The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

Beowulf’s dragon by Charles Keeping

Two things come out of what to me still smacks a bit of predestination. The first is that classic fantasy has its roots in mythology, as has religion (if you like, religion is mythology saddled with prescribed morals); adding to the mix are elements of legend, folklore and fairytale.

The second aspect that occurs to me is that while the goal may be predetermined in such narratives (fantasy, religion, fairytale, it’s all the same) the way and the manner you get to it isn’t necessarily set. Mistakes, missteps, rogue events — they all imperil the protagonist and make their journey a hazardous pilgrimage, one often stretching over trilogies — or even seven-book sequences.

Like fairytales the idea is to allow the listener or reader to empathise with the protagonist, to appreciate the difficult decisions they usually have to make, to vicariously experience their thoughts and actions, and to interact with the archetypes they meet along the way. A basic humanitarianism or morality is the crucial ingredient, particularly an all-encompassing and ultimately unselfish love.

I write all this as a sort of response to thoughts expressed in Alicia’s comment on a post on Jeanne’s Necromancy Never Pays blog, not to necessarily disagree with them but to express my belief that the Chosen One trope is actually one we have to internalise — because that’s all we can cling to, isn’t it: the idea that we each exist here for a purpose even it we don’t know what it is. It may not have a basis in reality, of course, but quite often it’s essentially what we have to give meaning to our existence. Because ultimately there is only one certainty.

And in times of rapid, profound change, where control instead of being self-generated is palpably external and seemingly arbitrary, maybe narratives that suggest that the weak and downtrodden may be destined to right the balance are quite literally the lifeline that we need.


* Other yeasty spread products are available, eg Vegemite®™

44 thoughts on “The force of destiny

  1. I liked some fantasy. I liked the Lord of the Rings, McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, and Tuttle/Martin Windhaven – because they are well written.

    I LOVE Dune – don’t know exactly where you’d classify that.

    But it is the worldbuilding and the depth that attract me, and a lot of modern stuff lacks that depth and quality of language.

    The Chosen One trope bothers me – when it says that someone is predestined to be the solution, before they’re even born – to a particular problem. I have the same problem with monarchies (except that it is true that being born into the right place will get you the training that might allow you to survive it).

    As for it applying to individuals finding their unique chore in life, I have to agree – because I’ve been writing what I believe is mine for twenty years now. The book could not have been written by anyone else, or even me with another life, and I hope it has legacy legs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should come clean and state that I’m irreligious to the point of existentialism. Rationally I don’t have any truck with fate or predestination, I don’t have a lucky number or cross my fingers.

      But I do subscribe to what’s been called ‘magical thinking’ because, emotionally, this is a comforting way to thread one’s way in life. Being a pattern-seeking animal it’s easy to slip into fairytale/fantasy tropes because to try to fathom out an overall pattern to an extremely complex existence is challenging and exhausting; but I don’t hold that religions have ‘the answer’. Magical Thinking helps us function but it doesn’t represent a Universal Truth, a Theory of Everything, or a Key to All Mythologies.

      Sorry, I went on a bit there! To pick up on a couple of your points: I think Dune is fantasy masquerading as science fiction, and is what I think is meant by the term ‘space opera’. And yes, worldbuilding matters to me too in such fictions, though of course not everything needs to be spelt out — it just needs to hang together.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. And, Alicia, I originally got my references wrong — it was actually a response to your comment on Jeanne’s review of Alison Croggan’s The Naming which got me considering this topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the literary world, and therefore ours, would be much diminished without fantasy. What I’d quite like is if we could stop needing to label them.

    My earliest reading memories are not of following one particular type of story, but of dipping into the library of our small school randomly. It had never been touched by a librarian, and there were two sections. One wall was lined with stories, the other with non-fiction. For me, reading has always been an adventure. As you point out, it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.

    Thank you, by the way, for introducing me to Joan Aiken. I got Black Hearts in Battersea from the library this week, and am finding it hard to put down. I think I prefer it to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But maybe because that one created layers of backstory referred to in this… I might have to write a post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First of all, I’m glad you’re enjoying the Aiken, Cath — I happily extol the virtues of this or that title, only to misdoubt myself when somebody takes up my recommendation! So to hear that you haven’t yet been disappointed makes me glad! I look forward to any thoughts you post on this.

