Religion is often a defining characteristic of a culture. Fantasy fiction authors can use theology as a point of conflict between characters, as motivation for the protagonist or antagonist, or to add to the richness and depth of the world they have built. Limiting the inclusion of theology to passing references is a squandered opportunity.
Robin Hobbs is guilty of both in her epic fantasy Farseer and Liveship Traders trilogies. Religion appears to be an afterthought in the former, while it serves as an integral part of one of the characters in the latter.
El and Eda are the gods of the Six Duchies. They are introduced by name through their use as curses or exclamations spoken by the citizens of the realm. Later in the trilogy, we learn through FitzChivalry’s “journal” entries that El is the cruel and warmongering god of the sea and Eda the goddess of the land.
And that’s it. There are no shrines or temples, no religious holidays or services. No roving preachers decrying the abandonment of El for Eda and warning of how the present events are the god’s retribution. Nothing. The gods might as well not existed for all their impact on the story or the setting, which is usually a good rule to follow when a writer asks themselves if they should include a particular element or not.
Hobb’s shallow treatment of theology in the Farseer trilogy would have been nothing more than a blip on my radar if she hadn’t turned around and intertwined it so beautifully with the character of Wintrow in the Liveship Traders. Wintrow is an acolyte of Sa, and through him we learn of tenets of faith his clergy live by. We see Wintrow struggle to adhere to those tenets in the face of adversity. We see how Sa fits into the lives of everyday people from different walks of life. It’s the very model of how a fantasy fiction writer should incorporate theology into their story.
I’m curious about the disparity between the two series. They are set in the same world, though the Liveship Traders takes place well south of the Six Duchies. If it is a cultural thing, I didn’t feel that Hobb established that enough as a factor in the first trilogy. I haven’t read the third series, which returns to the characters and setting of the first, so I don’t know if it is explained there. Either way, Hobb provides an apt example of both how to and how not to use theology in fantasy fiction.