But I found the real strength of the books to be a theme that I’m not sure was intentional. Maybe Katherine Arden has thought a lot about the culture of juxtaposition that happens when two belief systems overlap and collide, when two systems of thought are slipped into and out of as an era changes. Or perhaps not. Either way, these stories are fascinating examples of belief overlap, which is a situation our own culture finds itself in today.
I’m sure there is always an element of syncretism in any era, but sometimes belief is more stable and universal than others. In the late ancient and early medieval eras, a growing belief in Christianity clashed with older pagan beliefs and it wasn’t a clean break. For a long time, people held on to the old beliefs, or held them along with the new, and gradually slipped from one paradigm to the other. This is actually a very productive space to use in writing about our own culture. Fiction softens the blow about how vestiges of Judeo-Christian belief compete with post-modern materialism or neo-paganism. It is a softer window into how many Christians also hold cultural beliefs that are in direct opposition to their stated religious tenets. The folktale genre, when thoughtfully done, gives a canvas to explore what that looks like without stepping on modern toes.
I’ve read that science fiction is the literary space for exploring technological ethics, and I’m thinking that maybe early medieval historical fiction/folktales are the space for thinking about the culture of beliefs in flux.
If you’re interested, Eifelheim is another great example of this juxtaposition, and A Secular Age gives terrific background on the medieval shift in beliefs (although it focuses more on the late medieval shifts).
What do you think?
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.