The Relationship between Fantasy Genre and Religion (Based on the works of Rowling, Martin and Tolkien)

DOI: 10.55804/jtsu-1987-8583-15-6

Fantasy is one of the youngest genres in literature. Nowadays, in addition to being "accused" of belonging to a fairy tale genre, there are frequent claims against fantasy from a religious point of view: how much of a moral value does this or that text carry? Could fantasy be so unacceptable that it would be desirable (or even necessary) to ban it? This article provides a comprehensive answer to this question, for which we rely on the novels of the three greatest and most famous fantasy writers - Rowling, Martin and Tolkien.

In general, there exists a colossal amount of theoretical material on the fantasy genre, mostly in foreign languages. Academic interest in this genre is also high in our country. There are dissertations on Stephen King novels. In addition, Levan Berdzenishvili's "Fantasy of Our Existence" refers to the genre as a whole, but these three authors, in particular, have not yet been studied in-depth in Georgia; moreover, no one has discussed the works of all three of the authors at the same time. This is the novelty of the present study. The conclusions will be drawn based on the work of the three writers, including the parallels drawn and the similarities and differences identified.

It should also be noted that research on the "Song of Ice and Fire" is quite scarce as the saga is still unfinished. There are almost no lectures and articles on this novel, otherwise, his high-profile screenplay is actively discussed. We will avoid this in this paper and reach conclusions based only on literary texts.

Rowling’s characters are her contemporary Britons, e.g. they are mostly Christians by religion. As the author stated, she did not want to bring religious symbolism into the story till the end of the novel, so as not to reveal any secrets ahead of time, so religion did not come to the fore until the seventh book, although it did indeed play a role there.

This view is shared by the Russian theologian Andrei Kuraev. [Kuraev, Internet source 7]. He argues that in the first six books of the series only references to the existence of God are made, the Lord is symbolic because he does not interfere in current events, his will is nowhere emphasized.

Kuraev does not hide that he was prejudiced against the novel due to the rumours circulating the seven books and started reading it through the eyes of a strict inquisitor, but in the process of reading, he discovered that it is a kind tale about wizards. (Elements of witchcraft are present in almost every fairy tale, although, for example, making "Cinderella" a forbidden text will not come to anyone's mind). At Hogwarts School, no one calls spirits, no blood shedding rituals of black magic are conducted at the lessons. These methods are used only by Voldemort and his followers, and to turn a blind eye to the existence of evil and dark forces stubbornly,  would only be naive. This does not make Potteriada a blasphemous book. It is known that fanatical opponents bought the whole copies of Harry Potter and demonstratively burned them solemnly. In my opinion, this gesture of the fanatics is more of a satanic ritual than any scene from Rowling’s novels. What the demonstrators achieved was to indirectly increase the income of the writer they hated so much exponentially.

Professor Ted Sherman confined himself to ironic and at the same time laconic advice: “I cannot forbid you to burn the books. I can only suggest that you read them at least once before throwing them into the fire” [Sherman, Internet source 5].

Opponents of Rowling’s saga make another accusation against the work claiming that it is harmful to the psyche of children. For instance, unbelievable facts are presented as if young readers inspired by the Harry Potter books fell from the window and died while trying to fly on a broomstick. To maintain preciseness, it is necessary to note that such an accusation is, to put it mildly, absurd. First, the first books in the series are followed by a clear recommendation to be read by or under parental supervision. This would be added insurance to prevent the child from drawing a wrong conclusion from the novel. Secondly, the line between the worlds of the reader and Harry Potter is sharp enough to rule out all possible misunderstandings: an essential attribute of every spell is a magic wand made from the body parts of some mythical creature. The ingredients of the potions and poisons are also fictional plants. Undoubtedly, all this is well thought out and creates a good alternative world, but the child knows from the beginning that they have neither a magic wand nor can buy it anywhere, and thus the theoretical knowledge gained from Hogwarts will not be useful to the reader in practice.

It is known that this issue was also debated in the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI, according to one of the articles, called the work “dangerous”, but the seventh book and the corresponding film put an end to any misunderstanding:

"It took a while, but the Vatican has finally come around to giving Harry Potter its blessing," Reuters reported on July 14, 2009. [Rowling, Internet source 3].

Deacon Kuraev believes a ban on Harry Potter could have the opposite effect. The fact is that the ban increases the interest of readers, and banned books are secretly read by those who did not even intend to do so in the first place. (The repercussions of the ban were evident in the work itself.  In particular, in the episode when Dolores Umbridge, with the interests of the Ministry of Magic in mind, banned a particular newspaper from school and it was eventually read by the entire school). Moreover, if a child, fascinated by Rowling’s books, is told that liking them is an unforgivable sin and is unacceptable for Christianity, it will not be surprising if this child turns their back on the religion that imposes prohibitions and not on the book which they sincerely like. It is a remarkable fact that the theologian, whose opinion carries great weight in both academic and theological circles, openly and justly declares that in Rowling's novels blasphemy is nowhere to be found. The main is interpretation, otherwise, even a misinterpretation of the Bible can lead to quite dangerous conclusions.

