By unintended circumstance (or perhaps providence), the recent series I launched concerning “Magic in Fantasy” gives me the opportunity to talk about the latest book I’ve published, because it–Dawn Before the Dark–demonstrates how important in fact I find artistic freedom and how I as a publisher balanced artistic freedom with a goal of honoring God in fiction. Because Dawn Before the Dark attributes magic to multiple gods, or seems to–to two female goddesses and a single male god, something I’m normally leery of.
Wendy Blanton pitched the idea of her novel to me at the Realm Makers conference in 2018. The core idea of her story world is based on a division by gender, so that men have the capacity to perform magical spells but are by nature of being male are afraid of dragons. Whereas women are capable of riding dragons, but are unable to perform the vast majority of magical spells.
This novel is in the genre of epic fantasy, a genre I’ve generally enjoyed, even though at heart I prefer science fiction. But there’s a great deal of epic fantasy, whether by Christian authors or not, that seems to rehash the struggle between good and evil in much the same way Tolkein did. So on the one side a typical story will have some sort of dark lord, very often literally inhuman, with an army composed of creatures of darkness, versus an army of good creatures and heroic figures. (Note dragons are often-but-not-always put in the category of being good creatures in this sort of fantasy.) I’m not interested in publishing a story that has no original ideas or distinctive voice, so a significant chunk of epic fantasy I wouldn’t want to publish, even if the struggle between good and evil draws my attention.
Dawn Before the Dark winds up highlighting gender relations as a key element in the story. Male and female are at odds with one another due to an ancient curse–in fact, due to two ancient curses. I’ll say more about these curses down below, but I would say the real world we live in every day features a set of curses that profoundly affect gender relations–the curses God placed on Adam and Eve at the end of Genesis chapter 3 as a result of human sin. In particular note God speaking to Eve in Genesis 3:16 (NKJV): “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” A rather straightforward reading of this text indicates male dominance in many aspects of our world, to include all forms of patriarchy, is a result of this curse.
Some commentators have from ancient times suggested that God’s original purpose for women was always that they be subordinate to men–yet the Bible actually says this is the result of a curse. In other words, it was not God’s original plan. Though of course many, including Calvinists, will not be pleased that I’m suggesting God changed his plans in any way due to human actions–yet that’s what the text seems to say, read in a straightforward manner. And since this condition of male dominance is the result of a curse, we can be sure that curse will be undone in heaven, because we will see only blessings there. In our eternal future in God’s presence, true gender equality will certainly exist.
By presenting curses that in some ways are analogous to the curses in Genesis 3 in Dawn Before the Dark, the story is able to show how many people become entrenched in the world of the curse by culture, so that even when presented with an opportunity to see the curse undone, some people don’t want to see that happen. Because crossing well-established gender lines goes outside their personal comfort zone.
The story is not preachy about this idea–the concept is simply woven into the entire structure of the story world. Dawn Before the Dark doesn’t specifically command the reader how to react to this situation, yet it’s evident there are real advantages to having a single person embrace capacities that have traditionally belonged to women versus those that have belonged to men. That is, the ability to combine the use of magic with the capability of riding a dragon in a single person.
This gender cross-over centers on a seventeen year-old male named Briant, who happens to love dragons from the first moment he sees one. Vask, an ancient dragon who became separated from the community of dragons and dragon riders upon the death of his last rider (dragons take the death of their riders very hard), returns from isolation in the wilderness to discover Briant–and insists that Briant should become his rider. (Vask by the way is a very interesting character in this story–my personal favorite among all the characters Wendy wrote.)
When I became aware of Briant’s role in combining the capacities of both male and female, I was concerned as a publisher that the story might imply that he is transgender or androgynous somehow. But the in-story explanation for Briant is based on an ancient prophecy of someone who would be “wholly dragonborn” (or “the Dragonborn”). The issue of male protagonist’s masculinity is left a tiny bit open because his ability to practice magic is less than other men–something that causes him embarrassment, which is a common enough male experience (feeling embarrassed that you may not be as masculine as other men is a common male feeling). Yet the story states that men born before the curse were inherently different from men born after the curse and Briant simply seems to be a man without any curse on him.
Note this story also features a strong female protagonist–Tanwen, the female dragon rider who is thrust into a position of leadership by the aging “Council Liaison” and who to a large degree is responsible for what happens to Briant. Tanwen winds up being a leader both in combat and non-combat situations. She is also the mother of a teenage daughter, Aithne, who is in training to become a dragon rider herself (or a “Wybren” in in-story terminology), who becomes Briant’s dragon riding instructor and potential love interest.