      If we could stop needing to label fantasy I do largely concur with: I always maintain that all fiction, and a great deal of non-fiction, is in essence fantasy, because it’s an imaginative representation of what is or could be, products of a creative mind (the Greek root means ‘to make visible’).

      So, even if much of what I read is tagged fantasy you’ll note (and I’m sure the same applies to you and many other readers) I’m very happy to swap genres. As with you, reading has always been an adventure for me, from childhood through to now. And that’s another reason to encourage every youngster to read, and as widely as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I ingested so much fantasy at such a young age that it is literally part of my bodily makeup. So the Chosen One idea never occurred to me as something to object to before, but if I turn on my adult mind I can see that there are some things that could be questionable. You are bringing out some nuances that are interesting and I have to chew on them for a while.

    I agree with this: “that the Chosen One trope is actually one we have to internalise — because that’s all we can cling to, isn’t it: the idea that we each exist here for a purpose even it we don’t know what it is. It may not have a basis in reality, of course, but quite often it’s essentially what we have to give meaning to our existence. Because ultimately there is only one certainty.” I think that is what made fantasy so compelling to me early on: that sense of meaning which holds us in a circle of light within the darkness. It’s the same thing I look for in any kind of reading: fiction, nonfiction, realistic, fantasy, or what have you. And if it’s delivered in a false or unconvincing or manipulative way, then it’s a betrayal. Those are the books I dislike, regardless of genre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pleased this chimed in with some of your thinking, Lory—I’m always anxious that musings on such matters as the Chosen One might offend those who might think it’s an attack on, say, monotheistic religions or other creeds where the messianic figure or sacrificial scapegoat comes close to this trope. To me, the existence of these figures may reflect on the notion that the Chosen One idea has untold antiquity and a universality that I can mainly relate to if I see it as a pattern, one which the individual can somehow identify with as an indication of their essential humanity and compassion. Is that too pretentious? I do hope not.

      But it’s the false or unconvincing or manipulative presentation that bothers me as much as you. I, we, see it many media — the gung-ho hero of action movies, the personae adopted by unprincipled populists, the mendacious claims of online trolls — and, as you rightly say, it’s a betrayal.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To me any religion or other worldview is a window through which we try to peer at a reality that we have to imagine as being outside ourselves, because that’s the only way we can get enough perspective on it (even though in fact it exists in us and we are totally embedded in it). Say there is a “chosen one” figure painted on this window. Do you near-sightedly focus just on the window itself, forgetting the world beyond and thus imprisoning yourself in a flat and lifeless world? Do you stubbornly impose the image on everything you see through the window, no matter what it may be in itself, again cutting yourself off from the true fullness of reality? Or do you use it as a template, looking to see how it aligns with real, three-dimensional figures in the world beyond the window — and thus activating a kindred reality in yourself? This rather unwieldy analogy is what springs to mind, even though I’m not sure myself how it applies to the present question. But I know I would want to choose option #3.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can see what you’re aiming for in this analogy, Lory, and I think your option No 3 is very similar to Plato’s cave allegory: that we mustn’t mistake the simulacrum for the substance.

          Sadly I think there are still too many people who still do that, and it’s hard work to convince them to look beyond the simulacrum. However, note I’m not in any way attempting to define the substance — it’s way beyond my capabilities!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m sure one result of my immersion in fantasy was to make a Platonist of me. Not, as you say, that I can define the substance I’m pointing to, but I can’t shake my conviction that it’s there. Perhaps those with an aversion to fantasy are more Aristotelian in their cast of mind?

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never really thought about this trope before either, growing up devouring fantasy first, then SF – Dune being a great example. I’m not overworried about tropes like this being done well, it’s when they’re used lazily they get a bad name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree, Annabel, Dune is an excellent example of the Chosen One meme in what superficially seems like SF but borrows heavily from fantasy tropes (with sandworms instead of dragons as an added draw). And lazy writing is lazy writing, whatever genre it happens in.

      Like

  5. Really interesting post, and I have read and loved much fantasy over the years. As for the trope (which is intriguing in itself – and I am a raving atheist, who still thinks there’s a lot in the world we don’t see or understand) – anyway, I’m struggling to see quite how it applies to the post of mine you linked, unless it’s my love of an omnipresent detective putting the world in order? Or maybe I’m missing something…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops, I seem to have got extremely confused about where I posted to and who it was I responded to — is this senility asserting itself?! — and so I apologise about that! I’ve looked it up and it was a sort of response to Alicia above on a completely different blog, duh! I’ve now corrected it. Sorry again!

