Manifestations of Medieval Religion in Robin Hobb’s Elderlings Corpus

I presented this paper at the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan (about which, see here and here). After some thought and consideration, and given the other work that I am doing, I figured I’d post it here in the hopes that it would be of some help to others–and a better bit of work than I posted at this time last week.

I have made some few updates to the text I presented then, but not many. They are made without further comment.

Robin Hobb is best known for her work detailing the Realm of the Elderlings, a fantastic world that partakes significantly of native North American ideas and cultures while still remaining sufficiently embedded in the tropes of mainstream fantasy literature to be easily recognizable and accessible to that genre’s readership.1 Spanning (as of this writing) sixteen novels and a number of short stories and novellas that have been coming into print since the mid-1990s, the narrative milieu of the Realm of the Elderlings has attracted a number of studies of more and less rigor, notably translation studies and investigations of how Hobb uses and subverts the tropes of mainstream fantasy literature.2

One such trope the Realm of the Elderlings does not appear to avoid is that of minimizing the presentation of organized religion–and of depicting it generally negatively when it is presented.3 The Six Duchies and Out Islands–major geographical regions in the narrative milieu–appear to lack such structures despite their clearly shared faith. So does the Mountain Kingdom that borders the Six Duchies to the west. Chalced, a south-neighboring small nation which appears mostly as a remote antagonist, has some, but it does not receive much attention. The Cursed Shores and Jamaillia, south of Chalced, ostensibly practice an organized worship of the Janus-like Sa, but it is not explored in much detail. The faith of the White Prophets, based far away from the rest, receives perhaps most development, although it is clearly framed as antagonistic across the main thrust of the corpus.

That the Realm of the Elderlings does not necessarily make much of organized religion does not mean there are no structures present to explicate, however. That the narrative milieu works from other cultures than the European medieval, broadly and often amorphously and anachronistically conceived, does not mean that it does not partake of influences from various conceptions of the European medieval. As such, there is something of medieval European religion to be found in the pages Robin Hobb writes, particularly in the Liveship Traders and Fitz and the Fool Trilogies. What that is, what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and how it functions will be the foci of this paper.

Presence of Organized Religion in the Realm of the Elderlings

That there is not much organized religion in the Realm of the Elderlings does not mean there is not much religion. The focal region of the narrative milieu (because events in it occupy nine of the sixteen novels and many of the ancillary works), the Kingdom of the Six Duchies, appears to practice an informal religion centered around the paired deities, Eda and El; the related Out Islands also venerate them. Eda is a feminine deity of settlement and earth; El is a masculine deity of wandering and motion. Both serve as figures to swear and to curse by, though it is remarked early on that El is not a deity to pray to, with dire consequences falling upon those who would do so.4 No formal cults are depicted as aligned to the deities in the novels, no priests or priestesses devoted to them minister to the faithful in the novels, but their reality appears to be broadly acknowledged in the Six Duchies and Out Islands, even if it is not necessarily dwelt upon.

The worship of Sa in Jamaillia and the Cursed Shores that begin the Liveship Traders novels as subject to it is more organized. It is an ecumenical religion, one that looks at all deities as aspects of the dual-natured Sa,5 even if there are competing faiths.6 The worship of Sa also fosters a sacral kingship7 centering on a monarch in a holy city,8 as well as fostering a formal priesthood that is clearly delineated into several degrees and distinct orders–as well as removed from daily, common, working life.9 Although a number of characters give only casual regard to the worship of Sa, there are many who are far more devout and organized, forming a sprawling church that is a dominant socializing and normalizing force in a large part of the Realm of the Elderlings.

Similarly, the religion of the White Prophets that comes to attention in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy that is, as of this writing, the in-milieu last portion of the Realm of the Elderlings novels, is centralized and organized. Initially mentioned as a sort of collection of prophecies, carefully monitored and interpreted,10 it later emerges as a despotic Illuminati-like manipulator of world events, selectively breeding and shaping those born with prophetic gifts.11 It holds some few lands directly, but it exerts substantial influence through the selective (and well compensated) revelation of divined truths,12 and its collective body–headed by four most elite Servants–works to enact the changes needed across generations to bring about a specific future, one in which humanity reigns supreme over the world in a might-makes-right order.13

Admittedly, the Realm of the Elderlings novels do not go into overly much detail on the religions or their structures. The focal protagonists are generally removed from them, even if they are or have been participants in those faiths (notably, one of the focal characters had been intended for the priesthood, only to be pulled away from it). But enough information does appear in Hobb’s work to allow for some analysis and interpretation of what the religions borrow from perceived medieval European religion, how they differ from such antecedents, and what significances accrue to the juxtapositions.

