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Can modern fiction be sacred literature?

I've spent a large part of the past two years writing a novel. It's not my first one, and it won't be my last one. But it's the first one that has brought up an interesting question: can modern fiction also be sacred literature?

The novel, titled The Last Priestess of Malia, is set in ancient Crete - so it's historical fiction. Here's the summary of the story:

Having given up her only child and her very identity to become a priestess in ancient Crete, an idealistic young woman struggles to find meaning in the day-to-day life of the temple; but when she is chosen to be the next High Priestess, she must call on both mystical and practical skills to protect her people from the encroaching Mycenaeans, who want to destroy the Minoans’ way of life.

Sounds exciting, right? But it's not an action-adventure novel; it's the story of a Pagan priestess finding her sacred path in a rapidly changing world (not at all relevant to modern times *cough*). It's not exactly contemplative literature; there's too much going on for that. But it's not an ordinary novel, either.

Like most authors, while I'm in the editing process I send my manuscript out to beta readers who give me feedback about things I need to polish up. This batch of beta readers - 15 brave souls who generously shared their time - pointed out plenty of things I needed to fix: continuity errors, typos, places where I hadn't explained things well enough.

But I also got one set of comments that really got me thinking about what my writing is about. Many people these days read for action/adventure, or at least, that's my impression. It's like the way TV shows are paced faster than they used to be; people want quick action, no slow bits, nothing they have to stop and think about. I can imagine that The Lord of the Rings would be a total flop if it were first published today, what with all that detailed description.

So I took a hard look at my manuscript, and I realized something that bothered me. In order to make it fit into modern standards of "fast action," I would have to remove a lot of the rituals, ones that have bearing on the main character's development and on the exploration of (fictional) ancient Minoan religion. I could do that, but what would it do to the finished work?

Most of my beta readers said they found the rituals really moving, as if they were actually there in ancient Crete, standing among the spectators at the big public mystery plays or in the private temple chambers. Reading the rituals did for them what participating in a ritual does for most of us: touches the heart, moves the spirit.

I can understand that someone who's not particularly spiritual (Pagan or otherwise) would have a hard time understanding the main character's desire to be a "real priestess." Most people who follow any sort of spiritual path have discovered that being a "real [insert-spiritual-term-here]" is not what they expected it to be. And what it really *is* will change over time as the person moves along their spiritual path. But to give my main character a more mundane set of motivations would take away from the underlying meaning of the story, make it less sacred. Do I really want to do that?

And then I realized: the whole story is a ritual. Writing it was a ritual; reading it is a ritual.

Does that make it sacred literature?

I'm not sure. But in the end, I have to make a decision about what I want the novel to be. I'm a Pagan priestess, doing my best to heed the call of the divine in the modern world. Part of that involves the sense that I need to put this story out there in its most powerful form - not powerful in terms of the marketplace, but powerful in terms of how it touches the reader, specifically the reader with a spiritual bent. And that's a sacred thing.

There are so many voices these days screaming at us that the only value a work has is how many dollars it brings in the marketplace. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want my books to sell well. But changing this one significantly in order to make it more palatable to a wider audience feels like devaluing it.

Writing the book was an act of devotion to the gods and goddesses of ancient Crete. If it never becomes a New York Times bestseller, so be it. But if it moves a reader, even just one reader, really touches them in a way they find meaningful, then it will have been worth the effort.

The Last Priestess of Malia will be released on September 21.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

 

Artwork: The Ring of Minos, modern art interpretation of an ancient Minoan seal ring by Laura Perry.

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Thursday, 11 July 2019

    I remember reading a magazine; Green Egg I think, in which an author wrote about how meaningful the Lord of the Rings was to her and the article included a ritual for summoning Galadriel.

    I took a mail order course in writing and was told to show not tell. By showing your beta readers the rituals you are letting them participate in the action. Action doesn't have to be fast. Listen to what your readers tell you about typos and continuity error. I know that for myself when I am reading typos really interrupt the flow of the story. Keep the rituals, but you may need to be clearer on what a given ritual is about.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Monday, 15 July 2019

    I always listen to what my beta readers say about typos and continuity errors; I'm a professional copyeditor but even I can't always find all my own mistakes. As for the rituals, it's absolutely clear in the story what each one is about and what its purpose is. I think the issue here really is that people who don't follow any spiritual path at all, and who don't experience life in anything but a secular manner, simply can't connect with religious rites in writing, in much the same way that religious rites in person don't really move them.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Thursday, 11 July 2019

    Did you find yourself gaining new religious insights from writing this novel? (That's a phenomenon I'm familiar with.)

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Monday, 15 July 2019

    I did, and in ways that I didn't expect. Writing it was definitely a transformative experience.

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Tuesday, 16 July 2019

    I look forward to reading it! I love well-done world-building & description- Ursula K. Le Guin & Marion Zimmer Bradley come to mind. Action & excitement can be fun, but can also be taken to an extreme, as in George R.R. Martin!

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