I’m a nerd. Anyone who knows me at all realizes that. I’m a fantasy book loving, Harry Potter obsessed, dork that loves playing role-playing video games as much as the next introvert. And while I almost never have time to actually sit down and read fiction with everything I’ve got going on, the summer is always the time when I can finally rest from the constant work and activities that come from being a full time student and pick up some light reading that transports me into a world nothing like our own.
In most of these books I find myself confronted with characters who are constantly having to choose between giving in to the evil that they are so inclined towards or living righteous lives in the service of others. Usually these choices are completely unrelated to worship or a particularly god that they serve. Every once in a while, however, I catch glimpses of the Gospel.
So I wanted to show you a passage from the book I’m currently reading called Sacrifice of the Widow by Lisa Smedman. Without going into too many details, this book is showing a battle between a few different gods that are vying for power and the ways in which they relate to and use their servants to achieve those goals. Let the nerdiness begin…
Lolth: Lolth is an evil goddess who loves chaos and revels in deception and lies. She lives in a place called the Demonweb Pit and takes the form of a female dark elf when she isn’t in her natural form of a spider. She’s evil to the core and her priestesses are just like her. She does not allow men into her service.
Vhaeraun: Vhaeraun is the son of Lolth and an evil god just like her. His worshippers are men, and he wants to destroy Lolth and all of her followers. His servants steal the souls of their victims when they kill them and absorb all of their life force.
Eilistraee: Eilistraee is the daughter of Lolth and sister of Vhaeraun. She abandoned her mother because she could not stomach the evil that she reveled in, and has since become Lolth’s greatest enemy. She seeks to bring all of the dark elves out from the underground world they live in and back onto the surface where she believes they belong. Her worshippers dedicate to seeking out even their enemies and showing them that they can be freed from the evil goddess they serve and find redemption and mercy by turning to Eilistraee for grace.
Okay, nerdy, I realize. But I love these stories because you can see how inclined people are to serve themselves and how shocking it is for them to trust that any deity could truly love them when that is something they have never known. Plus its just kind of interesting reading about gods plotting to kill one another so they can have more power. Kinda twisted, but its definitely intriguing.
In this book, there is a wizard named Q’arlynd who grew up in a massive city underground that was dedicated to the worship of Lolth. He sought to come to the surface to find if his sister was still alive so that they could join together and rebuild their life after their home city had been destroyed completely. He has no love for his sister, or anyone for that matter, because Lolth does not tolerate love between people. He only wants to survive, and he knows that his sister could help that.
He came to the surface and encountered some priestesses of Eilistraee. He decided to pretend that he was considering turning from his old ways and worshipping Eilistraee, but had no real intention of doing so. There was an interesting part in the book where he asked one of the priestesses about what happened when she had died before she was brought back to life. It highlights the differences between the gods, and actually demonstrates some awesome truths of the Gospel:
“What was it like—being dead? Do you remember much of it?”
Rowaan smiled. “A little. I realized I was dead when I found myself standing, alone, in a place that was featureless and gray: I was in the place where worshippers wait to be claimed by their gods after they die. There were others around me—other souls—but I couldn’t see or touch them, just feel them. Then I heard a beautiful voice. It was Eilistraee, singing to me. Calling me. A rift opened in the gray, and a shaft of moonlight shown through. I moved toward it, but just as I was about to touch the moonbeam and ascend to the goddess, it was gone. I woke up in the forest, alive, having been raised from the dead before I could enter Eilistraee’s domain.
She struggled and gave him a shy smile. “So I really can’t tell you what dancing with the goddess is like.”
“The shaft of moonlight,” Q’arlynd said. “It just appeared?”
Rowaan nodded. “Of course. When Eilistraee sang. It’s the gateway to her domain.”
“It’s probably just as well you didn’t go there.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“You might have had been attacked and your soul consumed.”
Rowaan frowned. “By what?”
Q’arlynd hesitated. “Aren’t there usually…some sort of creatures your soul has to fight its way past, or some other trial you must endure before passing into the goddess’s presence?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because Lolth’s domain is filled with monsters that consume souls,” he explained. “If your soul manages to avoid those, there’s still the Pass of the Soulreaver to get through. From what the priestesses teach, it’s the equivalent of being flayed alive. Only the toughest and most tenacious survive the passage to eventually stand by Lolth’s side. The rest are annihilated.” He shrugged. “I expected Eilistraee to at least throw up a wall of swords or something to whittle out the faithful from the chaff, to select those who are truly worthy.”
Rowaan smiled. “Eilistraee doesn’t test her faithful. We test ourselves. It’s what we do before we die that matters.
“What about those who convert to the faith?” he asked. “What if, before they sought redemption, they did things that Eilistraee found abhorrent?”