Let’s consider specific examples of where and in what context  God is either mentioned or implied, where the Bible's influence is felt in Rowling's books; We remember that dementors use kisses to take away souls. Such a negative connotation of this gesture may inadvertently evoke the association of Juda's Kiss.

In addition, in cases where Harry is in the most difficult of circumstances ( the second round of The Triwizard Tournament, the Final of “The Goblet of Fire”, the final of the seventh book ), Harry prays. This is a rare and thus, more remarkable fact. Moreover, by the logic of the novel, there is no convincing explanation as to why Potter was resurrected from the dead. It is conceivable that God’s will is manifested here in the form of the miracle of the resurrection. “The Prisoner of Azkaban" ends with finding out what Sirius has to do with Harry - the prisoner who escaped from Azkaban is the godfather of Potter, and at the end of the saga, Harry agrees to take the responsibility for baptism and baptizes the son of Lupin and Tonks. This too is an unmistakable Christian phenomenon, confirmed by accurate linguistic choice. ( Although the baptismal ritual can be found in other religions, “godfather” is a Christian term.)

The most significant Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, are celebrated in Hogwarts. (However, it was possible to call the holidays winter and spring breaks, if the author did not want to give them an additional religious meaning). Rowling states that, despite some fluctuations in the faith from time to time, she is a Christian and there is nothing anti-Christian in her books. Moreover, all the seven books are inspired by the Christian religion:

"My faith is sometimes that my faith will return" [Rowling, Internet source 4].

The George Martin saga is much more diverse in terms of religion. There are ancient gods and "children of the forest". This is a kind of parallel to paganism as presented in the novel. There is a multifaceted God whose parishioners in the cult of death find the path of faith to the truth. Daenerys prays to unspecified gods and the road leads her to many different temples, (although, as a quotation cited below in the article testifies, the descriptions of these temples and the local scenes may cause fear, but not the religious tremble). Red Priestess Melisandre worships R’hllor, the god of light, the earthly sign of whom is fire. Interestingly, unlike the small cults, we see R’hllor’s miracles several times in the novel (Shining sword, resurrection from the dead, visions seen in the fire …).

George Martin devised a set of rituals for each religion separately, which gives the book additional charm and more persuasiveness. For example, in Riverrun, the corpse is carried away by water; in King’s Landing, the bodies are either burned or buried. Wedding rituals are also different in different parts of Westeros. In addition, sometimes the same action has different meanings. The usual punishment imposed by Daenerys is to burn alive for the gravest crime, which is a great honour for the followers of the Red Priestess. In their belief, in this way, they are taken by R’hllor, sins are forgiven, and someday they even rise from the dead.

It is noteworthy that the power of superstition is emphasized and the religious taboo is established, in which the texts of Martin and Rowling are very similar. Wizards resort to a thousand kinds of euphemisms to avoid mentioning the main evil force, Voldemort. Only the chosen ones are not afraid to say his name, which is considered an act of great courage in the eyes of others. According to George Martin, the Red Priestess never mentions the name of the evil force, calling it "the one whose name should not be mentioned." As well as this, the White Walker army is mentioned on the wall as “The Others”. The word is capitalized, which should be a sign of religious respect.

However, the most numerous is the religion of the “Faith of the Seven”. It has, so to speak, the status of a state religion. The symbolism is also more subtle and detailed. The parallels with Christianity are obvious: the sevenfold nature of God instead of the Trinity, the Bible is replaced by the Seven-Pointed Star book, the prayers end with the words: "Save us, the seven." 

A rather risky topic addressed by George Martin is religious fanaticism. There is nothing negatively said in the book about the High Sparrow, and Ornela is undoubtedly an odious character. After Cersei was starved in the dungeon, humiliated, and finally was forced to walk a "walk of shame", some readers were fascinated by her firmness and had some sympathy for her; on the other hand, all this bore negative feelings, aggression and hatred towards sparrows.

In short, as Professor Maria Steiman says, there are many religions in Westeros, though the transcendental God as such is not found. [Steinman, Internet source 8].

