Theology in The Godserfs Series – Guest Blog by N. S. Dolkart
You may remember that a few days ago we revealed this awesome cover for the latest novel in the Godserfs series? Well, the author of Godserfs, N. S. Dolkart, has stopped by to talk a little theology with us as a means to open our eyes up to the kind of exploration that awaits you just beyond that aforementioned cover.
In our modern world, theology is often seen as an abstract study, especially since we rely on science and not religion to survive and prosper in our day-to-day lives. Even the minister drives a car; even the rabbi uses a credit card. For most of us, theologians are those who further the development of their religions, not those whose work keeps us alive. That role is generally assigned to medical professionals.
But this worldview is very much a post-Enlightenment one. It assumes that God will not intervene in our daily lives, or at least that God will be subtle about it when God does. In a world of unsubtle gods – whether in secondary-world fantasy or historical fiction – theology becomes a good deal more important. It becomes a matter of life and death.
As readers of Silent Hall surely know, theology plays a big role in my series. Just because the gods are unsubtle in their power doesn’t mean that everyone understands how they operate. There are huge gaps in the public knowledge of how gods work, and these gaps only get slightly smaller when you’re talking to the experts. Theology is a cutting-edge field.
So let’s talk a little bit about what that theology looks like. Going into Among the Fallen, what do we know about the gods?
1. We know there are multiple gods, and these are at least partially bound by location. A sea god has less power on land. You get the picture.
2. These gods have many conflicts and rivalries amongst themselves, and these can become really cutthroat. Signs of weakness are bound to be exploited, so insults and slights (especially from humans) are not to be tolerated. It’s a god-eat-god world out there.
3. As a result, gods have a tendency to smite people who have insulted them, either purposefully or inadvertently. It sucks to be human.
4. The good news is gods appear to be capable of shielding their worshippers from other gods’ powers. So a heavenly rivalry doesn’t become a scorched-earth sort of war where worshippers on both sides get slaughtered by biblical plagues. Even in open war, gods are reduced to trying to tilt things more subtly in their own side’s favor. The deeds done on earth are assumed to mirror those done in heaven, but it’s not clear whether that’s because the winning god has more influence on earth or whether the actions of those puny humans really have had an influence in heaven. To some degree, though, it doesn’t matter: a human victory is an indication of a heavenly one, no matter which way the causality runs.
That brings us to a theological analogy that is truly central to the book: the Fingers in the Mesh, an explanation for the gods’ behavior developed by the ancient Tarphaean sage Katinaras. In his formulation, the barrier between the heavens and the world in which humanity lives is like a wire mesh. The gods, though unbelievably vast and powerful compared to people, can’t fit through this mesh to rule the world directly by walking the earth themselves – only their “fingers,” their most subtle tools for influencing the world, are small enough to fit through. So they can influence the world, yes, but only with a tiny portion of their power, concentrated in a fairly small area. A magical beast, an army, a famous prophet – any of these could be fingers of gods.
So what happens when such a finger is cut off – through the untimely death of a prophet, say, or the destruction of a city? The god loses power. Not only is that god now less capable of influencing the world, but it’s also missing a few fingers for its next high-stakes heavenly thumb war. It increases the risk that some other god will defeat them on their own side of the mesh, up in the heavens.
The upshot is that humans may be weak, but they’re still vital tools for tilting the balance of power. When the gods’ earthly power is concentrated in individual people, cities, or sacred beasts it makes them vulnerable to human actions. You too can weaken a god! If you’ve massacred your enemies and burned their villages, it’s probably safe to assume that your god will defeat theirs.
So what do the gods do with the power they have?
They jealously protect their reputations, for one thing, since those reputations can influence the number of worshippers they receive – and therefore the amount of influence they have in the world. At the same time, they rarely initiate a human conflict unless their reputations are actively in danger. Better to see their followers as weapons in an arms race than to use the weapons recklessly and risk shifting the balance of power to some other, uninvolved god.
Sometimes proving a point is worth the risk of weakening oneself in the short term. If one’s own worshippers feel they can take their god for granted, it can be awfully tempting to prove them wrong. Humanity must never be allowed to think that they’re safe – sometimes they need to be reminded to fear the gods.
Yes, it sucks to be human.
The second book in the Godserfs series, Among the Fallen, is available April 4th (US/CAN) and April 6th (UK/Commonwealth). Find out more about the book and its author via his website, and on Twitter @N_S_Dolkart.