Rowaan stared at him for several moments. Then she nodded. “Ah. I see. You’re worried that Eilistraee won’t accept you.”
“Actually, I was thinking of my sister,” he lied.
Rowaan touched his arm, not really listening. “It doesn’t matter what you were before your redemption or which deity you worshipped. You belong to Eilistraee now.”
His heart nearly skipped a beat at that. Q’arlynd opened his mouth, intending to explain that the dalliances of his youth were just that—mere flirtations, the sort of thing any boy might make the mistake of getting caught up in. He pausted before speaking, worried that anything he said might bring his more recent conversion into question…
Rowaan, perhaps sensing his unease, gently touched his arm. “The Spider Queen has no hold upon you any more.”
“I only paid Lolth lip service,” he said. “I spoke the words, because her priestesses ordered me to, but I never gave the Spider Queen my heart. ” He touched his chest as he said that, an earnest expression on his face.
Part of what he said was true. He certainly hadn’t made the Spider Queen any promises, let alone claimed her as his patron deity. He’d never seen the point. For the living worshippers of Lolth, there was great reward—power and glory—but only if you were female. Males were told their reward would come after death, but from all he had heard, Lolth only handed out more suffering.
“You’ve left all that behind in the darkness,” Rowaan continued. “You’ve come into Elistraee’s light. As long as you’ve truly taken her song into your heart, you’ll dance forever with the goddess.”
“Eternal reward,” he whispered, adding a touch of reverance to his voice. He needed to appear suitably awed, even though he knew what she was saying was too good to be true. “But only, surely, for the souls who have proved themselves worthy of it in life by aiding the goddess in some substantial way.”
“No,” she said, her voice firm. “To Eilistraee, struggle and success are the same. It’s the intent behind the act that truly counts.”
He stroked his chin, mulling that over. If what Rowaan said was true, Eilistraee offered eternal life to anyone who struck to their vows of aiding the weak and working to convert other dark elves to the faith. It didn’t matter if they actually succeeded in achieving those goals, only that they had tried.
It was an astonishing doctrine, one that contradicted everything he had learned thus far. From all he’d observed and been taught, the gods demanded either everything or nothing from their faithful. Vhaeraun, for example, insisted on perfection from his followers. The slightest failure in following the Masked Lord’s decree would earn eternal wrath. Even those who had once been the most devout of his followers could find themselves forever barred from his domain. Lolth, in contrast, reveled in chaos and didn’t seem to care what her faithful did. Nor did she take much of a hand in the trials they faced after death, leaving that to the minions of her domain. Souls—from the lowest male lay worshipper to the highest female priestess—succeeded in making the passage across the Demonweb Pits by chance as much as anything.
In contrast, Elistraee made demands of her followers but showed mercy to them, even when they failed.
He supposed that was a comforting thought to most, but to him the idea of a deity who weighed not just deeds but intentions was more than a little unnerving, and it seemed a little unfair. Vhaeraun’s followers, as long as they produced results that were to their god’s liking, could harbor whatever rebellious thoughts they liked in their hearts. Lolth’s priestesses could do and think whatever they wanted, since the rewards their goddess bestowed were so arbitrary. Eilistraee’s faithful, on the other hand, had to always be asking themselves not just if they were doing the right thing but if they were doing it for the right reasons.
Q’arlynd didn’t want to have to live up to that. After a lifetime of lying to survive, he wasn’t sure himself when he was telling the truth.
Sacrifice of the Widow, pp. 176-180
Although it’s fiction, it fascinates me to read about the kind of confusion that he feels having been raised to serve and evil goddess who has no love for her followers but now being confronted by a goddess who does show real love and real mercy and real grace. She’s concerned with the heart and the faith of her followers, not just the deeds. Indeed, works cannot save you. It’s only faith and grace that lead to good deeds done out of gratitude and worship. That’s the Gospel if I’ve ever seen it in a fiction book.
And grace is hard. Because grace has saved us, we are truly free from everything that once held us. But it also means that God demands our lives and everything in it. If we saved ourselves by works, God couldn’t expect much from us. Because He saves us by grace, He demands everything. In that sense, I understand why this character “didn’t want to have to live up to that.” It’s frightening. But that’s because he is trusting in his own strength to believe and have faith. But it isn’t about his strength, but the one who called him to faith and redemption.
This book is remarkable. I love it. It has me thinking about so many things that I don’t ever have the chance to think about because it is taking me through scenarios that are completely unlike anything in our world. That’s why I love fiction and reading. It has power to take us to places we have never imagined.
I love that I can even seen the Gospel here. There are shadows of Christ everywhere, whether the author intended that or not. When we stand before Him, I know that no one will be able to say they didn’t know. He causes Himself to be revealed even in the center of a fantasy novel about evil gods, murder, treachery, and deceit. It’s exciting to see.