The theme of life and death, the concept of immortality, occupies an extremely important place in any religion. Let us compare the two fictional worlds created by two writers in this respect. If there is religious diversity with Martin and the perception of death is also mixed, Rowling’s morality is purely Christian. I believe this is where the Russian theologian, for whom Potteriada is still a fairy tale,  is mistaken,  It is well known that immortality in fairy tales is uniquely positive, unlike in Harry Potter. Albus Dumbledore says:

"It really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. ” [Rowling, Internet source 2: 241]

At the same time, immortality is cherished by antagonists, Professor Quirrell and Lord Voldemort.

An interesting variation of this idea is found in George Martin’s work: (This storyline failed to be part of the TV series): The favourite character of many readers, Catelyn Stark, was resurrected with the help of magic after the Red wedding; however, this new form of existence is not auspicious. Lady Stark has nothing humane any more. She became a completely insensitive, revenge-seeking zombie. The deadly wounds are visible, the slaughtered woman gave orders with horrible wheeze, and such immortality was certainly not a reward, but eternal torment. While her revenge was fair, the reader no longer had the old, unconditional sympathy for such Lady Stark.

Of course, we must not forget that, according to George Martin, the main enemies of mankind, the main antagonistic force, are the “White Walkers", that is, the army of the "resurrected" dead. The word "dead" or "living" could not be enough to describe the condition of these creatures, so the author uses the term "undead" in his narration to separate himself from the superstitions and fears of his characters.

Death is such a mysterious thing that the fear of it is coded in human nature from the very beginning. As a rule, if death frightens us, immortality should make us happy. However, George Martin repeatedly asserts the opposite in his saga: death is painful when untimely, otherwise, it is a law of nature. Violation of this law is costly and the result delights nobody. Let's recall Daenerys Targaryen who spared her husband at the cost of the greatest sacrifice. For Drogo, such a life would be humiliating and painful. Khaleesi, too, could not endure the torture of her husband, and with her own hands took away the life of a once-mighty leader of the Dothraki, maintained at such an expensive price.

Daenerys comes across death once again on the other side of Westeros as she goes to The House of the Undying to listen to the prophecy. Linguistically, it is interesting that this place is called "The House of the Undying." The author deliberately does not use the word "immortal" here, which would be a linguistically correct, completely justified, but at the same time overly obvious choice. In addition, the word "undying" creates a kind of contrast with the already mentioned "undead" and makes us think for a second that this immortality can be something different. All the more so as the Carthage magicians try to create the illusion as if they had stopped growing at the best age when they were at the zenith of beauty and power, and that it was as if they had retained these qualities to this day. However, the scene of the mother of the dragons visiting this temple at first glance disproves similar assumptions. There is no doubt that immortality is not, in this case, great mercy from God:

“A long stone table filled this room. Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart.”  [Martin, Internet source 1: 4189]

As for Tolkien, the issue of death and immortality in his world is resolved in different ways. Here, for some creatures (witches and elves) immortality is an innate ability whereas  for others, for example, orcs, the answer is extremely ambiguous. Others may resort to certain means to prolong life, but their "quality" of life falls. Bilbo, whose 111th  birthday party is the first major event unfolding in the first chapter of  Lord of the Rings', says:

 Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.” [Tolkien, Internet source 6: 342]

With Tolkien we also encounter immortality as a curse, for once already deceased people, who are thus punished for breaking an oath. Now they are forced to continue existence as skeletons until they are rewarded with the right to die.

As we can see, in all three texts, immortality is highly unattractive. It would not be out of place to mention the novel "Death with Interruptions" by the Portuguese Nobel Laureate, Jose Saramago, which also leads to the indisputable conclusion that death is in some cases a desirable end to a burdensome life. The greatness of death was also acknowledged by Vazha-Pshavela, who had nothing to do with fantasy. Vazha-Pshavela is mentioned here as evidence that the problems of our research genre are not local, even though physical immortality, as a permissible fact, is inaccessible to other literary movements.

In conclusion, it can be said that in the world of fantasy, there are elements of reality in different doses. Otherwise, reading this genre would not be relevant for the readers and even more so, relatable. A book in which we cannot see anything relatable to our character, we cannot read with a true interest. Religion, as an integral part of our reality, could not be left out of the fantasy genre. The examples cited in this article prove that there is nothing against God and religion in the texts by Rowling, Martin, and Tolkien; on the contrary, the believer should not be irritated by these books. Moreover, they must recognize their artistic virtues and see themselves in the characters of the proposed world. The correct interpretation is crucial and, again and again, depends on the reader.


Martin G.R.R.
2020 23 October
Rowling J.K.
2020 23 October
Rowling J.K.
2020 23 October
Rowling J.K.
2020 23 October
Sherman T.
2020 23 October
Tolkien J.R.R
2020 23 October
Кураев А.
2020 23 October
Штейнман М.
2020 23 October