Mediums, Psychics and other Fantasy Creatures

Recently I’ve been buying and reading some of the books in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, and have read ‘A Study in Sable,’ which features Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson (& Mrs. Watson) as characters. But what the book also features is Sarah Lyon-White, a medium, and Nan Killian, a psychic.

The disturbing part is that in the real world when we encounter someone who is labelled a medium or a psychic, we are encountering a con artist. Some of the ‘information’ provided by these con artists is the result of secret research— they know Mrs. Smith’s only son recently died, or that Mr. Terry has certain financial woes. Other information comes from the process of ‘cold reading.’ The psychic/medium guesses, ‘I see an older male spirit who wishes to speak to you,’ and they can tell by the subject’s reaction whether that’s what they are looking for. If the cold reader guesses wrong, he’ll say ‘No, not a older male, it’s a female.’ The subjects tend to forget the wrong initial guesses and say ‘that psychic was so great, she knew is was my great-aunt Felicity I wanted to contact and that she was an embalmer and had four children and a pet orangutan.’ Even though the cold reader guessed wrong two dozen times to come up with that info.

The medium character is used to place tired old Spiritualist ideas into the story, like the idea that ghosts surround us and can communicate, using the proper medium, that some of the dead stay because they don’t know they are dead or that they fear the ‘false’ idea of hellfire, and that other disembodied spirits have unfinished business like hidden finances they want to tell their widow about or solving their own murders.

These Spiritualist ideas are not backed by any scientific research. They also go against what Judaism and Christianity have taught about what comes after death. The problem with embedding these ideas in fantasy fiction is that some readers think that the author is endorsing the real-world Spiritualist viewpoint as true.

The medium and psychic characters are also referred to as having ‘gifts’— clairvoyance and telepathy, respectively. There is nothing in Judeo-Christian teaching which says having clairvoyance and telepathy are sins, but there is nothing in the Bible or in the Church Fathers to indicate that clairvoyance or telepathy were even known to the Biblical authors or the Fathers. And science has examined the ideas of telepathy and clairvoyance and not had any great success in finding people with these gifts.

‘A Study in Sable’ and books like it bring with it a moral problem. If some readers might be led astray into accepting mediums and psychics as real, we can’t honestly recommend the books to others. We probably shouldn’t be reading books like this too often even if we DO know better. Both from a scientific and a Judeo-Christian perspective, this book and those like it present a problem.

Now, I have been reading Mercedes Lackey books obsessively for years and I just presumed that Lackey was a neopagan or Wiccan  of some flavor, and had a low opinion of Christians that might be termed ‘hate’ if Christian-hate were considered bad like antisemitism and Muslim-hate are. But I have heard from a Christian writer that she met Mrs Lackey at a writing conference and that she says she is a Christian. Given the viewpoints in her books, however, one can’t term them ‘Christian fiction’ in any sense, and I don’t know if Mrs Lackey goes to a church that teaches historic Christianity or a ‘post-Christian’ church like the Presbyterian denomination I grew up in, the PC-USA (which is ‘post-Christian’ because it no longer requires members or clergy to believe/teach anything specific about Jesus Christ, like He is part of the Holy Trinity and the Son of God.)

I still enjoy reading Mercedes Lackey books in spite of content concerns, but I do not recommend them to teenagers, people in their twenties, or Christians who have not learned their catechism yet. You need a bunch of knowledge and discernment under your belt first, if you don’t want to be led astray.

 

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Is That Dragon Really Necessary?

One problem writers sometimes have is when they toss in a story element— such as a dragon in fantasy fiction— that isn’t really integrated with the rest of the story. It’s just something the writer happens to like in fiction, so he throws it in.

But story elements— whether dragons or robots or foreign spies— can’t just stand around looking genre-specific. They must be a part of the story. A dragon may be part of a hero’s quest— he might have to slay the dragon, or trick the dragon, or get the dragon to fall in love with his pet donkey (Shrek reference.)

Sometimes dragons are more than an obstacle for a hero. Think of the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, or the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, or the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and son— in all of these, dragons are central to the story. Without dragons, you couldn’t have these stories. Or, at least, they would be utterly different stories.

By now I’m sure I have some writers saying ‘that blogger wants me to take the dragon out and I won’t! I won’t.’ Well, you don’t have to. You just have to know how the dragon fits in to your story and your story’s world.

In some fantasy novels, facing a dragon can be part of a quest. The reader may go through chapters of the quest without knowing for sure there is a dragon in the book— authors don’t have to mention ‘here be dragons’ when they start a fantasy novel in a fantasy world. Now, if the dragon is in contemporary Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’d want to know why. Or if the dragon is a Packers fan. Or something.

