly characters). I’m sure I’m either not remembering one, or simply haven’t come across some of them, but the fact remains that priests as protagonists just aren’t that common in Fantasy. There are plenty of priest villains (particularly in S&S, where the high priest of the evil god So-and-So is a staple character), but few priest heroes.

Why is that? If we take our four classic D&D archetypical characters (which I think cover the gamut of Fantasy characters pretty well as a form of basic analysis), there are lots of stories about warrior types (in all their enormous variety). There are lots of stories about wizards. And there are lots of stories about thieves and other such roguish ne’er-do-wells. Priests definitely seem to be getting the short end of the stick.

From my position as armchair authorial analyst (said chair being located in the cheap seats, no doubt), I think I can discern a few reasons for this. First, on average I don’t think Fantasy writers are particularly religious. In fact, I’d bet that the percentage of agnostics and atheists among Fantasy writers is significantly higher than among the population as a whole. Thus, Fantasy writers are less likely to be interested in issues of religion, and perhaps less well-equipped to deal with some of the questions religion presents. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I’m among the aforementioned “agnostic and atheist” group.)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, writing about Fantasy priests presents some problems. Stories set in the real world that feature priests as protagonists — such as William Golding’s The Spire — can focus on issues of faith, sin, and redemption to strong dramatic effect. Since one cannot prove whether God exists, the question of faith becomes an important (even character-defining) one.

But that’s not the case in most Fantasy. In many Fantasy settings — particularly High Fantasy ones — magic exists, and the gods may regularly communicate with mortals. Heck, in settings like Greek mythology, the gods frequently interact with ordinary men and women on a regular basis: loving them, tempting them, punishing them, using them, watching over them, you name it. And when you know the gods exist — when they appear before you regularly, or speak to you, or provide you with magical powers, or are available to talk to you via a ritual of communing — faith is irrelevant. You don’t need faith, because you can prove, in a rational and “scientific” way, that the gods exist. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there aren’t any in most Fantasy settings either. When the gods are out there and you know they punish people for doing wrong, you are damn sure going to believe in them unless you’re an idiot or a madman.

The same applies to questions of sin. There’s no doubt, no real shades of grey, about what’s right and what’s wrong when God will tell you himself. Heck, in many Fantasy worlds there are paladins and crusading priests given specific powers and instructions by God about what constitutes sin, how to seek it out, and what to do when you find it.

All that being the case, issues of faith, sin, and redemption evaporate as interesting sources of character development. And that in turn takes a lot of the attraction out of writing about priests. Hence the dearth of priests in Fantasy stories.

Of course, the Literature Police aren’t out there saying you have to have magic and God in your Fantasy story in a way that eliminates issues of faith, sin, and redemption. Kurtz’s Deryni stories certainly don’t do that — but of course they involve Christianity in a Fantasy setting, so there’s no need to worry about strange Fantasy gods or the details of Fantasy religions. I suspect that doing that without Christianity to fall back on would be a lot more difficult.

So, I’m going to try to buck the trend. I think there are still ways to make priests interesting in Fantasy settings with magic, large pantheons of well-known gods, and so forth. Let’s see if I can find an editor who agrees with my thesis and thinks I’ve done a good job exploring it. ;)

Reader Comments (8)

I've given this some on and off thoughts over the years. I think it largely comes down to an author's desire to keep the main characters *responsible* for their own actions. I think a lot of authors want the hero to be his or her own person and not subject to the pulling strings of a greater force. For instance, who's the real hero? The MC or the God?

Of course, a parallel can be drawn with a hero following the orders of, say, a king. But somehow that doesn't suggest the same level of devotion that is owed a divine figure.

A priest runs the risk of coming across as a tool, a weapon or an instrument of a greater, and perhaps unknown, force. At which point you have to consider: who is the story about? If the hero's actions--out of devotion--simply follow the will of a God then why not make the God the POV character? Clearly, the answer is that the conflict is being dealt with by the mortal and not the divine being. However, the fact that the mortal's goal is ultimately secondary (or subservient) to the divinity's goal is taxing on the sympathy of the MC.

Obviously none of that means that a story with a priest is a waste of time. But, like all choices, it comes with a cost. The cost (at least in my mind) to picking a priest as a MC is that you have to establish the MC's goal as personal and sympathetic to the reader *while* acknowledging the level of devotion that a priest is generally known for.

I also think that readers tend to enjoy characters who stand up and fight the wind against all odds. By that I mean that readers tend to enjoy the Raistlin Majere'esque character. Someone who, through force of will alone, can challenge the Gods themselves. Personal willpower is important. It's somehow less satisfying if the MC is drawing from a font of power that is not internal.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts and opinions. I certainly don't have any of it figured out.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJo Bird

Intriguing thoughts, Jo -- thanx!

January 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

Some of it may also have to do the lack of priestly protagonists/main characters in traditional tales. There's Archbishop Turpin from The Song of Roland and Chryses from the The Illiad, but neither of them are that important in the grand scheme of things. Warriors show up in all sorts of myths and legends. Rogues and other ne’er-do-wells are well represented by the trickster archetype. Wizards aren't that common unless you consider "characters who heavily rely on magical ability or item" to be a wizard. If you do, wizards are also common especially in fables. But I don't recall many priests who don't do more than a supporting role of offering advice or prophesy.

