Novel Theophany: Megan Whalen Turner’s Fictional Pantheon
About ten years ago, I encountered The Thief, the first volume in Megan Whalen Turner’s young adult fantasy series about the neighboring countries of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia (thus far comprised of The Thief, which won a Newbery Honor in 1997; The Queen of Attolia; The King of Attolia; and A Conspiracy of Kings, just published this past spring). The novel struck me at the time because of the author’s skill in withholding information from the reader while using a first-person narrator (not an entirely unreliable narrator, just one who doesn’t reveal things until the right moment). Authorial sleight-of-hand is one of Turner’s most notable characteristics, but so is the interweaving of myths that bear some resemblance to those of ancient Greece but have their own twists as well. Similarly—and this is the aspect I find most fascinating in the Attolia series—Turner includes a pantheon of gods and goddesses who turn out to be deeply involved in human events.
The three countries of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia share a common language, though with different regional accents, and all three were invaded at some time in the past by foreigners, who were ultimately driven away. Sounis and Attolia adopted the invaders’ gods, though, while Eddis retained the old pantheon. In Attolia, the new gods are mostly a formality; the Attolians “did not invest much belief in their religion. They dutifully attended temple festivals and used their gods for cursing and little else.” Eddis, a mountainous country viewed as backwards by its more civilized neighbors, clings to the old-time religion, yet even the more pious Eddisians do not expect their gods to be real and capable of personal encounter. They are far more comfortable relegating the gods to the realm of myth—in fact, for most of The Thief, the gods only surface in Eddisian myths interspersed with the narrative. (In the myths, the gods seem to behave as the Greek and Roman gods did, consorting with mortals and having human children—in the characters’ present-day reality, however, we only hear of the gods making (decidedly more ethereal) appearances to rulers or future rulers. I’m most curious about whether the gods do also appear to common people in Turner’s world, even if we don’t hear about it because the focus isn’t on those characters.)
In the author’s note at the end of each book in the series, Turner includes an explanation that the world she has created is not ancient Greece and points out that certain details—such as firearms and pocket watches—are more reminiscent of a Byzantine time period. Given that the historical Byzantine Empire was, after the conversion of Constantine, at least officially monotheist, the series’ echoes of older Greek polytheism are interesting. When interviewers ask any question about why the deities in her books are written the way they are, Turner generally responds, “I wanted it that way.” Fair enough. Though the gods of Eddis are many, they display some characteristics that strike me as powerfully evocative of God as revealed in the Old Testament as well, whether Turner wanted it that way or not.
To the novels’ characters, the gods most often appear in dreams, giving guidance or warning to the dreamer. One character, isolated and enslaved, dreams of a tutor who comes and instructs him, filling in all the gaps that his earthly tutors have left. He later learns this tutor’s divine identity. The gods even appear in dreams, it seems, to those of other nations who are unfamiliar with this particular pantheon, when the gods want to use foreigners to accomplish their purposes for Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia. To some individuals is given communication from the gods even during waking hours: in one of my favorite scenes from the entire series, one character clearly and distinctly overhears a god saying to another character, “Go to bed.” The recipient of this divine message complains of the gods’ dealings with him, saying, “No ‘Glory shall be your reward’ for me. Oh, no, for me, it is ‘Stop whining’ and ‘Go to bed.’ . . . Never call on them . . . if you don’t really want them to appear.”
At other times, the gods’ interventions are less humorous and more challenging. In fact, in the second volume of the series, The Queen of Attolia, there are some echoes of Job’s despair. A character who has, according to his perspective, lost everything that made his life worthwhile learns that direct intervention by the gods led to this loss. When this character demands to know why the gods have betrayed him, they, like God in Job, do deign to appear and admonish him, “Who are you to speak of rights to the gods?” Because The Queen of Attolia is fiction, the goddess Moira also then goes on to provide a more fulfilling resolution than we have in Job, granting the character a vision of the greater purpose for which he lost everything. (And by saying that it’s more satisfying than Job, I mean from a this-life human perspective: it’s partially because Job does not satisfy me that I believe it as truth. As poet W. H. Auden once said, “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.”)
