As I draw closer and closer to the finale of The Dark Tower (less than half a book to go in the journey, hopefully I’ll have a longer and fuller review by Friday), I’m struck by how much I like the way that King approaches religion in the All-World setting. It’s a hodgepodge of old religious beliefs kind of left in the dust as the world has moved on, and various cultures and remainders of civilization have uncovered portions and fragments of them and thought that those portions were the entire thing. It’s almost reminiscent of the Warhammer 40k setting, but softer and with a less tongue-in-cheek riff on fascism and blind devotion than you see out of the Space Marines or the Imperial Cults.
Which is kind of funny, because if you look at his books taking place disconnected from the Tower and firmly planted in our world, he’s exceptionally cynical about organized religion and the faithful in general. His novels are packed to the brim with people using the faith of others as a sledgehammer with which to beat down those they don’t like, or people losing their faith in the face of overwhelming evidence that evil can win, or simply a lack of divine power demonstrated when evil seems able to throw its own great strength around without limitation. Looking at something like The Mist where a fanatic creates their own cult practically overnight and draws others in with charisma and the promise of salvation, or ‘Salem’s Lot where one of the main characters ultimately gives up on God feeling that God has given up on him and left him in the hands of a creature that shouldn’t even exist. Even in The Stand, something written relatively black-and-white, the “good” guys feel like they’re being forced into a weird Luddite commune that eschews many of the good things out in the modern world because of the belief that they’ve been tainted by the evils of the world, seemingly backed up by a legitimate prophet. It’s a book with a very old testament kind of deity who will happily send people to gruesome deaths and wipe out entire civilizations to get a point across, the kind of person you’d worship out of fear and simply because they may be abusive but they’ll protect you from what might be lurking out in the darkness.
There isn’t much of that in The Dark Tower. Religion is part of the background hum of the world, and if anything I have read it as a way to get into the minds of various characters and cultures. I’ve always believed that religion and myth are the best window into how a group of people interact with the world, because most religions are going to be crafted to see to a group’s needs. Even as an atheist I love immersing myself in study of world religions because those myths and folk tales are a glimpse into how other people explained the world around them in times when they didn’t really have another way to. I look at many of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures and I don’t think geeze, what bloodthirsty monsters. I go huh, it makes sense that when you have a sprawling empire you’d need to fully otherize another local group in order to keep your own people tightly knit. Your god probably wants you to succeed, that’s why he’s your god, so kill or convert the followers of the other gods. If you keep winning then obviously you’re in the right, so you feed your god the captives you’ve taken. Somewhere in there you get into Golden Bough territory and your victories and indeed, entire way of life become intrinsically tied in with sacrifice to the point where if you aren’t winning it’s completely acceptable to take sacrifices out of your own society to keep the gods appeased. After awhile it becomes an honor that many people go to willingly, because the pain is brief and a doorway to heaven. That kind of thinking crops up in The Dark Tower except divorced from the original texts and passed down through word of mouth, ancient dances, so on and so forth. You really do have to take it on faith that these characters know what they’re talking about, just as they’re taking it on faith that what they grew up on is true.
And what a great, weird mythology they grew up on. You’ve got elements of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, luddite sects of every stripe, technology worshipers, just a grand swirling mass where you don’t know who is completely right and who isn’t. There’s a strong possibility that no one is right. The Tower itself is a hub point protected by totem guardians, and seeing how easy it is to slip back and forth between worlds, you can see how people in our world and those like it might catch glimpses of the guardians and the horrors they protect the hub world from. Maybe all the religions of our world, King seems to be asking, are just shadowy reflections of fragments we caught of the True world just like the inhabitants of that place are themselves worshiping smaller pieces of a shattered whole. Asking if we’re worshiping something that conceivably could have been divine in origin, or if we’re the equivalent of the denizens of Lud, a post-apocalyptic society where mutants hold daily human sacrifices to ZZ Top’s “Velcro Fly,” believing the busted old radio transmissions to be the drums of god demanding blood.
I love stuff like that. Adore it, even. I’ve spoken before about how the best kinds of fantasy mythology and religion, to me, are those in conflict with one another and entirely reliant on unreliable narrators. Look at Game of Thrones, one that I bring up often enough – you see bits and pieces of magic, but you’re completely reliant on the words of very human prophets who themselves will see portents and proof of miracles in every event, no matter how bizarre or coincidental. Look at Hellboy, where you have the ancient Slavic pantheon existing alongside the exiled fae of the British Isles and the underground dwellers of the pre-Hyperborean civilization, all of them living in a setting where God created very traditional Angels, and the Lucifer figure of that angelic pantheon ended up creating Lovecraftian monstrosities in an attempt to replicate God, and most importantly every faction believes themselves to be in the right even when these tremendously powerful magical beings hold claims that are otherwise mutually exclusive. Hell, look at urban fantasy novels like Gaiman’s American Gods (and oh man what an amazing series that’s going to be when it hits television) or Mieville’s Kraken, dealing with apocalypses with multiple factions working against each other so that their end of the world happens and their prophecy comes true over all the others.
It’s something I hope to be able to bring into my own stories, honestly. A big part of the world I’ve been crafting deals with multiple layers of religion. Gods salvaging bits and pieces of what came before and cobbling together their own divine hierarchy and acting through mortal followers in a way that I hope other fantasy series haven’t really explored before, with deicide playing a major role and really focusing on the fallout that comes from firmly established religions with active gods suddenly being bereft of what had given them so much power. What happens when an apocalypse is due but half the players have been taken out of the game early and there are multiple very good explanations for why things are happening the way they are.
Keeping in theme, my book recommendation for today is Christopher Moore’s Lamb, one of those books I would put on the “life changers” shelf for me. A friend put me on it back in high school when I was really in the depths of my obnoxiously cynical cycle, and it is one of the major reasons I got into world religion as an interest/hobby. It occupies the same place as Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods in humanizing these very divine figures whose stories have played a role in shaping modern civilization, in this case the “forgotten” story of Jesus and what happened in the years between his birth and his showing back up as the messiah. It’s essentially one long wandering arc where Jesus and his adoptive older brother travel the world, the former trying to figure out how he’s meant to be the messiah and struggling with a distant and noncommittal divine father figure while the narrator tries to keep him safe from the horrors of the world that he’s supposed to be redeeming with his sacrifice. It’s an incredibly funny novel with heartwrenching moments stitched in. Joshua/Jesus is a great character, just fun to be around, you’d love to be his friend and hang out with him, he has an aura of childlike innocence even into young adulthood which is tempered by his knowing that he will die horribly and painfully at the end of it all but has yet to be reassured that it’ll be worth it. You have him and his best friend/brother exploring demonology, martial arts, traveling to far-off India to study Buddhism, I could go on but I don’t want to spoil any of the more shocking or bizarre plot developments here. As of mid-August it’s also a Kindle Sale piece down to 3 bucks, so if you’re intrigued enough to give up a small latte I’d say this is a perfect time to grab it.