Dragons can be central to some stories, as in the three series I mentioned above. Think of these stories as an endless ‘what if’ game. If they had dragons in the Napoleonic wars, how would the dragons be raised? How would they be trained? How would a nation have enough meat to feed hungry war dragons? And so on. Answering all the dragon-questions is almost like a game between author and reader.

Fictional dragons can come in many sorts. The dragons in the Dragon Jouster series are animals, and so cannot speak. Dragons in the Temeraire and Pern series do speak— the Pern dragons telepathically, the Temeraire dragons verbally. The dragons can have different abilities, be different colors, and be at different intelligence levels.

Christian fiction can have a problem with dragons. I have read that some Christians— both Evangelical and Catholic— look on a dragon as a symbol of evil as in the Biblical book of Revelation. But if that is a restriction on a Christian’s ability to write non-evil dragons, then what about writing about nice goats (as in Heidi?) The Bible does speak of the sin goat and separating the sheep from the goats. As a person who has kept actual sheep and actual goats, yeah, sometimes the goats are more ‘sinful,’ or harder to handle. But sheep can be that way, too. And I’ve never heard yet that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden means that a Christian author can’t write a character whose son has a pet snake. So, even though I am a Christian I feel perfectly free to include nice dragons, goats or snakes in a story.

I love dragons. I love stories with dragons. But if the dragon in your fiction doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story, you may have to make a choice— either lose the dragon, or change the story so the dragon bit of it fits in better with the rest. You are the author— it’s up to you to decide how that will happen.  Happy dragoning!

The Death Eaters were Right about Purebloods

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the bad guys prefer ‘pureblood’ wizarding families to half-blood or Muggle born wizards. And that makes them bad and prejudiced, according to the book’s author. But the plain fact is, the Death Eaters were right. Pureblood wizarding families ARE better.

Wizarding ability is inherited through the genes, and there is no clue in the series that the essential wizarding genes behave differently from other genes. When a wizard marries a ‘witch,’ the offspring can inherit magic from both sides. When he marries a Muggle (non-magical person), the children can only get magic from the one parent.

It is possible for a wizard to be born from Muggle parents, but that is very rare. One may assume, though, that in half-blood marriages between wizard and Muggle, there are a lot of non-Magical children born.

Wizards don’t want to die out. It’s clear that if most or all wizards reject the ‘pureblood’ prejudice and marry Muggles freely, the number of wizard-gifted children born grows smaller and smaller, and the Wizarding world might well shrink.

The prejudice against Muggle-born wizards may have its basis in facts. Do Muggle-born wizards have as many wizarding genes as the average pureblood wizard? Probably not! They are lucky to have any wizarding gift at all! They are a needful addition to the possibly-shrinking wizarding world, but they are more likely to have squib children.

Of course, these days wizards can figure out which genes are connected to wizarding, and figure out who has which genes. A marriage to a Muggle who has some wizarding genes isn’t as bad as one to a Muggle with no wizarding genes. And a pair of pureblood wizards might have very different wizarding genes and not be able to pass on the traits well, while a different pair might be destined to produce strongly gifted children.

“There is no Such Thing as the One True Way”

In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, the land seems to have a law or motto: ‘There is no such thing as the one true way.’ This is popular enough— I would imagine the typical neopagan reader interprets it as a hit against those hateful and hated Christians— but does it make any sense?

As a general rule, the motto, as it asserts that either there is no such thing as truth, or that it is unbearably rude to stand up for the truth when someone might have a contrary opinion, kills off any hope of scientific advancement or rational discussion.

Imagine the situation when someone who believes in a flat Earth (or Velgarth) meets someone who believes— or has personally observed— the roundness of Earth or Velgarth. Because ‘there is no such thing as the one true way’ neither can enlighten the other without breaking the law.

In our world, there are people who believe that autism is often caused by modern vaccines, and others who believe modern vaccines never cause autism. As a sensible person I believe the ‘cure’ for that is more research, and better reporting of adverse effects of vaccines. But according to the Valdemar rule, both sides of the vaccine issue have to keep silent because ‘there is no such thing as the one true way.’ Or a true answer to a dispute that could be solved with scientific research.

It’s obvious, though, that the Valdemar rule is aimed specifically at religions, or perhaps only at theistic religions. No religious group is allowed to claim that their religion might be true. What effect would that have on religions in the real world? Could a religious group pass on its faith to the next generation if they were banned from talking about truth or reality? Wouldn’t all religions tend to die out under such a law?

