She's joining us here today for a guest blog on a topic that illuminates some of the choices behind the Voice she has assumed as the storyteller of this tale - and of course, being Marie Brennan, even the background to her background is beautifully presented and painstakingly researched.
Here's what she has to say:
Sometimes when you put something into a story, you wonder how many people, if any, are going to notice it.
Which is why I’ve been delighted by every reader who comments on religion in A Natural History of Dragons. You see, when I first began playing around with the idea, I wrote in a passing reference to “Frostnight” -- a placeholder name for a Christmas analogue. After all, my setting is based on nineteenth-century Europe, so it was the natural thing to do.
But when I came back to the project several years later, I found myself looking at that word and frowning. There’s a Middle Eastern analogue in the setting, too, so I’d been pondering what sort of religious history the region should have, and then out of nowhere I asked myself: why make the dominant “European” religion pseudo-Christianity? Why not pseudo-Judaism instead?
The anthropologist in me immediately started raising a cautionary hand. Cultural elements aren’t modular; you can’t just plug them in wherever you like without affecting other things. Then again, it isn’t like I was trying to plug in Hinduism or Shinto; Christianity and Judaism have much more in common with one another. The bigger issue, I realized, was that I didn’t really have a model for Judaism in the role I envisioned. The rabbinic form of the religion was not, until the modern establishment of Israel, a dominant and state-backed faith; it’s deeply shaped by the Jewish diaspora and the persecution that brought. There was a state version of the religion, but that was localized and ended two thousand years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple. It never covered an entire continent, nor did it deal with the social and technological changes of the intervening history.
Thinking about those two forms called up echoes of the Protestant/Catholic divide in my mind. What if I incorporated both versions of Judaism into my setting? One would be Temple-based, a centralized faith taking its lead from a high priest back in the original homeland. The other would be modeled on rabbinic Judaism, with many teachers and sects in different places. Fantasy tends to have only One True Version of any given religion, so I really liked the idea of mixing things up a bit. I consulted a friend who studies Judaism and worked out the “evolution” of both forms, adapting them to the context of my world, and went back to work on the story, which had suddenly come to life in new ways.
You’ll never see the word “Judaism” in the novel, of course, nor any other widely recognizable terminology associated with it (e.g. “rabbi”). Since what’s in my story is based on Judaism, rather than being the religion itself, I decided to take the same approach to my word choice. There are magisters instead of rabbis, assembly-houses instead of synagogues, the Feast of the Reception rather than Shavuot. But readers familiar with the subject will notice that “synagogue” comes from the Greek word for “assembly,” and Shavuot commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the people of Israel: I’m still talking about the same things, just in a slightly altered guise. There are other details along the way, drawn from both forms of Judaism, sometimes tweaked to a bit of an angle, which make it clear what I’m talking about, even if it never gets a familiar name.
And some readers, at least, are noticing. I knew it would fly under the radar of many people; if you’re not personally conversant with Judaism, it can be easy to overlook the hints. (Many of them are things I wouldn’t have noticed, before I began researching this for the book.) But I’ve seen reviews and gotten e-mails that
mention this thread, and every one of them makes me happy.