Sainthood in fantasy

Neat post by Jessica McAdams at The high costs of fantasy sainthood

The defining feature of fantasy is the reality of the supernatural within the narrative—whether the supernatural element in a given story involves magic or gods or some other force-yet-to-be-defined. Yet in my favorite fantasy books, what fascinates me isn’t the magic, and it isn’t the gods. It’s the characters that I think of as the saints, not in the strictly religious or Christian sense, but those who dedicate themselves fully to a higher power—those crazy-dedicated, all-in, vision-haunted warriors and children and priests.

More than that, it’s the costliness of fantasy sainthood. In the most moving fantasies, those who choose to follow their god or goddess or magical deity end up paying a price for it. Sainthood doesn’t come free.

Yet even though the risk of losing everything is clear, these books also make it plain to the protagonist that this is only path truly worth taking. Sure, you might lose everything, but this is still the way to beauty and glory. The only thing to do is to put your life—your very self—on the line. Not that it’s the only sensible thing to do—it’s not sensible at all. Just that it’s the only thing there is to do—at least for someone like the protagonist, who has seen something of the divine, and now can never unsee it. Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else will even come close.

I don’t know that I would conflate magic with the supernatural; I believe those two terms refer to quite distinctive phenomena. But leaving that aside, this is a good point. And McAdams provides great examples:

The Curse of Chalion, and obviously the Penric novellas absolutely qualify as well.

The King of Attolia, not such a perfect choice, but certainly arguable — click through and see what McAdams sees as the heart of the story. I’m not sure I agree, but maybe. I’ll have to think about it.

The Deed of Paksennarion. Yes indeed, another perfect choice.

Bright Smoke Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge. This one I haven’t read. McAdams says:

Hodge’s world of Viyara is a bit different from the previous examples in that it might or might not have gods—the various groups of people still alive in the story’s one surviving post-apocalyptic city disagree on the subject of the gods’ reality.Our protagonist, Runajo, doesn’t believe in the gods, but she does believe in the power of blood, and of death, and of sacrifice. She has good reason for her beliefs, too: her city only survives because of the magic wall that surrounds it—a wall that is kept alive through the blood sacrifices of its people.

Hmm. I wonder how that unrolls — I mean, specifically, beyond the rest of McAdam’s comments. Right now I have a hard time seeing how this book qualifies for the list, as I would consider gods, or God, to be fundamental in sainthood.

Last, another one I haven’t read:

The Year of the Warrior by Lars Walker.

Though Walker’s book is the only one on this list that ostensibly takes place in the real world, it’s a story about a false priest. Aillil is an Irishman taken captive in a raid. To save his skin, he pretends to be a holy father. He lives out the rest of the book in a land far away from his home, carrying out his charade as best he can in a world that suddenly seems charged with the supernatural—for both good and ill.

Aillil is probably the least likable protagonist on this list—he’s certainly the least noble. He is a vice-ridden man, and even though some of the causes of his suffering aren’t his fault, a lot of them are. Yet even though he’s mostly comfortable in his sins, he isn’t allowed to stay the way he is—as he discovers the reality of the supernatural after his capture, his false profession of faith becomes terribly real, and the need for him to be a real priest in a land filled with demons and worse becomes terribly urgent.


I will add one more, that gets into this list although the sainthood part is not yet available:

Hild, by Nicola Griffith, a wonderful book about the woman who will eventually become Saint Hilda. Wonderful book, just wonderful; my favorite book of the year the year I read it, which was, let me see, 2015. Just a masterpiece. From Griffith’s blog, I note this tidbit from a recent post:

But my main focus of 2019 will be to finish Menewood, that is, the sequel to Hild. This is one of the biggest, most challenging and thrilling things I’ve ever tackled (I have to keep a spreadsheet of characters; as of yesterday, there are over 200 names). Right now it’s going well.


Any other saints or saint-like figures you can think of in SFF?

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6 thoughts on “Sainthood in fantasy”

  1. The first books I thought of when I read about the “costliness” of sainthood were Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats books. Especially after one of the greatcoats (Kest) becomes the Saint of Swords. We see him suffer from saint fever. We see his need to fight the second best sword fighter.

    Her description of sainthood in The Curse of Chalion, where you’re given a god’s directive and your only choice is take it or leave it, reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s book Lady Knight. Kel is given a mission by the Chamber of the Ordeal. The Chamber gives her nightmares until she is able to accomplish her mission.

  2. I actually thought she totally misread Chalion’s form of sainhood. Caz hasn’t a clue that he’s fulfilling divine will until the end. Then he has to make an informed choice, but before that, he was just trying to make choices he could live with. It’s not at all like Jo’s description of what happens with Pierce’s character Kel.

    I don’t remember enough of the second book – I seem to be in a minority in disliking Ista (she whines too much) – to say if it worked that way for her, too.

    Harking back some years, there’s always our Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, pouring themselves out on the trek to Orodruin.

    Never ‘got’ Paks, although I did read it.

    I know I’ve read something recently where a character hit me that way, but the title is refusing to come out of hiding.

  3. I immediately thought of Alanna from the Tortall books – she’s quite devoted to her goddess.

    Similarly, Phedre in the Kushiel series, who’s the chosen one of a particular god, and to some extent her Cassiline as well.

    While we’re at it, how about the protagonist from Small Gods (Pratchett)? I forget his name but he’s the sole remaining true believer keeping his god alive (everyone else believes in the secular organization running the religion, but not the god himself).

  4. T Kingfishers Clockwork Boys duology has a fallen paladin as one of the protagonists with a lot of angst and thought about gods and their actions through human tools and the costs. It’s also a cracking good read, and a lot of fun – the paladin is sent out on an impossible mission with the other protagonist – a forger; and an assassin, a scholar and a gnole (you’ll have to read the book to find out about gnoles!)

  5. I’ve loved everything I’ve read so far by T Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon. I really need to read more of her work. Clockwork Boys sounds like a fun take on the standard old-fashioned D&D adverturing party.

  6. Since the person at Tor specified not particularly religious saints… Practchett’s witches count. They dedicate themselves to serving others

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