The Fallibility of Religion (Fantasy and Religion, Part One)

Spoilers for Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree.

In January, the Wayfarer’s Guide to Worldbuilding Podcast put out an episode on religion. Our Marketing Director, Kyle Rudge, said: “In fiction, religious people are often portrayed in one of two ways: they are either stupid and ignorant, or they are manipulative and using religion to exploit others. But there’s so many other dimensions to faith.”

In the past year, I’ve read two books that dealt with religion in really interesting ways. In this two-part series, I’m going to explore how these books portray believers and non-believers, the importance of keeping faith versus having an open mind.

I’m starting with The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, which explores the question: what do you do when everything you believe in turns out to be a lie?

Saint George and the Dragon

The Priory of the Orange Tree is a “feminist retelling” of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. Most people know the bare-bones facts about the legend: a dragon terrorizes a city. The citizens of the city give the dragon sheep to keep it happy, but eventually the sheep aren’t enough: they start to sacrifice humans by drawing names through a lottery. One day, the lottery chooses the name of the beloved princess. Saint George rides by as she awaits her doom, and he saves her by killing the dragon.

What most don’t know is that this story has some problematic roots. In The Golden Legend (1265) by Jacobus da Voragine, Saint George only kills the dragon if the citizens convert to Christianity. He would have left them to die otherwise.

In a text from 1596, The Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom by Richard Johnson, we learn about Saint George’s childhood. An enchantress named Kalyb stole him from his parents when he was a newborn and raised him for fourteen years. Then, she fell in love with him. 

The princess also plays a bigger part in the legends than we give her credit for. In The Golden Legend, the princess (unnamed), tells George to leave. After he wounds the dragon, she tells him she has the “mettle” to lead the dragon back to the city.

In The Most Famous History, the princess, named Sabra, promises to become a Christian if George will marry her. Later in the tale, after Sabra has borne George three sons and then died, George becomes obsessed with a nun named Lucina; he swears that he and his six companions will kill everyone within the monastery if she doesn’t give herself to him. Aggrieved by the threats, Lucina takes her own life.

It’s Time to Hit Back

You might be surprised by these lesser-known facts of the tale; I certainly was. And so, it makes a lot of sense to me that Shannon wanted to retell the story. In her Boundless article “Damsels undistressed,” an excellent summation of the history behind Saint George and the Dragon, she says:

“I wanted to hit back at the George I met in the stories of old, and to wonder what the people of Lasia would have said about him, if only anyone had written his intervention from their perspective. And I wanted someone else to have a chance to slay the dragon.”

Priory flips the legend of Saint George and the Dragon on its head. Two versions of this new story then become the bases of religion for two characters: Sabran Berethnet, the Queen of Inys, and Eadaz du Zāla uq-Nāla (Ead), an initiate of the Priory of the Orange Tree, posing as an Ordinary Chamberer in Sabran’s household. Each grew up with a different version of the tale, and each thinks she follows the truth.

Sir Galian and the Damsel

Sabran’s version of the tale is quite close to ours. In it, a wyrm called the Nameless One awakes in the Dreadmount mountain and terrorizes the country of Lasia with a plague. The people try to keep the wyrm satisfied by sacrificing sheep and oxen, but soon he wants human flesh. Each day, the citizens draw lots to select one person to sacrifice.

One day, the lottery chooses Princess Cleolind Onjenyu. She goes to her doom with dignity. But, Sir Galian Berethnet, a knight from the Isles of Inyasca, comes to her rescue. Galian deals the Nameless One a great wound with his sword, Ascalon, and the wyrm crawls back to where he came from, “chained by the sacred blood of Berethnet.”

In exchange for his service, Cleolind, “the Damsel,” gives Galian her hand in marriage. They go back to the Isles of Inyasca, where Galian sets himself up as the new king of Inys and decrees that the Virtues of Knighthood will be the sole religion. One year later, Cleolind gives birth to a daughter, and Galian swears to his people that the Nameless One will never return “while his bloodline ruled Inys.”

For 1,000 years, Inys is ruled by queens who can trace their lineage back to Galian. This is why the story is so integral to Sabran’s identity: it legitimizes her claim to the throne. Any threat to her religion is a threat to her. If the story were proven false, she would lose her seat of power, and the Queendom of Inys would be thrown into chaos.

Cleolind the Mother

Ead’s version of the tale is the same as Sabran’s—up until the moment Sir Galian enters. In Ead’s version, Cleolind wounds the dragon herself with Ascalon after Galian fails. Then, she rejects his proposal. She establishes the Priory of the Orange Tree, a secret society of mages that gain their powers through magical orange fruit, and becomes “the Mother.” Sir Galian, desperate to take glory for himself, flees back to Inyasca and claims that he wounded the wyrm. His kingship is based on a lie.

Ead, who was born into the Priory, holds Cleolind very dear. To Ead and the other members of the Priory, Cleolind was the greatest warrior who ever lived. But, as a member of Sabran’s household (as a secret body guard posing as one of the queen’s ladies), Ead has to pretend to follow the Inyish version of the tale. She can’t let her true beliefs come out; if she did, she would be put to death.