Correspondences to Perceived Medieval European Religion

Just as it is possible to read the nations and peoples of the Realm of the Elderlings as corresponding to Tolkienian medievalist tropes (if perhaps not most apt reading14), it is possible to read the organized religions depicted in the Realm of the Elderlings as corresponding to prevailing depictions of medievalist religion. Too, there are some comparisons to contemporary depictions of organized religion that might be made, which marks a welcome pivot away from the over-reliance on common understandings and misunderstandings that unfortunately pervade Tolkienian-tradition fantasy fiction.

On its initial introduction, the worship of Sa invokes tropes familiar to Judeo-Christian audiences and often associated with the medieval in popular conception. The formalized religion surrounding it appears first in interactions between one of the focal characters of the Liveship Traders novels, Wintrow Vestrit, and his teacher in a monastery–and it is explicitly called a monastery,15 linking it firmly to the medieval in popular conception even if there are many monasteries outside the medieval–where he has resided since being given over to the faith as the first-born son of his parents.16 The gift evokes Exodus 13:1-2, in which the chosen people are bidden give their first-born to God.17 So does the division of personnel at the monastery along gender lines; a figure mentioned but not depicted is one Mother Dellity,18 bringing nuns to mind and, with them, the medieval associations of the convent.

Further, Wintrow is introduced to the narrative while at work on a stained glass window,19 and stained glass is, as the April 2019 fire at Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral highlighted, strongly associated with the medieval. So, too, is the assertion that the priesthood of Sa should practice celibacy20–which was supposed to be a typifying feature of the Catholic priesthood that dominated medieval western European religious life, reaffirmed repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages.21 And so is the association of the priesthood of Sa with somewhat silly removal from “real” concerns22–which Oberman remarks is something of a commonplace in medieval satire,23 as the explanatory notes to the Canterbury Tales in the Riverside Chaucer also do repeatedly (notably in comments on the Monk, the Friar, the Pardoner),24 along with the Tales themselves throughout. Early on and repeatedly, then, Hobb offers in the worship of Sa a depiction of a religion that smacks of the medieval European in ways likely to be recognized by readers, and quickly.

The worship of the White Prophets takes a different tack. There is less an issue of centralized religious devotion than there is a veneration of a series of prophets and their prophecies. The serial aspect is emphasized; in-milieu commentary notes that “for ‘every age’ (and this space of time is never defined) there is born a White Prophet,”25 something confirmed by later comments in the same series of books.26 But even in that, the worship of the White Prophets works in a mode not unfamiliar to those focusing on the interplay of Abrahamic religions during the European Middle Ages. Judaism and Islam both recognize a succession of prophets; so does Christianity, though its specific iteration of a messianic figure deviates from that pattern. Even so, the succession of saints and the papacy, both of which purportedly extend and refine divine revelation, can be taken as an at-least similar pattern. Given the degree to which such ideas permeate what is known and believed about the European medieval, the mimicry of them in the worship of the White Prophets serves as another grounding medievalism in the Realm of the Elderlings novels.

Too, the center of that worship, Clerres, rings of medievalist depictions of capital cities. It is described at one point as “a very beautiful city on a bay on a large island named Kells in the old tongue,”27 and Kells is itself an invocation of the medieval through the famous illuminated manuscript. It is also framed in terms reminiscent of medieval descriptions of Mont-Saint-Michel, particularly in the emphasis on its fortifications and its accessibility principally via a tidal causeway.28 Medievalist depictions of cities typically attend to such details; casual glances at Tolkien’s Minas Tirith29 or Martin’s Eyrie30 point out the trajectory of the trope in medievalist fantasy, and it is often through such works (or treatments of them) that scholars enter into, and popular audiences understand, the medieval.31 Hobb giving such citing to a focal religious area, then, helps to ground the Realm of the Elderlings in the medieval yet further; seating a religion in a solidly medievalist locale cannot help but do so.

Divergences from Perceived Medieval European Religion

The most obvious differences to be found between the worship of Sa or the religion of the White Prophets and those religions in medieval Europe from which they can be read as borrowing are in their focuses of worship. It is not to be expected that a narrative world whose physics differs from that of its author and readers–as must be true of any narrative world that admits of magic–would venerate the same deities as are hailed in the surrounding existence. Quid Vestritibus cum Cristo might well be asked. Better questions, though, would look at other divergences from observed and understood commonplaces of religion.

