Popular fiction is often seen as being purely secular in nature, and faith-based works are typically viewed as being the only place that religion can really be found in stories. This, however, is a misconception. Faith-based works are more overt about their religious or spiritual elements, but many “secular” works of fiction are deeply influence by religion. The beliefs found in fiction do not always echo the beliefs of the work’s creator, but religion in some form permeates a number of the best known works of fiction including modern works and old classics.
Some fictional works are seen as being “religiously influenced” because they deal with the faith or religions found in the story’s fictional universe. One such example would be the popular book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” which became the hit TV series “Game of Thrones.” There are many references throughout the show and books about the various religions practiced in Westeros. Among these faiths are those who follow the Lord of Light, the Seven and the Old Gods. The story of George R.R. Martin’s creation, however, does not deal extensively with faith. Instead, it is based on the War of the Roses.
There are also numerous popular works that appear to have nothing to do with faith at first glance. The characters may never mention a religion, deities or holidays. In some of these cases, the influence of religion is not found in the story’s universe but in the way the plot is crafted, or the religious undertones may be found in the themes of the work or the overarching story itself. So, what religions influenced famous fiction? Unfamiliar readers beware, here there be spoilers!
The Chronicles of NarniaC.S. Lewis’s famous series is well-known for having strong religious undertones, and the most widely read book of his series contains many nods to Christianity. In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the mystical lion, Aslan, is killed by the evil White Witch. Aslan is humiliated and hurt before his death. Lucy, who is secretly watching, is baffled that Aslan does nothing to strike back or defend himself. Instead, he goes meekly to his death. The next morning, Alsan is resurrected and brings those the White Witch turned to stone back to life. Aslan and these resurrected Narnians join the battle against the White Witch’s forces and are integral in defeating her minions.
The story of Aslan’s death is a very familiar one to Christians because it echoes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ was humiliated and tortured before His death and was brought back to life. His resurrection saved the souls of sinners everywhere, and Christians believe that by dying and rising, He defeated death.
Harry PotterJ.K. Rowling’s seven part series is an international phenomenon like nothing before it. The books have been translated into dozens of languages and are credited with reigniting a generation’s interest in reading. The series also contains a mix of religious undertones. In the final book, Harry Potter allows the evil wizard Lord Voldemort to kill him. Harry does not resist and does not fight back. After a brief time, Harry is brought back to life, and he discovers that his willing sacrifice has given his friends and allies protection. No matter what he does, Lord Voldemort’s spells cannot harm Harry’s friends. This story of willing death, resurrection and sacrifice bringing protection echoes the Christian story of Jesus Christ dying on the cross and being resurrected on the third day.
The Harry Potter series also contains echoes of classical mythology in the way the plot is framed. Many classic myths have a hero that is abandoned or orphaned as a baby. The hero’s childhood years are then glossed over, and the myth picks back up when the hero is on the edge of adulthood and discovers his powers, background or heritage. “Harry Potter” follows this same model. Readers learn about the death of Harry’s parents, but are told little about his childhood. Instead, the book skips forward to shortly before Harry’s 11th birthday when he is preparing to reenter the wizarding world.
Les MiserablesThis famous work is beloved in both its form as a book and a Broadway musical. The story follows Jean Valjean, a 17th century French convict who was sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. When his sentence is up, Jean Valjean nearly returns to a life of crime when he steals from a bishop. The bishop, however, tells the police that the candlesticks Valjean stole were a gift and challenges Valjean to lead a better life than one of crime. Valjean changes his name and does his best to live up to the bishop’s gift of freedom by saving and improving a number of lives in the process.
Redemption is a powerful theme in the story which ties to the Christian faith. In Christianity, sinners are redeemed and saved by Christ, and most Christians put a high value on service. Valjean ends up helping many who would otherwise be ignored by his society including a destitute woman forced into prostitution, a young rebel and an orphaned girl.
The SilmarillionWhat religion influenced Tolkien has long been a matter of debate. Many people see echoes of Christianity in his posthumously published work ”The Silmarillion.” In the short story “The Music of the Ainur,” the main ‘god’ Eru creates a group of spirits called the Ainur, and one of the Ainur rebels against Eru. This Ainur, named Melkor, brings other ‘rebels’ with him, and they work repeatedly to undermine and destroy the creations of Eru and the other Ainur, now called Valar. To those who read “The Silmarillion” through a Christian lens, this story echoes the creation of the world and the fall of Satan.
Other people see a very different religion echoed in the stories of “The Silmarillion.” To some, Tolkien’s work favors themes found in Pagan religions. In “The History of the Silmarils,” the many Valar come together to create the world. In the process, they create the Two Trees which light the world and several different races of beings. Later it is revealed that some races favor different Valar and that the Two Trees were destroyed by Melkor and a giant spider. The echoes of Paganism are found in how multiple “gods” worked together to create the world. The story of the Two Trees and the spider also echoes the old Norse stories of the Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and the dragon Nidhogg who gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil and consumes the corpses of the damned.
Still other people see Hinduism or Buddhism in “The Silmarillion.” Many who favor the Hindu interpretation point to how many ‘gods’ are actually from one god. This echoes the Hindu idea that the many deities are all simply different embodiments of the same god. Those who read “The Silmarillion” through a Buddhist lens point to how the ‘gods’ are not invulnerable. In Buddhism, the gods are not the all-powerful beings found in many religions. Gods live extremely long lives but they will die eventually. In “The Silmarillion,” Melkor is badly injured, and in the final battle, not all the Valar will survive. This idea, however, can also be used to bolster a Pagan interpretation since many Pagan myths deal with the ideas of gods fighting, being harmed and dying.
Star WarsReligion does not just influence literature, it also finds its way into more visual mediums. George Lucas’s famous movies are known for the lightsaber wielding characters who can use the Force. This mystical power and the Jedi Order which uses it owe a great deal to Taoism and Buddhism. The Force itself echoes the Tao, a semi-mystical and mysterious force that binds the world together. The tenets of the Jedi Order echo the goals of a Buddhist monk. Buddhists work to avoid anger, hate and greed and seek to cultivate detachment from the world and love all beings equally. The Jedi Order does not allow personal attachments and sees anger and hate as part of the Dark Side. Jedi who give in to their fear, anger or hate become Sith, an evil order bent on dominating the galaxy and wiping out the Jedi.
Avatar: The Last AirbenderAlso simply called “Avatar,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender” owes a great deal to Hinduism. The main character, Aang, is the latest reincarnation of the avatar of the World Spirit, the force that creates and maintains balance in the world. This is straight out of Hinduism which has many stories that deal with avataras, the incarnations of the gods on Earth. Aang himself also echoes several Hindu values. He is a pacifist, a vegetarian and learns to control his powers through a series of meditations that each open one of his chakras. Hindus put a great deal of value on the idea of ahimsa or nonviolence towards any living being. For this reason, many Hindus are, like Aang, vegetarians.
The characters Combustion Man and P’Li visually reference the Hindu god Shiva. Combustion Man and P’Li both have a tattoo of a third eye on their forehead which they can use to destroy objects and attack their enemies. This third eyes is reminiscent of the third eye of Shiva, and Shiva himself is often associated with destruction.
Fiction does not have to be faith-based to include religious themes or ideas. Plenty of famous and popular fiction contains religious undertones. These echoes of spirituality give fiction extra depth and life and help it speak to people for generations to come.