      The original response was to a review of the first of Alison Croggan’s Pellinor fantasy quartet, a series I read and reviewed many years ago (https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/pellinor/?orderby=date&order=ASC). It was very much in the Tolkien epic fantasy tradition and was definitely predicated on the Chosen One theme, but it didn’t feel formulaic, mainly because Croggan is a writerly writer, a poet and a playwright. And of course, the route to the fulfilment of prophecy was by no means easy for the female protagonist.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Alyson Woodhouse

    I enjoyed your post and the subsequent discussion in the comments. Firstly, I think I am probably in the take or leave camp regarding Fantasy. Generally, I was more open to it when I was younger, and I greatly prefer it to Dystopian Fiction, which I intensely dislike, although it is probably in itself a sub-genre of Fantasy. I would still turn to some forms of Fantasy now if I am in a very specific frame of mind, but it is not something I would automatically reach for.

    As for the trope of the Chosen One, I have become increasingly impatient with it, but more because it is now so over-used than for any deeply philosophical reasons. I am aware though that it is an easy, even logical way to place certain characters in a particular situation, and to provide a familiar pattern for potential readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Alyson, for your appreciation and comments, to which I had some immediate thoughts, as below. Forgive me for rabbiting on as though I am in some kind of lecture mode, and especially if it comes over as slightly hectoring — I’m only trying to get those thoughts down before I forget them!

      It’s the archetypal fairytale that partly provides the blueprint, I believe, along with classical and religious myths, for the Chosen One trope: the youngest sibling of three who succeeds where the others don’t, the fairy curse turned into something less malign at the christening, the innocent in a family who is marked out as different but who succeeds at a task initially regarded as beyond their capabilities. All these instances are a kind of of prefiguring of the protagonist’s future despite being disregarded at the outset.

      But I agree it is as lazy a pattern as those found in, for example, most romcoms (boy meets girl — there’s a misunderstanding or other setback — they finally get back together) and all too often revealed by creaky plotting along the lines of 1. Introduction. 2. Inciting event. 3. A series of crises. 4. Final resolution, occasionally brought about by a deus ex machina. The same applies to almost any other genre you can think of.

      But that’s only the nature of story, I suppose: beginning—middle—end. Contemporary literature might play with this tripartite pattern (omit a resolution, say, or begin at the end and work back) but mostly the plot follows the clichéd pattern. The Chosen One meme (another cliché) fits this template well but in much non-genre literature is heavily disguised, because we accept that the protagonist is somehow marked out to achieve something by the narrative’s end (or to follow a chequered career even if ending a failure). In other words the implicit ‘prophecy’ the writer offers is this: here is the protagonist — take note of them and follow their career because outstanding things will be accomplish because of or in spite of who they are and what they do.

      I think it’s by and large fantasy that turns this implicit signal into, something explicit. Hope this rambling response makes some sort of sense!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think for most people reading – including fantasy – is mainly a form of escapism. The fact that much fantasy follows the trope just makes it easier/recognisable for readers and writers alike. And it also appeals to our inner childhood wish to be “the unacknowledged sun of the king” as Rorty once said, and indeed, also fairytales had that same function: provide hope for the downtrodden.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ve basically said what I was trying to say, Bart, but more succinctly! But I’d maintain that the best fantasy is able to transcend the genre — in part if not wholly — if it says profound things about human nature that don’t merely parrot obvious clichés (such as love and compassion being worthy qualities, however true that might be).

      And no, before you ask, I’m not going to be drawn on examples of transcendent fantasy — I know what a critical approach you take to texts, and I mean that in nicest possible and most complimentary way!

      Liked by 1 person

            1. Within her choice of SFF modes I know I can rely on her customary focus on la condition humaine to give heart to her narratives, and that’s particularly the case here, I think.

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Right now was an overstatement yesterday, but I’m actually going to read the first page right after I finish this comment and close down the laptop. I’m curious!

              Liked by 1 person

  8. You did comment on this on my post about Croggan’s The Naming. I love fantasy, but sometimes I do feel like tugging on the chosen one trope, as it often gets a little tight around my neck.

    I love what you say at the end of your post, that “the Chosen One trope is actually one we have to internalise — because…. it’s essentially what we have to give meaning to our existence.” Yes.

    But where it feels tight to me is the idea that some external forces gives meaning to my existence. No. It’s me who has to do that.