The first time I read The Queen of Attolia, years ago, I was angry over what the author had chosen to do to this beloved character (and I’m apparently not alone here—Turner reports receiving hate mail over this decision). Now, going back and re-reading The Queen of Attolia in conjunction with its sequels, seeing more pieces of the final pattern for the series fall into place, this scene was so powerful that it reduced me to tears. Grasping the ultimate author’s design, the ultimate divine design, is something we’re so rarely granted in this life that it jars us with both pain and beauty when we encounter it in fiction. (I still question the believability of a romance that Turner introduces within the novel, but that too serves her purpose for the series—once you accept the end goal, you can appreciate the rationale for earlier authorial decisions, even if you wish they were a little more plausible in their development). Turner strikes me as a careful, perhaps even meticulous, writer, spending between three and six years on each volume of the series, and the novels are tightly and consistently plotted. She also credits her readers with sufficient intelligence to grasp the connections between events without being told repeatedly, and she seldom resorts to plot summary—which means that, if you’re reading the books as they are published, some re-reading of previous volumes will probably be necessary, unless you have a far better memory than I do.
When Turner first wrote The Thief, she had no plans for sequels, but it seems clear that, once she began writing The Queen of Attolia, the major details of at least the next two—and possibly the remaining two—books of the series were already in place. Within the novels, it’s clear that the gods’ involvement is intrinsically linked to the future course of events in Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia. I’m eager to see the role the gods continue to play in the remainder of the series, though it will probably be another decade before it’s completed—as in life, in this particular fiction series it takes patience to see the pattern resolved.
An excellent article. I too have been struck by how the actions and pronouncements of the gods (and about the gods) in Megan Whalen Turner’s books ring true to my own beliefs and experience as a Christian. I wasn’t expecting to find that in a fantasy-historical novel with a whole pantheon of imagined gods! But lines like: “If I am the pawn of the gods, it is because they know me so well, not because they make up my mind for me,” and “Whether I am on a rafter three stories up or on a staircase three steps up, I am in my god’s hands. He will keep me
safe, or he will not, here or on the stairs,” and “O my god, if you will not save me, make me less afraid,” just resonate so deeply with me.
I look forward to seeing whatever Ms. Turner comes up with next.
R.J. – Ms. Turner has written a startlingly good backlog of stuff that you can read here.
@Rich – R.J.’s talking about the novelist Turner, not about the Carissa ^_^ Though your backlog-crush is noted.
Ugh, I’m an idiot.
Yes, as far as I know, Megan Whalen Turner and I are not related, since it’s her married name and my maiden one. She and my dad did both earn their undergraduate degrees from University of Chicago (many years apart), but that’s probably the closest connection I can claim.
R.J., thanks for adding some more of the good pantheon-related quotes from the books–there are so many that I couldn’t work them all in!
Great article! I’ve thought about this aspect of MWT’s work for a long time and found that it doesn’t quite matter to me whether MWT is a Christian or not. What she has writing speaks to my faith, especially in the quotes that RJ pointed out. For myself, I think that the romance in QoA is actually extermely powerful as well. If you think about [spoiler avoidance] female main character’s story, it can quite easily be read as a story of fall and redemption. Gen, in essence, demonstrates forgiveness and love. And if you read closely, it’s pretty clear (IMO) that he did love her before the events of QoA. Anyway, I can’t read the last chapter, especially the last page or two, without feeling the power of that story.
The real question then is: how long do we persevere with an author who isn’t doing it for us in hopes that everything will eventually pay off? I have a handful of examples of books where sticking with it alleviated my early concerns and a lot of examples where I would have been better off cutting my losses early on.
@Richard – No worries, I was already working my way through Carissa’s backlog anyway!
@MaureenE – Total agreement. I mean, it matters to me for MWT’s own sake, but as far as the worth of the book is concerned, no.
I questioned Ms. Turner about the way she deals with the gods in her books in this interview a couple of months ago, but although she gave me quite a long answer it wasn’t quite the angle I had hoped for! Perhaps I am reading more into her books from my own theological experience than she ever meant to put there, or perhaps she simply doesn’t like to get too personal on the subject.
