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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Is Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion a Christian novel?

Lois McMaster Bujold is an important author of fantastic literature. She has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. She has written both science fiction and fantasy literature. I recently read her The Curse of Chalion (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) a fantasy novel. There are miracles, there are no spaceships, the weapons are swords and spears, and there is no explicit real location in the book. In this post, I attempted to summarize the novel. See here for the Wikipedia article on it.

The title of this post asks whether The Curse of Chalion is a Christian novel. In order to answer that question, I need to know what makes a novel Christian. Over three years ago -- a long time in blog years -- in a fit of near-hubris, I attempted to answer that question. My answer was complex, and not completely satisfying, even to me. Others certainly might have good reason to disagree with me. There are several insightful comments, some of them from practicing Christian authors. (Of books, that is, not blogs.)

All that being said, I apply my own flawed instrument to the question. I proposed these criteria, in the characters and/or plot:
1) A Christ-figure.
2) Belief in important Christian doctrine.
3) Praying to a monotheistic divine being.
4) Expressing a relationship with God.
5) Consciousness of supernatural guidance.
6) Explicit rejection of personified evil.

1) Is there a Christ-figure in Curse? It depends, of course, on what is meant by a Christ-figure. I believe that Cazaril is such a figure. He willing offers himself to die to keep Iselle, the young lady he tutors and is responsible for, from marriage to an evil man. He also willingly sacrifices himself to keep a young man, a fellow galley slave, from being punished or killed. Cazaril could have died in both of these situations, and, in fact, he appears to have been saved from death in both of these cases by divine intervention. Or, actually, in both these cases, and another one, Cazaril is resurrected.
2) Is there belief in important Christian doctrine? (Such as, for example, the trinity, or substitutionary atonement) I didn't see such.
3) There is prayer, by several characters, including Cazaril. These characters clearly believe that their prayers could be answered. In some cases, they are answered. However, there's a problem. The prayers are not to a single God. As this Wikipedia article details, there are five deities in Bujold's sub-creation. That's four too many.
4) With the same caveat as for the previous item, there are characters who know that they have some sort of relationship with one of the deities. There are at least five such characters, including Cazaril.
5) Cazaril is conscious of supernatural guidance. In fact, this may be said to be the main theme of the book -- does Cazaril have the capacity to choose to disobey that guidance? He does not seem to have ever disobeyed it, and the question of whether he could have is not clearly answered, at least to me. There are discussions about the matter between the characters.
6) Cazaril, and other characters, reject evil, as personified especially in the dy Jironal brothers. Cazaril is presented with important moral choices. He rejects lucrative offers to betray Iselle, his pupil and ward. He tries to help people he doesn't have to help. He cares for others, and loves them unselfishly.

So, in summary, is The Curse of Chalion a Christian novel? Not quite, I'm afraid. The five-fold god theology makes that impossible. But it's a good book, and it gives an example of a main character, and some others, who seem to be wholly unselfish, without being preachy or unreal. I'm glad I read it, and I expect to read it again. There are two more books written about the same setting, and I expect to read them, too. Thank you, Ms. Bujold!

I have also written posts on specific works of fantastic literature, including novels by Patricia McKillip, Elizabeth Moon (here and here), J. K. Rowling and Juliet Marillier, attempting to ask the same question about them. For these works, at least, I have not come to a firm conclusion, but I believe that the attempt was of use, at least to me. I found important Christian elements in works by all of these writers, including Marillier, who is a self-confessed Druid.

An on-line listing of important authors of fantastic fiction, giving information about their religious affilation, does not list Marillier, McKillip, Moon, or even Rowling. In my opinion, all of these are important enough to be added, but it's not my web page. The author does list Bujold, but is not aware of information on her religious affiliation. I have none, either.

Thanks for reading.

On October 5th, I corrected some ambiguity in point 5 of my discussion of the novel.

* * * * *

On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 13, 2009.


Martin LaBar said...

I re-read the book in October, 2011, and don't see any reason to change this post. It's still a fine book!

Anonymous said...

according to bujold in an online interview, she is fond of cs lewis and his descriptions of christianity, but nonetheless remains, herself, an atheist.

Anonymous said...

sorry, i meant to say "agnostic" rather than "atheist"

Martin LaBar said...

Yes. Thanks for the link. To quote her, from that link:

"The Christian ethic is a good one. The ethics are great, I like Christian ethics. (I note in passing, many of the same ideas of what is good are found in other religions, too.) But Christianity makes historical claims about reality, and what is behind reality, that I do not find convincing. That said, I'm very fond of the writings of the British Christian apologist C. S. Lewis."