The dominant impression of medieval European religion is that it early becomes monolithically monothestic; there may have been schisms and antipopes, but the body of faith was one, and it worshipped one god (if perhaps in three parts). The worship of Sa in the Realm of the Elderlings novels certainly admits of more diversity than its purported medieval European counterpart, looking at different religious traditions as being simply different methods of veneration of Sa rather than as pagan faiths that need to be converted or heresies that need to be eliminated. Additionally, the worship of Sa passes beyond Marianic devotions in incorporating femininity into its concept of the divine; Sa is repeatedly and explicitly noted as being both male and female, not merely masculine and feminine.32 And, perhaps most tellingly, the religion evokes Zoroastrianism, both in the aforementioned duality and in the back-formation of the name of its god. Sa has as a primary servitor the sacral ruler known as the Satrap. The title is one borrowed from the outside world and referring to a subordinate ruler, analogous to a provincial governor in a larger, often imperial, nation. It is also indelibly associated with the Middle East–and not so much the Islamic Middle East that looms large in concepts of the High Middle Ages as the earlier Middle East of the Persian Empire and its successors–where Zoroastrianism flourished before the advent of Christianity. As such, while there are points of correspondence to observed and perceived medieval European practices, because medieval Europe as commonly understood both popularly and by scholars borrows much from earlier ideologies, the worship of Sa as presented in Hobb’s novels is more unlike medieval Western Christianity than like it.

The religion that centers around the White Prophets offers a more nuanced take, as seems appropriate to its later in-text development. For one, it is not a theistic practice; it does not focus on the worship or veneration of a specific deity, but rather celebrates the unique abilities of a heritage that may be carried by anyone–or the public face of it is such. It is, in effect, a method of social control, even if it is able to deliver on many of its promises. The White Prophets are, in fact, prophets; they can divine the future, reliably, even if interpretation of their divinations is not always the easiest or most straightforward. But the prophecies they make available to petitioners–for fees that range in scope from the modest to the exorbitant and well beyond it–are not the core of their work. They are instead pieces bartered for support of their own, often abusive lifestyles,33 and for the organization’s work towards enacting one particular vision of the future it sees. And while it might be argued that such practice does align to medieval western European religious practice–the sale of indulgences criticized by Reformation theologians comes to mind as one example, the satire in Chaucer’s Pardoner another–the lack of organized and stratified observance, the lack of proselytizing, and the efficacy of practice that can only happen in a fantasy milieu all serve to make the religion centered around the White Prophets decidedly distinct from potential antecedents.

Functions of the Medievalist Religion

Ultimately, the depictions of formalized religion in the Realm of the Elderlings novels serves to critique organized religion, generally. Tolkienian-tradition fantasy literature has a fraught relationship with religious structures, generally, reflecting or responding to a perceived bias on the part of its assumed readership against such structures.34 As with much else, Hobb presents a more nuanced depiction in her works of groups more likely to be extolled–or, even more likely, condemned out of hand; she does not voice an outright condemnation of organized religion in the works, though she does not avoid pointing out the problems that inhere in such structures.

As noted earlier, Hobb does work to present ideas of religion in the Realm of the Elderlings novels that admit readerly access. The Realm of the Elderlings can be read as medievalist fantasy–with some substantial caveats, as has been attested.35 Presenting forms of religion that, while not lining up exactly with those present in the observed or understood medieval, still evoke them meaningfully helps readers to understand the narrative milieus in which the characters act and the plotlines of the novels develop. That is, doing so helps foster the “inner consistency of reality” long asserted as being necessary to successful fantasy fiction;36 the structures of faith present in the novels help the stories make more sense to readers (not least because they make religion a present concern, as many works in the Tolkienian fantasy tradition do not).

Similarly, the correspondences between the organized religions in the books and organized religions that inform much of Hobb’s putative readership allow for criticism of the latter to take place–while the separations prevent the critiques from becoming intrusive. Hobb is careful to depict many of the rank-and-file faithful, both laity and clergy, as being sincere in their beliefs and desire to serve. Wintrow Vestrit, for example, remains dedicated to his practice of aspiring priesthood even while imprisoned on his family’s ship or outright enslaved, even while serving under duress as part of a pirate crew;37 clearly, his faith is genuine, and, given its usual expression, it is admirable. It also stands in stark contrast to other practitioners, who countenance slavery and violence, and who otherwise enable iniquity–and who are often in positions of power in their organizations and the milieu more broadly.

