- by Peter Thomson
A standard bit of writing advice is to ‘write what you know’. Good advice, but how many of us have confronted vampires or run electricity through patchwork corpses? We create new worlds from bits and pieces of the ones we know – including the ones we know from other imaginings, fishing in the cultural deeps until we draw up the strange and new. How deep can we go?
I am not religious. I do not believe in an afterlife and have no truck with divinities of any persuasion. The closest I come to the supernatural are the feelings anyone of ordinary sensitivity has to places of great beauty or sanctity. Yet when Faithful Service and her sister Loyal Service stepped into my mind, demanding I tell their story, religion was everywhere. These were people and a society where faith was central. Theirs is a fantasy world, so I had considerable latitude. I could make up some analogue of an earthly faith (I studied medieval history; basic theology is part of the package). I could stud the story with prayers and priests. I could have a god or gods step in and out.
The story did not want these things. It wanted people who gave serious consideration to what their faith asked of them, and explored how they resolved their differences. It was about the interior of faith, not the trappings. I have religious friends and acquaintances, and one approved my remark that religion must look very different from the inside than the outside. Here I am on the outside, wanting to write about the inside. As it came out, my characters actions spoke for them, each according to their understanding.
One more thing – it’s a world where the supernatural is everywhere evident, to the point of being commonplace. People don’t believe in the gods in the same way that people here don’t believe in chairs. They are just there. So what do the sisters believe in? What is right, and where does it come from? It’s a question at least as old as Socrates – Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (the dialogue with Euthyphro). In The Forked Path the answer is that right is a journey, one undertaken in trust that the dilemma will be resolved in the end. So the story became one of twin journeys, to a reunion and beyond.
Looking back, I think I drew on a melange of medieval mystics and devotional poetry, scraps of theology and philosophy, and both the dogmatic insistence and serenely tolerant certainty I’ve met among the devout. My readers think it works.
On and on they went, slow but never stopping. Villa walls and market gardens went by, the sun rose higher, the puddles steamed away, the earth grew harder. Faithful Service was long unused to going barefoot, and her feet grew more tender as she walked. The old couple went more and more slowly, Right Conduct’s right hand clutching at his side, Proper Support true to her name as she held his left. In one village a boy threw a handful of mud at them, then ran away at the escort’s frown. Travellers made the sign against evil, and a presbyter ostentatiously prayed that wrong-doing might fall from them. All this deepened Faithful Service’s misery, yet on she walked. She had been given nothing to eat that morning and by midday hunger added to her woes. They were permitted to drink at the roadside fountains, where water bubbled clear and cold into stone basins by grace of the Highest’s grant of craft.
Right Conduct and Proper Support kept gamely on, limping and staggering. Right Conduct had cut his foot on a stone and left blood on the ground at each step. By later afternoon Proper Support could hold him up no longer; he sagged against her, they made a few more paces and then both collapsed to the ground.
“By the Highest’s grace, we will not hold this as a falter if you rise within five breaths,” one of the escort told them in a firm tone. Proper Support lifted her head to look him in the face, then clearly made up her mind.
‘My trust has been in the Highest all my life, and I will trust Him still. My husband can go no further, and I will not leave him. If the Highest will not lend us His strength, then we must accept the fate He gives us. I will go no further on my own feet.” She put her arm around her husband’s shoulders and sat firm.
“You have faltered before the Highest. As the Highest decreed, you are not of us. By the Highest’s mercy, you leave the land with your life.” The senior member of the escort intoned the ritual words. Then one was sent to fetch a cart, while another stayed to watch Right Conduct and Proper Support. The other two motioned Faithful Service to go on. She was tempted to join Proper Support on the ground, for her legs ached, her feet were sore and her stomach a gnawing pit of hollowness. Yet she did not; she was young and strong enough to go further, and had not Graceful Deeds always insisted that she do her utmost, told her that there was always one more effort in her? She would honour his memory by going on as far as she was able. Faithful Service set herself in motion, putting one foot in front of the other in a steady plod.
How do you, as authors, feel when the work takes you into areas of ignorance?