fiction as religious text, part I
This is a little different than what I usually post about, but fandom is also important to me and is something I kept meaning to write about and never getting around to. Well, here you are.
standard disclaimer: whether this or that holy text is true is not relevant to the topic of this post; frankly, I don’t know and that doesn’t really bother me. I know this can be a sensitive topic but please just try to roll with the idea.
For a long time, I’ve had this theory that modern day fiction and fandom communities serve basically the same emotional need as traditional organized religion.* I’ve never, as far as I remember, committed this idea to paper (or w/e), but I have given it considerable thought.
There are two essential components to this theory, which I’m going to divide into “narrative” and “community.”
First, narrative. This is the texts themselves. The stories that usually serve this purpose are most likely epic tales of world saving adventure and true deep love and completely fucking awesome badassery: think Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Final Fantasy – think big. (I’m not sure if smaller, more personal slice-of-life style stories could fill the same role. I’m inclined to think not, but I’d consider the possibility.)
The stories themselves are exciting and fun, and offer an escape from daily life. Even those of you who think I am full of shit can probably agree with me on this point. They allow us access to better worlds, whether it’s because people can use magic or alchemy or the landscape is just prettier or there’s no *isms, we can go to Hogwarts or Middle-earth and it’s way better than our boring, normal and also sometimes difficult lives. Which is – again, harping on the psychological not spiritual thing – kinda like the idea of heaven.
The characters are also a crucial part of this theory. No, I will never be Olivier Armstrong, nor will I ever reach her levels of epic badasery in my real life. In fact, my real life is pretty boring sometimes (and certainly never as interesting as hers) and I’m actually a very shy, anxious person – but when I’m nervous, I can think of her and get some second hand badassery even if all I’m doing is giving a speech in class or calling someone out for being a douchebag.
I think the reason the story needs to be so larger than life in this scenario is so that the characters have room to be completely fucking ridiculously amazing without breaking our suspension of disbelief. It’s reassuring and validating to see stories about people like ourselves doing things like we do in a life we can recognized and identify with as similar to our own, but I don’t think those stories can inspire the same kind of devotion that epics get. (This is skipping ahead a little, but most of the stories I can think of with fucking ginormous fandoms are save the world stories.)
I think these characters fill basically the same emotional need as the saints or god/ess/es. Most of us will never be saints because most of us probably work pretty hard to avoid being thrown to the lions or whatever, but we can still admire their bravery and conviction and try to emulate them in our own mundane lives. Obviously, taking a big test is not the same as being fed to giant carnivores for other people’s entertainment, but these stories are larger than (real) life, and in our small lives, our trials are difficult and frightening for us as we live through them – and when we’re upset or afraid, we can recall those larger than life heros and say “you know what, self? Eowyn killed the goddamn Witch King you can take a stupid test” or “c’mon, Hermione would stand up for what’s right and tell that person they’re being a complete asshole about this” or whatever.
The second component is the fandom, which I think is roughly equivalent to the church community.
Think about it. Fandom is a place where people get together to express their mutual adoration of a given text. The characters and stories have special meaning in the lives of fans. (I’m not saying all fans or even most fans ascribe this level of meaning to their fandoms, but if you like a text enough to be a member of it’s fandom, you clearly enjoy it more than the average reader/viewer/consumer.) Like a religious community, there will probably be intense scrutiny of the text and it’s possible meanings and, in more-or-less the same way religious groups splinter and fight over dogma, fandom breaks off into little groups and argues about whose ‘ship is more canon, whether or not balrogs have wings and how far it is possible to apparate; goddamnit, there’s even the “my version is better” no “my version is better”-type wank in Fullmetal Alchemist fandom as there is in the various editions of the Bible and which texts are/are not apocryphal. (Yes, I just said that; same kind, vastly different degree.)
The most important thing about the community is the community. Here is a place where people speak a common language, if you will; they are moved by the same text you are moved by, they care about the same thing you care about – and they care more than most people. There are plenty of Christian-identifying people who don’t attend church, and then there are those who are there every Sunday, rain or shine. Likewise, lots of people read Harry Potter but only a fraction of those people showed up for the midnight release parties. Among those devoted enough to put on a wizard robe and hat (/shot) there is a sense of belonging that, I imagine, is roughly similar to being a member of a devout religious group.
(This is all guesswork, however, because I have never been a member of an organized religion that I did not invent for the hell of it.) Fans go on pilgrimages to places associated with their texts, whether with the story itself (e.g., the bench Will & Lyra meet on every summer) or it’s creators (e.g., the grave where Tolkien and his wife are buried); basically, they go to places made special (read: holy, in a religious context) by the connection.
If you think I’m full of shit, I don’t blame you, but I would like to point out that this person did actual research and reached roughly the same conclusions about the Twilight fandom as I have drawn here to fandoms in general in her article, The Religion of Twilight. In fact, there is an entire book about it.
I actually have moar thoughts on this topic, but they will have to wait for a separate post.