Warring Stories

There’s a scene in the book in which Sabran asks Ead to tell the story of Sir Galian and the Damsel to her ladies. Though she recoils at the thought, Ead tells the Inyish version: “It sickened [her] to speak of the Mother in this way, as if she were some swooning waif.” When she comes up to Sir Galian’s entry, she tries to press her luck at changing the story:

“Ead paused to gather her breath. And suddenly, an unexpected taste entered her mouth.

The taste of truth.

‘Cleolind told the knight to leave, insulted by his terms,’ she found herself saying, ‘but Sir Galian would not be deterred. Determined to win glory for himself, he—’

‘No,’ Sabran cut in. ‘Cleolind agreed to his terms, and was grateful for his offer.’

‘This is as I heard it in the South,’ Ead raised her eyebrows, even as her heartbeat stumbled. ‘Lady Roslain asked me to—’

‘And now your queen commands you otherwise. Tell the rest as the Sanctarian does.’

This scene is filled with such wonderful tension. Ead hates the Inyish version of the story and thinks it makes a mockery of the Mother. But, she knows that Sabran will have her tried for heresy and put to death if she pushes too hard. At the same time, Sabran won’t put up with any version that differs from the one she believes to be true; her mind is closed to the possibility that she could be wrong. 

Hidden Truths

When rumours of the Nameless One’s return spread through Inys, and lesser wyrms attack more frequently, Ead searches for a way to end him once and for all. In her search for the famed sword, Ascalon, she discovers two hidden aspects of the story:

1. Cleolind did indeed wound the Nameless One.

But, she didn’t do it alone. She was helped by Neporo, the Queen of Komoridu. They used two magical jewels and the sword, Ascalon, to wound and bind the Nameless One to the Abyss, a stretch of still, black ocean.

2. Like George, Galian was raised by a witch: Kalyba, the immortal Witch of Inyasca.

Kalyba stole Galian as a newborn because she thought the blood of an innocent might help her unlock deeper magic. But, she was charmed by him and decided to raise him instead. When he was twenty-five, he left to become a knight. He returned many years later to ask for Ascalon, which Kalyba had forged, because he wanted to kill the Nameless One; he felt he could unite the Isles as king if he completed a great deed. And Kalyba gave him the sword because she was in love with him.

Galian failed to kill the Nameless One and returned, rejected by Cleolind. Because he didn’t return her love, Kalyba cast an enchantment on Galian so that he thought she was Cleolind. He married her and made her his queen. She became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Sabran the First. But in the birthing, Kalyba lost her hold on Galian’s mind, and he realized who she was. He threw her in the dungeons and tore down every likeness of her. Then, he went back to the island where she raised him and hung himself, taking the secret to his grave.

Sabran’s Journey to Acceptance

Ead and Sabran grow closer throughout the book, eventually becoming lovers. And so, when Ead upends Sabran’s world with these two truths, she’s there to offer comfort.

“Sabran kept worrying at her skin with her fingernails. Ead reached over to cover her hand.

‘What are you thinking?’

‘…That I am descended from a liar and the Lady of the Woods… and that no good house can be built on such a foundation.’ Her hair was a curtain between them. ‘That everything I am is a lie.’

‘The House of Berethnet has done many good things. Its origin has no bearing on that.’ Ead kept hold of her hand.”

With these revelations, Sabran shows amazing strength. The Nameless One is at their doorstep, and time doesn’t stop. Sabran puts aside her grief and works tirelessly with Ead to destroy him. She accepts that the foundation of her belief was a lie. And, after they defeat the Nameless One, Sabran informs Ead of her plan to abdicate the throne in ten years’ time:

“‘Your people believe in the authority of your house,’ [Ead] said. ‘How will you explain this to them?’

I will say that now the Nameless One is dead, the age-old vow of the House of Berethnet—to keep him at bay—is fulfilled. And then I will honour the promise I made to Kagudo,’ [Sabran] said. ‘I will tell my people the truth. About Galian. About Cleolind. There will be a Great Reformation of Virtudom.’ A long breath escaped her. ‘It will be very difficult. There will be years of denial, of anger—but it must be done.'”

Lost Through Time

Religion is fallible. When our foundational texts are thousands of years old, we don’t have the full picture: texts can be lost through time, or translated poorly, or their meanings distorted. We can never be 100 percent sure that our beliefs are the full truth. So, I appreciate Priory‘s portrayal of two characters who struggle with differing versions of the same story, only to find out the full truth. Though Ead isn’t as shaken as Sabran by the truth, she has to contend with the fact that she, too, was missing something. In turn, Sabran could have rejected the truth and bullishly held to her convictions. But, she recognized the importance of accepting the responsibility of steering her people in the right direction. Ead and Sabran show that it’s possible to put aside lies when we’re faced with the truth.

When building religions into your own story’s world, consider how misinterpretation can happen throughout the ages. Does a current religious sect get it right or wrong? Are there warring religions? Are there multiple interpretations? Religion offers opportunities for wonderful tension and character motivation. It can build up hope or destroy it. Use it well.

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