As an editor, I think my most important contribution to this novel was to get Wendy to think out her story world and how things work in it. My questions about how things operate in her universe affected the magic system to a degree and contributed to the villains of the story being more interesting than they otherwise would be (the villains in this first book center around a necromancer who raises an army of the undead–which is pretty cool). But the book started out with core ideas that were strong, that were interesting, that in particular apply to the real-world question of whether or not it’s a bad thing for women to take jobs in the military that include combat duty (clearly the story implies that’s a good thing as long as women are capable of doing so).
Drawn to the interesting ideas that under-gird this story, its strong characters, and writing that started out good and became even better, it might seem to some people that shouldn’t have had any concerns about publishing this story at all. I did though, based on the mythology behind how the curse between men and women came about in story terms. Please allow me to quote from Dawn Before the Dark:
Arwyne leaned forward a little. ‘Children, hear the story of your past. In the beginning, our world was barren and lifeless. Cruthadair, Mother Creator, cast her eye about the stars. She saw our world and formed it into a life-giving planet, filled with food and comfort and love. In those days, everyone used magic to perform simple chores and healing.
‘For generations, people lived in peace. The first ones taught their children about Cruthadair’s love. Each generation talked less about Cruthadair and more about her children: Brigid, goddess of hearth and home; Maccha, her bloodthirsty sister, who eats the flesh of her slain enemies and dominates her lovers through cunning and guile; and their brother, Laoch, god of warriors, heroes, and champions.
The story begins with a single Creator, one that is analogous to the Lord God of Genesis, even though Cruthadair is female. Yet Wendy’s story as it originally stood claimed that this original deity produced three other deities who are gods in their own right. The curse the story centers on a recklessly ambitious king who rapes a woman, who calls on the goddess Maccha to curse all men–a curse that the god Laoch responds to by cursing all women, to which Brigid responds by restoring the power of healing to women. So the curse relates to a conflict among the gods, something I don’t find compatible with a Christian worldview.
But I discussed my concerns with Wendy and we’ve agreed on a future arc for this story world as it continues into a trilogy. As already mentioned, in this first book the curse will be presented as part of a conflict among the three gods, gods who over time replaced the original Creator. Yet characters will in effect re-discover the Creator as the books go along, and the three gods will be shown to fail to measure up to full deity in various ways (e.g. Brigid is really an archangel and not actually a goddess and would refuse to be worshiped in person). Magic, which seems to come from other sources, will ultimately be shown to have come from Cruthadair, whose rise in prominence will correspond with the gender-based curses of the past becoming less and less important to the story world.
So while this book series Wendy has created from the beginning qualifies as clean fiction, free from the sort of graphic content that often concerns parents, its mythology and world view begin from a perspective that I’d have to say isn’t actually Christian. Yet over time, the plan is that the story over the arc of the trilogy will increasingly point towards the importance of the single Creator, strip the apparent authority of the other deities, and will point out that the power that makes the beautiful universe function ultimately derives from the Creator of all. And during this first book itself, one of the characters will seek out Cruthadair in prayer at a moment of crisis, even though no one else in the culture does so…and the story lets that moment come and go, without any blatantly obvious response (the prayer is answered, but the character doesn’t stop to reflect that it was). Because this first book doesn’t drop a pile of Christian meaning into the story “just because.” Dawn Before the Dark first and foremost is a story, an interesting one.
Perhaps even someone into (a) modern Neo-Pagan religion(s) would pick up Dawn Before the Dark and read it. And like the story well enough to keep reading through the trilogy, in spite of the story changing its core mythology over time towards worship of one God. I pray that it works that way, anyway.
So I hope this discussion of Dawn Before the Dark draws your attention and perhaps you might even check the book out on the Bear Publications website, which includes links to purchase it if you are so inclined (if you’d like to join the Facebook reader’s group for this book, “Coffee with Dragons,” I’ve also linked that). But I also hope this story will show that seeking to honor God in how we describe magic in a fantasy context does not necessarily yield simple answers. Avoidance of certain issues and steering a story in the direction of God may be very subtle at times–yet I still think Christian authors and publishers of fantasy are obliged to find realistic ways to honor God, means that are natural to and compatible with good storytelling.
What are your thoughts about what I’ve mentioned about Dawn Before the Dark? Or the topic of magic in fantasy as it relates to stories that subtly undermine a Pagan worldview? What examples would you give of fantasy stories that subtly pointed in the direction of the power of God, even though it might not seem that they did so at first glance? Please add your thoughts to the comments below.