On Budapest, and the politics of fantasy writing

[Content warning for this post: antisemitism, genocide]

I just got back from a four-day trip to Budapest, Hungary. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful city with a fascinating history, and it (as well as Hungary as a whole) serves as the backdrop for my debut novel, The Wolf & the Woodsman. It was incredibly meaningful to visit a place in person that inspired so much of my work, and to interact with Budapest as a living city, not just a relic of the past.

Statue of St. Stephen, Fisherman’s Bastion, Budapest

This picture is one I took of a statue of St. Stephen (Hungarian: István), who, as some of you know, plays an important role in my book. Stephen was the first Christian king of Hungary and is considered the founder of the modern Hungarian state. Stephen himself was a convert, born with the pagan name Vajk, and he is responsible for uniting Hungary’s disparate tribes and Christianizing the country through violence. St. Stephen’s basilica, the largest and most iconic church in Hungary, is essentially an altar to Stephen. As we walked through it, my partner (who was raised Catholic) said it was the most nationalistic church he’d ever seen. On the main altar, where you might ordinarily have a statue of the crucifixion, or the Virgin, there was a statue of Stephen instead.

Interior, St. Stephen’s basilica, Budapest

After visiting the basilica, we went to Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, which is also the site of a mass grave. Unlike Christians, it’s not common for Jews to place cemeteries near houses of worship, but in 1944, the synagogue was part of the Jewish ghetto. In about three weeks, 13,000 people died – from starvation, cold, sickness. The names on the graves represent only the bodies that could be identified; most of the others buried there remain anonymous. Other Jews were deported to death camps like Auschwitz, via train or via death march. More were shot into the Danube River. The banks of the Danube are littered with pairs of shoes, a memorial to those killed. In all, nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews died, more than two-thirds of the total population. Today, about 300 families are members of the Dohány Street Synagogue, attending services in a temple built for 3,000.

Cemetery at Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest

It is impossible to talk about Hungarian Jews and Hungarian history without also talking about contemporary politics. On our way to dinner one night, we also passed part of the campus of Central European University — the university that was recently forced to close by prime minister Viktor Orbán. This is due in large part to the fact that CEU was founded by George Soros, a Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, promote the idea that George Soros is responsible for facilitating the influx of migrants and refugees to Hungary, and they have campaigned on promises to “Stop Soros,” relying on blatantly antisemitic messaging and symbolism to rally support. Fidesz has a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament.

Exterior, CEU campus building, Budapest

This is tricky to talk about, but I think it’s important that we fantasy writers who draw inspiration from European cultures and histories are careful not to unintentionally reinforce ideologies of ethnonationalism. I’ll explain what I mean: in recent years, and particularly in Eastern Europe, pre-Christian mythologies and symbols have reemerged as tools of ethnonationalism, which, in Hungary, is synonymous with nativism, anti-Roma racism, and of course, antisemitism. It’s common knowledge that Orbán has been virulently opposed to refugees and migrants settling in Hungary, and has built a fence on the country’s border with Serbia and Croatia to prevent further migrant crossings. Roma in Hungary face racially-motivated violence and staggering, often state-sponsored discrimination. All of this is in service of promoting Hungary as a nation-state – a political entity governed by, and comprised solely of, ethnic Hungarians. Symbols like the turul, a fantastical bird that is central to Hungarian national mythology (which also plays a role in my book), are utilized by far-right parties to bolster their nationalistic, virulently bigoted message.

Hungary is not alone in this respect. Slavic neopaganism is so entangled with ethnonationalism that the two are difficult to separate. Golden Dawn, the Greek Neo Nazi party, regularly uses symbols of Greek mythology; its official logo even features a laurel wreath. These parties are promoting neopaganism as a return to a purer, pre-Christian form of the nation, and this idea is directly tied to anti-EU and anti-globalization rhetoric, as well. This is all complicated and difficult to tease apart in a single blog post, but I think it’s very important for fantasy writers to be aware of the contemporary politics of the countries and cultures that we draw inspiration from, not just the histories.

Interior, Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest

Because I drew so heavily on pre-Christian Hungarian mythology, it was crucial for me to also include Jews in my book. In my books very earliest incarnation, there were no Jews, in part because I didn’t think it would be relatable or marketable. I’m very appreciative to authors like Naomi Novik, Victoria Lee, and Rena Rossner for changing my mind about that, and I’ll be forever grateful for my mentor, Isabel Davis, for encouraging me. Jews have long been a feature of fantasy books – but we are dwarves and goblins, hook-nosed mythic creatures who hoard gold or are defined by oppression or diaspora. Not people with a rich and storied history, not characters with nuance and dignity. Woodsman‘s main character, Évike, is a patrilineal Jew who starts the book isolated from her Jewish heritage, and estranged by her home village for her paternity. It’s an inextricable, intrinsic part of her character, just as Jews are inextricably part of Hungarian history. At the Dohány Street Synagogue museum, there is a carving of a menorah that dates back to the first century CE, discovered in modern-day Hungary – proof that Jews lived in the Carpathian basin even earlier than “ethnic” Hungarians.

Tombstone carving of a menorah, Dohány Street Synagogue museum, Budapest

If I had simply written a book about pagans and Christians, drawing on this fraught, brutal part of Hungarian history, my book may, itself, have been appropriated by Hungarian ethnonationalists to use as a validation, or propaganda – the noble pagans fighting against the violent, globalizing power of Christians! It’s a narrative that far-right parties might have loved. The truth is that Hungary was violently converted to Christianity, and that much of pagan culture and history was wiped out in the process, but also that pre-Christian mythology was integrated in some ways with the newly emerging Christian Hungarian state, as national symbols that define Hungary to this day. The statue of the turul still sits at the gate of Buda castle.

Turul statue, exterior Buda castle, Budapest

It’s just as important to be aware of contemporary politics as it is to understand history; these two things are indivisible. The inclusion of Jews in my book is a message to Hungarian ethnonationalists, and European ethnonationalists as a whole, and even to a fantasy canon that tries to erase or stereotype us: we have always been here. We will always be here.

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