When most people hear the word spirituality, they think of organized religion, and that in itself is a fascinating topic in terms of world-building. But what I want to talk about here is how we as writers define and develop the spiritual foundations of our story. In this sense, spiritual as distinct from religious can mean mystical, unworldly, magical, or psychic. I look at spirituality as those qualities and experiences that are not physical but can have a profound influence over the experiences and decisions of our characters. I am well aware that this opens me up to accusations of being woo-woo, and perhaps a different word would better encompass the ethical, moral, and emotional landscape of a story. Spirituality creates one of the interwoven layers that answer the question, “What is the story about?” If the entire answer is some high-falutin’ jargon about the battle between good and evil or love conquers all, the elevator pitch fails because although these may be themes, they are not story cores. Likewise, without this dimension, a description of the physical action of the story falls flat. The Wizard of Oz is “about” a whole lot more than a girl who gets swept away by a tornado. Nor can it be described completely as a tale of friendship, courage, and belonging. Stories are specific, and all of these concepts are general.
Although the first “Azkhantian Tale” was necessarily set within the sword and sorcery genre by the market I was aiming for, I wanted to play counter to the prevailing expectations. The market (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress) required a strong female protagonist, and that’s the kind of story I wanted to write. But I didn’t want yet another iteration of the lofty heroines of the “rape and revenge,” “slaying the dragon,” or “rescuing the prince/ss” type. I wanted to get away from the physical-strength = heroism paradigm, because there are many kinds of strength besides that of mighty thews and bulging musculature.
There is strength of heart and of spirit. Strength of devotion, of steadfastness, of integrity. There is the strength that comes from having overcome suffering and forgiven the trespassers or having walked empty-handed among one’s enemies. There is the strength that inspires others to do the same. To me, all these are spiritual qualities.
In stepping aside from the “one hero against the evil horde” or “us against them” tropes, I recognized that each of my cultures (and there are three major and several minor cultures in the trilogy) must have individuals and traditions that I – and hence, I hope, my reader – find meritorious. Different people may have different ways of expressing what is virtuous, but I believe that even in the most distorted and traumatized society, there are individuals who embody kindness, generosity, and sincerity. C. S. Lewis talked about this in The Final Battle when he said that a good deed was a blessing, no matter in whose name it was performed. (Well, he didn’t say it quite like that; this is my own interpretation.)
In the opening of the first book, The Seven-Petaled Shield, an ancient city is losing a siege to a younger, more militant and ambitious race. Meklavaran religion is biblical (book-based) in the sense that it arises from a holy scripture; its inhabitants define themselves according to the record of the wisdom of their forebears. So as the city nears its downfall, our heroine runs off to save the library. Buildings and treasures can be replaced, she argues, but this written record is the heart of her people. Continuity with the past is a central value, as is continuity with the future. As the city falls, her concern is not about saving her own life but that of her son. So the themes of sacrifice and stewardship, of preserving a heritage of wisdom and the memories of what her people consider holy then set the tone for her unfolding adventures. Later, I use this faithfulness to set up tension with her desire to lead an ordinary life, to experience romantic love and be mistress of her own affairs.
The invading force, Gelon, is a very different civilization. They are scientists, empire-builders, and cultural magpies, freely appropriating what they deem worthy from the cultures they conquer. Their formal religion consists of a pantheon of gods, some of which become instruments of mortal political power struggles. Here I found people who valued the “life of the mind,” keen scientific observation, and logic; I was not at all surprised to discover that Jaxar, the crippled and chronically ill brother of the Ar-King, is a brilliant amateur astronomer and physicist, and also that he’s as close to an atheist as his background allows. Despite the brutality of his brother and the draconian strategies of his regime, Jaxar is a man of compassion and integrity. His son, Danar, inherits not only these qualities but the ability to lead by inspiration rather than coercion.
The third of my major peoples, the nomadic horse people of the Azkhantian steppe, have a nature-based form of religion and magic. One of the songs, a lament by a famous heroine (adapted from a Mongolian song), expresses this unity, and the desire that in death, the singer will return to the earth the nourishment it had given her:
“May the strong bones of my body rest in the earth,"May the black hair on my head turn to meadow-grass."May my bright eyes become springs that never fail."
The primary deity is the Mother of Horses, reflecting the primary importance of horses to their very survival. The male aspect of divinity is her consort, also called the Father of Battles. Both men and unmarried women are expected to defend their territory against the perennial incursions of the Gelon, so prowess in horsemanship and archery are highly regarded. Their songs and stories reflect how they value “glorious deeds,” and our heroine, Shannivar, dreams of accomplishing feats of such valor as to be immortalized in song for generations to come. In this character, the needs of her people coincide with her personal aspirations; her obstacle is the expectation that at some point, she will relinquish those dreams for a staid and conventional married life. (And, of course, the forces that threaten her land and people!)
Dreams, histories, what a person or people hold dear, hope, despair, love, sacrifice, all these qualities contribute to the motivation of the characters and the richness of their adventures.