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Pseudo-Euhemerism and the humanity of gods

While I had intended to write a different article today, another author asked me about how to reconcile non-human characters as protagonists in speculative fiction, specifically about “gods.” The problem lies in the fundamental purpose of most fiction: an examination of the human experience. Fiction is written by people, for people. Whatever other purpose it serves—be it entertainment, education, catharsis, or just forcing the reader to examine accepted beliefs—the lens through which it does so is human experience.

The further your protagonist gets from that experience, the harder it becomes to create emotional resonance with your audience. Take it too far, and you may have an intellectually interesting idea, but you’ve ceased to have a story in the traditional sense.

Within the Eschaton Cycle, I take what I’m going to call a Pseudo-Euhemeristic approach. In Gods of the Ragnarok Era, and many other future Eschaton Cycle series, the “gods” are mostly human and might be more accurately described as demigods. While my mythos doesn’t treat every character as historical like traditional Euhemerism, the protagonists remain, by and large, people like us living in our world, even though they experience supernatural phenomenon.

Importantly, as they gain immortality or supernatural powers—that is, apotheosis—they lose bits and pieces of their humanity. In Gods of the Ragnarok Era, Odin and the Aesir are superstitious barbarians living in an ice age, struggling to survive. Part of this idea came from Snorri in the Prose Edda, in which he supposed Odin’s people were refugees from the fall of Troy. In my books, after eating apples of Idunn, Odin and a few select members of retinue become immortal and begin to develop superhuman abilities. Over the passage of years, as he struggles against his prescient visions of Ragnarok, Odin transforms from a semi-honorable barbarian to a manipulative bastard that stops at nothing to achieve his ends.

This is, in itself, an interpretation of human nature, namely that physical superhuman abilities would push us further from mental human norms. Even as we root for these superhuman characters, we find their perspectives disturbing.

In the Dune series, Frank Herbert makes a similar point with Paul Atreides. The coming of a superhuman messiah is ultimately a danger to humanity as we now see ourselves (a point that becomes more apparent by the end of the second book than the first). Paul Atreides is worshipped by his followers, but ultimately driven by motives they cannot begin to understand.

In a more recent example, R. Scott Bakker’s Anasûrimbor Kellhus has undergone such intensive training as to create a total paradigm shift in his thought process. Not only is he physically more powerful than those around him, but mentally on a whole other level. His people consider that ordinary Men are deluded about the very nature of existence. Consequently, there is no harm in further deluding them about incidental things. Kellhus thus becomes a messiah himself, one that is fascinating and horrifying to read about. (Here I think it worth mentioning that I don’t think an author without Bakker’s skill could have made such a character as compelling.)

Does this mean that every good protagonist has to be human?

I think Frodo Baggins would say no. On the other hand, Hobbits are, emotionally speaking, more-or-less humans who value comfort and companionship over ambition and power. One might say they are, in fact, the best of humanity, and thus they can succeed through heart, where physically stronger Men might fail. One could, however, make the argument that that same moral distinction between Hobbits and Men make it less easier to empathize with them than we would have with a human character deeper in the throes of temptation.

What about something like Animal Farm?

That’s an allegory that works specifically because the animals are stand-ins for human behavior.

Most books focusing on animals or aliens or whatever work like that. I mean, most Star Trek aliens are just people with facial makeup. A truly alien perspective, divorced from human nature, would be arguably incomprehensible to a human reader. Or, as Bakker explores, in On Alien Philosophy, something to be scared shitless about.

I make no secret that Bakker is one of my writing heroes and I dream of one day doing something of his caliber. It is thus not entirely coincidental that the truly inhuman characters in the Eschaton Cycle are often more like Lovecraftian abominations than people in their motivations (I say not entirely, because, of course, the foundations for Eschaton existed long before I’d heard of Bakker). Regardless, these entities would make poor point of view characters.

Even in my current project, when working with a mermaid as a POV character, I’ve found severe limitations. Mermaids in Eschaton are essentially minor water gods who possess human hosts in the Mortal Realm. Nyi Rara, this character is, of necessity, a younger mermaid and one without knowledge of the depths of reality that would skew her further toward incomprehensible thoughts and motivations.

So we come back to the basic premise that a resonant story will have a person as its protagonist. If that person is not human, the differences between his or her nature and normal human nature should serve as an examination of human nature in general.

Can a real “god” serve as the protagonist for a modern novel? Or, to the specific question my fellow author asked, can a kind of reverse apotheosis (that is, gods becoming more like humans over time) work?

I would venture that it’s not impossible, though, like Bakker, an author will be setting a Herculean task for him or herself. Unlike a descent into darkness as one loses humanity, we as the audience cannot as easily follow and empathize with an ascent to becoming more human, because we cannot grasp a starting point of common ground. Especially without the perspective of a human character guiding this transformation (e.g. John and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2).

The alternative seems to be something more like Superman. Someone with god-like powers who is essentially human in intellect and thought process, and governed by human mores. Naturally, this character then becomes less believable as we are meant to assume that power does not corrupt. I have even heard it said the Superman’s greatest super power is his lack of human failing.

The answer is … there is no easy answer.

The good news is, fiction doesn’t always have to give us an answer.

2 Comments

  1. Frank Paine says:

    Hi, Matt…This is a great article, and deserves much wider distribution. It puts me in mind of a wonderful Biblical line: that God created Man in his own image; to which I reply that perhaps Man created God in his own image.

    Keep on truckin’…errrr writin’.

    1. mattlarkin says:

      Thanks, Frank. I’m glad you liked the article!

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