Monday, August 20, 2012

The Alien Past: The Difficulties of Writing Religion

Last week the Historical Novel Society posted an interview with Lindsey Davis, the author of the Marcus Didius Falco series (some of my favorite books!). One of the questions Richard Lee asked was: "What do you find most alien about the past? Does it help or hinder your writing?"

Lindsey Davis' answer was quite concise. "Religion. I leave it out as much as possible."

I appreciate the honesty of this answer. And thinking back over the twenty books in the Falco series, I can see how Lindsey Davis does leave out the real heart of the Roman religion. Sure, she has Vestal Virgins as murder suspects and her protagonist being appointed the Procurator of the Sacred Geese, but throughout it all, Falco remains a dyed in the wool skeptic.

Skepticism seems to be the route many historical novelists choose to take for their protagonists. Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth comes to mind, where Ellen, one of the principal characters, is far more of a "free-thinker" than one would expect in twelfth century England. Follett's sequel World Without End imbues its characters with even more unbelief. Caris, the daughter of a fourteenth century wool merchant, is as unlikely a candidate for a nun as you will find. She doesn’t believe either prayer or relics have the power to heal; she doubts that the Church really knows what God thinks about things.

I think that many historical novelists choose to portray their protagonist as a skeptic is because they have a hard time relating to a true believer in religion. Like Lindsey Davis, they find the rituals and creeds of the past completely alien, and even more alien, the idea that such things could be taken seriously by someone. Religion is equated with superstition, something difficult for an educated modern to fathom, portray, or endorse.

But to correctly display a time period where religion was all-encompassing, would it not be the braver course to make the protagonist a believer rather than a skeptic?

A year and a half ago, I posted about some thoughts Sharon Kay Penman had on this subject. She listed religion as the number one way that the medieval world differed from ours. "All men--be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim--were convinced that theirs was the True Faith.... They can respect one another's courage, but neither side doubts that damnation awaits their foes." In her novels, Penman tries to make her characters, "acknowledge this bedrock belief, so alien to most of us today."

Anya Seton's novel Katherine is another book, along with Penman's, that seriously embraces the religious milieu of the period in which it is set. Whether or not Seton believed in the words of medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich, she made sure to show us that her heroine Katherine Swynford did. Instead of making Katherine a skeptic to make her more "relatable", Seton made her a believer and thus a better window into the world of the fourteenth century.

While writing the Chronicles of Tancred, I try to write about religion as if I were an eleventh century Norman adhering to the rites and rule of the Church of Rome. In some ways the fact that I am a twenty-first century American Protestant helps me in that task; in other ways it hinders me.

But when a scruffy drunkard has a vision of St. Andrew informing the Crusaders where the Holy Lance is buried, it's not my place to make my protagonist distrust him simply because I, the author, am dubious of visions, don't embrace the Roman Catholic view of sainthood, and don't believe relics have special powers. Instead, I must put myself in Tancred's worn-out boots. And though they might be more difficult to walk in, they make the journey more rewarding.

11 comments:

  1. I think you have a good approach to the beliefs of past people. It is all too easy to dismiss them as silly superstitious idiots or fanatics and have 'historical' characters who appear to be more like modern seculariists in thier thinking and attitides, but is it really 'true to the time?'

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    1. I think some authors see a contrast between accurate characters and "relatable" characters and choose the latter route. Ideally, of course, you'd want to have both.

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  2. I think you're right. It is much more challenging to portray people who actually believe in something. Skepticism in many ways is easy to write, it rarely motivates a character or shapes who they are. Believe, in whatever it might be, is a powerful motivator and may take a character in directions we do not expect. It is a much braver choice for writing.

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    1. Yes, it is definitely more challenging--which is why I think you see so much cheesiness in inspirational fiction. It's hard to get it right and something I frequently struggle with.

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  3. This is one of the great stumbling blocks for modern authors. I truly believe it is--but I think it may go further than religion. I think it may be we (as a 21st century society) have difficulties with the whole idea of the sacred.

    Let me explain. I've just finished reading some of the journals of a Russian officer who fought against Napoleon's France. Throughout the book, there was this emphasis on how to treat one's parents. And this officer extolled the Cossacks whose leave-taking involved clasping their parents by the feet and kissing them and begging their blessing. And the language about the Tsar was couched in the sacred too--he's always referred to as God's annointed and our little father.

    And we in the West see that as alien. But without understanding that immensely sacred drive the Russians had at this period, there is no way a historian or writer can even begin to understand the Russians or write about them.

    It's the same with religion. It wasn't just a service on Sunday deal 400 or 600 years ago. If you talk to a boy who's grown up singing in a cathedral--you can gain a sense of how pervasive was the former sense of religion. They sang Mass every day. That music was ALWAYS in their head. They know the words to all the psalms, because they've been singing them since they were seven. The music and the words goes round in their heads whether they're awake or asleep. Prayer is ordered by the hours of the day--your mind just naturally goes through the Matins or Evensong service at the right time of day. It's trained that way. And disbelief is inconceivable.

    Even in the period about which I write, one of the main views of Napoleon was religious--he was quite literally seen as the anti-Christ. His imprisonment of the Pope, his crushing of the freedom to practice religion, his treatment of the clergy, his soldiers' frequent desecration of churches...and when they called him the anti-Christ, they meant it. But, for me, conveying that religious belief that is as deep and firmly held is fraught with difficulty, because the modern audience believes I must be exaggerating...

    A very interesting article. We need to grapple with this more!

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    1. I agree with you about the idea of the sacred not being understood today. I think we forget that there was no such thing as a sacred-secular divide back then, no such thing as compartmentalizing your religion. We don't understand what religion meant to the life of a medieval Christian because we don't truly understand what the life of a modern Christian ought to be like.... But there I go, speaking as a Christian, and not as an objective, secular novelist. Must work harder to keep those two things separate.... :-)

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  4. Very interesting post, Roseanne! Although I consider myself to be a skeptic (my medical training perhaps has had an influence on that)I am very interested in religion and religious history. Part of the interest in historical fiction is being able to see and feel what it was like to live in another era, and before the 18th Century in England religion was determined by the ruler and many people died in standing up for their religious views. I think that level of commitment is difficult for modern people to understand, but religion pervaded the lives of our ancestors up until quite recent history. Avoiding that part of their lives does them a disservice. That said, I would hate to have to explain Roman religious beliefs- it might take over the entire book since the Romans were very liberal with their beliefs and were perfectly happy to add the gods of conquered peoples to their pantheon, not to mention their emperors, most of whom were very un-godlike. I suspect that there were probably a lot of skeptics in that historical period because of this practice- how can you consider something sacred when it changes all the time?
    Thought provoking post, Roseanne!

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    1. Interesting comment, but as an English person and a training Medievalist I feel that the statement about the religion being determined by the ruler is not entirely accurate in every context or circumstance.

      Also, as far as I know Catholicism and Protestantism were never actually legally outlawed or forbidden by the Tudor monarchs, the the rulers could not just go banning anything they liked without the involvement of parliament.

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    2. Thanks for the comment, C. Allyn. You're right--capturing the essence of a religion as complicated as Rome's would be very tricky indeed. :-)

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