Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature

One of the great things about the ‘Perspectives on Fantasy’ series of academic books being produced by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow is that all the books get a paperback edition at a price that mere humans can afford. You do have to wait about a year after the publication of the hardcover, but you will get it. I’ve been eagerly awaiting Taylor Driggers’ book, and am pleased I can finally own a copy.

This being an academic book series, it is a bit heavy going. Driggers leans heavily on the theory of deconstruction as propounded by Jacques Derrida. It also helps to have some knowledge of the work on gender by Judith Butler. Those two I can manage. As for the feminist theologies of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Marcella Althaus-Reid and Linn Marie Tonstad, nope, I’d never heard of them either. Consequently I was required to take Driggers’ word as to what their positions were, which is not ideal when reading academic works, but thankfully that didn’t matter too much.

Cixous, by the way, seems like my sort of feminist. Driggers quotes her as saying, “we have to be careful not to lapse smugly and blindly into an essentialist ideological interpretation between man and woman.” I might need to read some of her work.

Deconstruction, of course, is one of those things that the ‘Anti-Woke’ love to complain about. It doesn’t help that it is not an easy concept to understand, and is often poorly explained by academics. One of the best explanations I have found is this essay by Catherine Turner on a legal website. She describes deconstruction as “an on-going process of questioning the accepted basis of meaning”. That makes it sound very like the scientific method, because no matter what current science accepts as true, a good scientist will always question that orthodoxy.

Of course this is anathema to authoritarians, because they love to roll out “fundamental truths” in support of their position of supremacy. This is very much true of organized religion.

Inevitably a book titled Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature also leans heavily on Queer Theory. That sometimes gives me pause for thought, because I’ve seen rather too many examples of people doing versions of, “I’m going to give a queer reading of this text because it will be fun and I want to, even though there is no other justification for it.” Thankfully, Driggers doesn’t go there. He also provides a rationale for something that has been puzzling me for a while.

Here in the UK we have a history of using “queer” as a synonym for the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA+ and variants thereof. But a US-based history group that I follow has recently had a massive internal fight over the use of “queer” as an umbrella term because, so many members say, it is trans-exclusive. Also there was a panel at the recent Nebulas Conference that specifically used “queer and trans” in the title. Driggers cites Cáel M Keegan as pointing out that Queer Theory has an “insistence on the instability and incoherence of sex and gender identity”. That in turn can lead to an insistence that gender identity is purely a choice, which is clearly at odds with the lived experience of many (though not all) trans people.

One final thing before I stop talking about theory and get back to the book. Having written an essay on queer gods for the most recent Academia Lunare publication, I was interested to see what Driggers made of gods in fantasy. As it turned out, he led me to a quote from The Left Hand of Darkness that I wish I had used in that essay because it perfectly encapsulates what I was trying to say:

If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion…

Le Guin, a genius as always.

But wait, I hear you say, The Left Hand of Darkness is science fiction, what is it doing in a book about fantasy? Well that depends on what you mean by fantasy. Driggers has a very expansive view of the term. His book focuses primarily on three texts, of which Le Guin’s is one. The other two are Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, which is also generally classed as science fiction, and ‘Til We Have Faces by C S Lewis.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about The Left Hand of Darkness in terms of what it has to say about gender. I have tended to forget that it has a lot to say about religion as well, and is infused with Le Guin’s fascination with Taoism. Driggers makes the point that it is the absence of a gender binary on Gethen that allows the Gethenians to develop a religion that is not patriarchal, or even obsessed with stereotyped gender roles, as so many Earthly religions are.

The Passion of New Eve is also fairly obviously about religion. The title makes that clear, and Mother’s transformation of Evelyn into Eve is very much intended to be the foundation of a new, feminist religion. The book certainly pokes away at essentialist ideas of gender that can underpin “goddess religion”, but Driggers seems unaware of the nascent ideas of transphobia within feminism at the time the book was written, which makes his analysis of the text less useful.

That leaves us with ‘Til We Have Faces, a book that I had largely ignored because Lewis is notoriously a Christian apologist and a misogynist. However, it is his last novel, and Driggers suggests that it has a far more interesting approach to religion than Lewis’s other works. Here are a couple of choice quotes:

She [Ungit] is a black stone, without head or hands or face.

…pigeons, which are specially sacred to Ungit.

Cybele, like many near-Eastern gods, was represented by a black stone rather than a statue. And doves were specially sacred to Ishtar. Lewis has clearly been reading up on Mesopotamian religion.

I was so impressed by Driggers’ description of ‘Til We Have Faces that I have bought a copy. Hopefully I’ll get time to read it soon.

So were does this leave us? Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature is a difficult read, but a rewarding one if you have the necessary academic background and an interest in the subject matter. I was very pleased with Driggers’ nuanced approach to the issues, and very much applaud his willingness to question doctrine and seek to create a Christianity that is less patriarchal and more welcoming to women, queers and minorities of all sorts.

As to the general thesis, fantastic fiction is absolutely a tool for asking “how might things be different?” and as such is ideal for the sort of theological thought experiments that Driggers’ champions. Because of this it is rather a shame that so much ‘religion’ in fantasy is nothing of the sort. Perhaps this is why Driggers had to pick his examples from the field of science fiction.

book cover
Title: Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature
By: Taylor Driggers
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
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