How common is everyday religious ritual in modern fantasy? Even in settings with interactive gods, I don't recall many protagonists offering thanks to the God of War after a battle. If thanks is given, the responsibility is usually handled by a supporting priestly character. Such a character is particularly common in fantasy anime and manga which tend to have a very D&D style party. Most everyday ritual I've seen in fiction are usually done by Path of Inspiration style religious followers which almost never includes anyone on the hero's side.

You could do a tale in which the gods actively disagree in a more nuanced way than good gods versus evil gods. If the God of Love demands one thing, while the God of the Sea demands its opposite, who do you choose? Is there some way you can keep both happy or do you have to pick a side and its fallout? While this makes for a great tale of divided loyalty, I'm not sure how much it will resonate with the readership.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Larkin

Worth pursuing, I say!

My favorite character in the Dresden Files novels is Michael Carpenter, who is certainly motivated by his faith above other motivations. I think the struggle to have faith in God can translate well to fantasy; the struggle not being whether or not to believe in the existence of a god, but rather whether or not to believe that ones god is right and worth obeying when circumstantial evidence seems to weigh against it. Steven Brust deals with the question of faith a lot in similar fashion where his protagonist regular has face to face encounters with his god, but has a very difficult time trusting her.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkaze9999

I am really excited to read your fiction! Please post links to it when it becomes available.
I wish you much success in publishing your work!
- - -
I just finished reading _Box_of_Delights_ (John Masefield) to my son. Almost as a side note, everyone from the Bishop to choir boys get swept into the obsessive villain's clutches. Magic and mundane have the upper hand (both for the protagonists and antagonists); the book includes the religious aspect almost as a bad joke - irrelevant, uncomprehending, without anything to add. G R R Martin's priesthood of the Sept similarly seems at turns corrupt, bastions of conservative values, bereft of influence. In the last two books, transformed into a militant faith, it intervenes in politics to impose an uncompromising disconnected moral code. I take from these examples (and many others) the sense that in Fantasy genre fiction, religion and its priests offer in effect nothing useful to those facing magical conflict.

At the margins of Fantasy genre fiction - where it mixes with horror and mythic genres, religion plays a bigger part. In Stoker's _Dracula_, only religion presents limits and solutions to the magic threat. In James Stephens' marvelous fiction (e.g. _Crock_of_Gold_) Gods walk amongst men. In these stories however priests are absent. Protagonists must find their way to religion themselves. By means of coming nearer to the holy, they solve their problems.

I find Fantasy genre stories and adventure fiction as a whole concentrate on individuals, often with an adolescent mentality. So often, the hero penetrates the mystery, develops his (or her) virtue, rises to the moment and consummates his (her) destiny: the coming of age story. I agree it is quite rare in Fantasy stories for the protagonist to be a priest or even receive inspiration or redemption from a priest. Does the essential individualism inherent in the Genre complicate this? A priest represents order in which individuals have purpose, find meaning and a collective in which to belong. If only it were that easy! Mainstream literature offers no end of examples where religion (or the loss or lack of it) poses more problems than solutions - think of the _Brothers_Karamazov_... But this doesn't seem to be a domain explored by Fantasy genre fiction.

February 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErik Guttman

Chris wrote:

<<You could do a tale in which the gods actively disagree in a more nuanced way than good gods versus evil gods. If the God of Love demands one thing, while the God of the Sea demands its opposite, who do you choose? Is there some way you can keep both happy or do you have to pick a side and its fallout? While this makes for a great tale of divided loyalty, I'm not sure how much it will resonate with the readership.>>

AAMOF, one of the follow-up stories I have in mind for this character (who is primarily devoted to the sun god of this particular pantheon) returning to the capital to discover that the priestesses of the moon goddess are making a play for political power, which will allow them supreme religious power as well. (This mirrors the goings-on in heaven in this setting, so presumably the sun god and moon goddess are mad at one another for some reason. ;) ) He has to put a stop to this scheme -- though of course without wreaking wholesale slaughter, since ultimately they're all serving the same pantheon and the general needs of the Argandian Empire. It'll take some work to pull it off right. ;)

April 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

Erik wrote:

<<I am really excited to read your fiction! Please post links to it when it becomes available.
I wish you much success in publishing your work! >>

Thanx for the encouragement, Erik!

I've finally gotten around to activating the "Fiction" link on the left-hand menu -- now that I have reason to. ;) I'm finally about to get some fiction in print! My short story "Blade Of Fire" appears in the post-apocalyptic anthology THE END WAS NOT THE END, which is now available for Kindle/Nook and should be out in hardcopy any day now.

The short story this blog post was about, "The Two Fires," has also sold (woot!). It will appear in THUNDER ON THE BATTLEFIELD, Vol. 2, which is currently slated for release sometime in June. Hopefully I'll get copies before Origins so I can bring 'em to the con and show them off. ;)

April 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

This is a very interesting post! I have been wondering about the same question, and came to conclusions that are similar to the ones presented in your post and in comments. When fantasy gods are too active, too "close to the earth" and too personal, the priest essentially turns into a glorified servant. The "adolescent mentality" of an average reader also comes into play, strongly favouring rebellious, independent heroes.

I think one book you may find interesting is "Luthor Huss" by Chris Wright. The titular main character is a priest, and the book tackles many of the issues you raised successfully, especially in flashback chapters which describe his initial priestly training. Faith and temptation are important themes, and I found several places to be surprisingly deep for a fantasy novel. It would be great to hear your impressions!

April 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas

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