The followers of the White Prophets are also, in the main, sincere petitioners for advice about how to live their lives as best they may–but there are many in the overall organization who are outright corrupt and decidedly malevolent, and they tend to be in positions of authority in the organization. Given the many scandals surrounding religious leadership in the years surrounding and following the novels’ publication, it is hard not to see a comment about the failings of organized religion in them. But it is also hard not to see that Hobb leaves an out for readers who feel their own faiths strongly; unlike many others, she does present some positive visions of religion and focuses no small portions of her narratives on religious figures. Indeed, the Fool, whose presence marks most of the Realm of the Elderlings novels, is a White Prophet, and it is hard to be more associated with a religion than to be one of its focal figures. Readers of faith can thus see themselves–and, perhaps, their aspirations–in the work. They are not excluded, as might be taken to be the case from other authors.

There is, of course, more to be done with the topic than can be presented in a conference paper. A more detailed examination of the novels and peripheral materials would doubtlessly provide more primary-source support and evidence of literary and other artistic parallels, while another review of such works as Mitchell and Melville’s 2013 edited collection38 and no few articles from Speculum would offer additional support. Further study of other religious practices at work in medieval Europe than those commonly associated with medievalist tropes would also seem to be warranted, particularly as concerns depictions of in-milieu disadvantaged populations and their correspondences with real-world counterparts and analogues. Entirely too little has been done in that vein, with putatively mainstream audiences focusing more on themselves and those like them than upon respectful examination and appreciation of difference, and it has allowed rhetorics of ignorant hate to flourish entirely too much. It falls to further work on this project, and on any project, to work against such things with all possible vigor; I can hope that refinements to the current paper will serve that end.

Notes

  1. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “Moving beyond Tolkien’s Medievalism: Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies,” in  Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, ed. Helen Young (Amherst, NY: Cambria P, 2015), 183-98.
  2. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “The Fedwren Project: A Robin Hobb Annotated Bibliography,” last modified 14 January 2020, https://elliottrwi.com/research/hobb-bibliography/.
  3. Geoffrey B. Elliott, “Unchurched: On the Relative Lack of Religion in Tolkienian-Tradition Fantasy Literature” (presentation, International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, 9 May 2014).
  4. Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice (New York: Bantam, 1996), 186-88.
  5. Robin Hobb, “Homecoming,” in Legends II: Shadows, Gods, and Demons, ed. Robert Silverberg (New York: Del Rey, 2004), 52.
  6. Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic (New York: Bantam, 1999), 394.
  7. Hobb, “Homecoming,” 10.
  8. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 82.
  9. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 11-19.
  10. Robin Hobb, Royal Assassin (New York: Bantam, 1997), 300-303.
  11. Robin Hobb, Fool’s Quest (New York: Del Rey, 2015), 85-87.
  12. Hobb, Fool’s Quest, 95.
  13. Robin Hobb, Fool’s Fate (New York: Bantam, 2004), 355.
  14. See note 1, above.
  15. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 13.
  16. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 175.
  17. Exod. 13: 1-2, RSV.
  18. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 13.
  19. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 11-12.
  20. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 158.
  21. Herbert Thurston, “Celibacy of the Clergy,” New Advent, last modified 2017, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03481a.htm.
  22. Hobb, Ship of Magic, 158.
  23. Heiko A. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought, trans. Paul L. Nyhus (Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., 2002), 7-8.
  24. Larry D. Benson et al., explanatory notes to The Canterbury Tales in the Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 795-1116.
  25. Robin Hobb, Golden Fool (New York: Bantam, 2003), 460-461.
  26. Hobb, Fool’s Fate, 354-355.
  27. Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Fate (New York: Del Rey, 2017), 113.
  28. Hobb, Assassin’s Fate, 113.
  29. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine, 1983), 24-25.
  30. George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam, 1996), 367-368.
  31. Paul B. Sturtevant, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalism (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018).
  32. Indeed, gender identity and expression is something of a recurring theme in Hobb’s writing, not only the Realm of the Elderlings works, but also the Soldier Son trilogy.
  33. Hobb, Fool’s Quest, 87.
  34. See note 3, above.
  35. See note 1, above.
  36. J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), 33-99.
  37. Wintrow’s experience can also be read as partaking of, though not necessarily corresponding to, the many religious works that focus on carceral experiences. The articles in HLQ 72, no. 2 (June 2009) collectively offer a useful introduction.
  38. Lynette Mitchell and Charles Melville, eds., Every Inch a King: Comparative Studies on Kingship in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Boston: Brill, 2013).

I was bound for Kalamazoo once again; help me defray the costs that remain?

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