But I do think this is one example of how our definition of what constitutes “good reading for Christians” can be too narrow if we only include books by avowedly Christian authors or with obviously Christianity-based religious systems. There’s a lot of good meaty stuff in Turner to mull over, more so than in a lot of “Christian” fantasy I’ve read.
@TheDane – Agreed re cutting the losses (I felt that way about George R. R. Martin’s series — wished I’d stopped a lot earlier). Though from what I understand of Carissa’s article, it was more a personal reaction to something bad happening to a character she loved that made her doubt whether she could trust the author… which is a little different from the pervasive pattern or overwhelming mood of nastiness and nihilism that usually convinces me to give up on a book/series.
@The Dane, I think one of the reasons I was willing to continue trusting Turner through to the third book in the series is that she’d already shown in The Thief that she often has surprises up her sleeve. It sounds odd to say that I trust an author because I know she’s tricksy–but it reminds me that I may not yet know everything she has in mind for the rest of the series.
@Maureen E, that’s a good point about how the human relationships in the series are often powerful demonstrations of Christian virtues. In writing this post, I thought about including something about how the, um, King of Attolia fulfills the rather Christ-like trope of the king who doesn’t reveal his true kingliness until the right moment (not that our Attolian king is exactly a Christ figure, but I find it a far more interesting reflection of an aspect of Christ than Harry “Hey, look! I died and rose again!” Potter).
I think part of the reason I may have trouble buying the romance at the end of The Queen of Attolia (aside from the troubling psychological implications if it were real life–actually, I think what disturbed me more than the shocker at the beginning of the book was the romance at the end) is that Turner is so skilled at suspense . . . but the sudden reveal just doesn’t work as well in romance. I do agree that the romance is quite effective on a mythic level, though, even if I don’t feel that the kinks are all worked out at the level of realism. By the time we get to The King of Attolia, I’m quite ready to buy the relationship, however it came about.
@Carissa – I agree, there is a disturbing element to the romance, but I think that comes out even more in KoA than it does in QoA. What is it like to love someone, and be loved by them, and yet be terrified of them at the same time? (Cue discussion about “The Fear of the Lord” here?)
@R.J. – I dropped out of Martin’s series a third of the way into the second book. I may return once the whole cycle is complete so I can find out What Happens, but as it stood my reading experience after the first book wasn’t pleasurable enough to justify reading a lot of pages of an unfinished story.
One recent read I wish I had cut my losses with was Austen’s Mansfield Park. Having adored Pride and Prejudice and loved the recent film adaptation of MP, I was surprised at just how bad the novel was. I kept on hoping that things would get better. By 3/4 I realized that things wouldn’t, but I was so close to finished that I had to continue. Her storytelling style was just so distant and drawn out. Distant, in that much of the time it read as kind of a dry history of events. Drawn out, in that Austen so over-embellished her story points that she would take pages to describe what could have been much more adequately and happily described in a couple paragraphs.
@The Dane – I don’t feel badly about reading a book that turns out to be boring, because I can always skim it or quit it. I do feel badly about reading a book that is otherwise well written, but leaves me with a queasy feeling that I would have been a better and happier person for not having read it.
And I didn’t find MP nearly so intolerable as you did, though I don’t feel the need to read it again (unlike the other Austens which I’ve read at least twice). I haven’t seen it adapted to film, but I’ve heard horror stories about modern adaptations of MP (especially where the character of Fanny Price, whom I personally quite liked and sympathized with, is concerned) so I’ve stayed well away from them. Which one did you see and like?
@R.P. – I saw the Rozema version, which is the likeliest target of the ire you’ve heard. She is rather free with her adaptation, but I felt it stayed largely true to the story despite some of the liberties she takes with Fanny’s character (Fanny, in her version, is still mousey—though a little more spirited and substantially less judgmentally disdainful and moralistic). On the whole, I think there are two things people dislike about Rozema’s version of MP: 1) Fanny is a more likable character and 2) Rozema takes a not from Edward Said and bolsters the theme of the landed class exploiting slavery in, say, Anitgua.
Taken apart from a purist’s desire for duplication, Rozema’s film is, I thought, an entirely pleasurable cinematic experience.
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