And the kingdom of Valdemar makes a lot of use of religions in order to provide social services at low or no cost to the state. In Haven, the capital, the schools not only have the task of educating the children, even poor ones, but they distribute state-provided free food to hungry poor children. A religious order was also used to wall up a woman who wanted a Valdemar Herald punished for killing her son. That story did not mention whether the sisters were to be paid for turning their convent into a jail.

But there is one religion that would be very comfortable with religions without truth. Not any ancient kind of paganism— they also thought their religions had truth on their side— but modern neopaganism.

Having actually been a neopagan and having read a lot of books about it, I know that there were a lot of people who embraced neopaganism and even started neopagan religions or Wiccan traditions who stated openly they didn’t believe it was true. They talked about neopaganism’s aesthetic value instead— in other words, it was a pretty lie. Some early neopagan leaders made claims about having a family tradition of neopaganism or Wicca, and later admitted that wasn’t true. They just said it to get attention and followers, and because others were saying similar things at the time.

How well does this non-true neopaganism work out in real life? Well, they sell ‘magick’ books. But have you ever seen a Wiccan or other neopagan temple being built in your town? They can’t gather enough people together to collect money to create a physical presence anywhere. And if they do manage to create one, will their groups last as long as a local Presbyterian church will last? Do neopagans who don’t believe their religion is actually true have the willingness to work and sacrifice and donate and attend services to make their non-true religion a reality in the world? Why would they care?

“There is no such thing as the one true way” may sound cool and anti-Christian to modern ears, but in the fantasy kingdom of Valdemar, it’s an expression of tyranny. If religions can’t speak about their faith’s claim to truth, and can’t transmit any evidence for that truth to their future generations, religions will die out. And Valdemar seems to depend on being able to use-and-abuse religions for the state’s needs.

Which is probably why the tyrannical law came into being. I would imagine that Valdemar looks the other way when priests or lay person surreptitiously whisper to children and new converts the evidence for their faith. If someone starts preaching it on the street corners— as the early Christians did at Pentecost— they will be punished, if only to keep the religions scared and obedient to the state. But I believe that the government of Valdemar is glad that the majority of their people don’t really believe ‘there is no such thing as the one true way.’

Valdemar: Fantasy Fic with Big Govt Programs

I’ve been reading Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series for years, but some things about the series rub me the wrong way. Valdemar is a fantasy series set in a medievalish kingdom with magic horses called Companions. As a medievalish society it should be…. not progressive, socialist, or other modern things. And yet, it is.

In the novel Take A Thief, which tells the early history of the character Skif, it is told that the Crown has decreed that the school kids in the capital Haven get a free meal at government expense. It isn’t mentioned that the free meal is limited to the poor by any test of means. But it is mentioned that children who get through the mandated elementary education have to leave school and thus miss the free meal.

Another question is the education itself. In various Valdemar books it claims that Valdemar mandates elementary education for children though it seems that since the education is carried out by the various religions that perhaps Valdemar is requiring the religions to fund the schools rather than spending its own taxpayer funds on it.

The question arises: how does a medievalish fantasy world even come up with the idea of such big government programs? In the real world they didn’t come along until later. In part because medieval central governments were weak and the local lords had more power over the everyday life of their people.

The free meal program might have been a part of the normal charity programs of a medieval society, but only if it was confined to the poor. They hadn’t invented the concept of handouts for all classes of people yet. Even in our country the idea of a free summertime school lunch for all income levels (yes, that is a government program) is controversial.

And then there is the idea of education for all. In the medieval societies, most occupations didn’t require education or literacy. It seems a silly burden to impose on children who will grow up to be farmhands or carpenter’s assistants or street sweepers. Now, if Valdemar had a state religion, there might be a call for universal religious training, which might, like the first Sunday Schools, include reading and arithmetic training. But Valdemar decrees ‘No One True Way’ and that seems to mean that its religious picture is one of dozens of varieties of polytheistic paganism.

Now, the reason medieval societies didn’t have the full list of big government programs is that they cost the central government more money than it could raise by taxation. Medieval people, like people today, didn’t like high taxes. Why risk a tax revolt to fund social programs when the Crown had more immediate needs like funding an army for when wars happened? Or for when subordinate provinces rebelled and needed to be reconquered— perhaps because of a revolt against high taxes?

Of course the real reason fantasy worlds like Valdemar have anacronistic Big Government programs is that there are fantasy readers and writers who are Progressives/Socialists/Leftists who love these programs so much (because they never had to live on them) that they put them in to their fantasies whether they make sense or not. And that’s OK. But I’d like a fantasy world with less government and more freedom, personally.