    Even if I am as small and insignificant as I often feel, it’s my job to stand up for what I believe and fight the good fight for as long as I can, because if I wait for someone else to do it, it may never get done or enough small people like me won’t be there to help shoulder the burden.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeanne, most of my response on your post is, virtually verbatim, at the core of what I say here, so I’m grateful you provided the stimulus! And, yes, it’s those ‘external forces’ giving meaning to existence that I too baulk at. It’s us, we ourselves, who attribute significance to our little lives, not something indefinable in the near infinite depths of space-time.

      On the other hand, a lot of fantasy is set in worlds not ours, and in common with myth and fairytale it’s permissable I suppose to have some sort of demiurge overseeing things while allowing a semblance of free will to function. Many fantasies have the Three Norns of Norse myth or the Fates in Greek myth (from which of course we get fata, fay, faërie, fairy) spinning, weaving and snipping the threads of individuals’ lives. As a poetic conceit I don’t particularly have a problem with this. But the Chosen One motif is, we agree, rather too hackneyed now! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t like the Chosen One trope much because I think if fate knows who is to be the hero, then fate must also know how it ends, and therefore it doesn’t matter what the Chosen One does – it’s effectively out of their hands. However when it’s an unlikely hero, like Frodo, who gets accidentally caught up in a quest then I’m OK with that, because in theory at least Sauron could have won. I don’t quite know why I struggle to enjoy fantasy, but I think the predestination aspect is certainly part of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make an interesting point here (sorry, that sounds condescending, I don’t mean it that way!) about being some heroes ‘accidentally’ caught up in a quest. Of course, those ‘accidents’ may be part of the Grand Plan (at least, the plan in the mind of the author as Creator) but that’s a another can of worms.

      Tolkien’s Hobbit heroes who fall into their roles (Bilbo from a whim to chase after the dwarves, Frodo whose heirloom was not something he’d wished for) are, I think, the author having his cake and eating it. Gandalf is always denying a knowledge of the future, isn’t he? “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” for example, or “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

      As a Catholic Tolkien would have had problems with Calvinistic notions of predestination. The way he wrote, not always knowing what was coming next (Strider famously first appeared in the LoTR narrative uninvited as another hobbit), may point to happenstance as a key factor in the trilogy’s genesis, even if he subsequently retconned sections — as authors often do. Harry Potter too popped into his author’s head unbidden on a train journey, and he being teased with the Chosen One label must surely be Rowling’s knowing joke about the trope, even if that’s how it turns out.

      So, maybe the trope is nuanced with some authors but a lot less so with others.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “And in times of rapid, profound change, where control instead of being self-generated is palpably external and seemingly arbitrary, maybe narratives that suggest that the weak and downtrodden may be destined to right the balance are quite literally the lifeline that we need.”

    This is a very timely post for me. As I continue to read more contemporary novels I realize many of them are 1) fantasy and 2) set in WWII! Having been so dedicated to classic literature for the 5 years of my blog I have been asking myself, “why are you attracted to these two areas right now and is there some correlation to your life or world events?”

    As I muse a bit with your post, I think both are related. My interest in fantasy is not warring worlds so much as it is internal journeys that surely include fights and violence and using Narnia or the Dark is Rising series, though, these are characters who have been tasked with responsibility for outer goals, like saving the universe (!), but also their inner development. And the WWII books I enjoy are not books about battles, but usually take place in small towns and villages where the characters have to learn to live and sacrifice for the greater good, doing their part and caring about their neighbors in regards to how an individual’s choices affect others. Every sacrifice, every action reveals your selfishness or love of community.

    So I am realizing I am reading these now, because I DO feel helpless in the world and wonder if my little sacrifices, like masking and staying home are worth it in the larger world? Maybe I use these books at the moment as models of how to act when the chips are down and I look at the choices the characters make. Am I, like the people I read about, making a difference?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. After a career in teaching I am convinced that every kind, thoughtful and altruistic act one does has the potential to make a difference, even if one thinks nobody has noticed—conversations with past students often reveals that those now forgotten gestures, words or deeds are indeed remembered, and to my relief usually with gratitude.

      That modelling you mention, Laurie, which fantasy and related books often provide does indicate what your own inclinations are and doubtless reflects how you yourself act; at the risk of preaching to the converted I do believe this is a stance which, the more of us that take it, the more chance there is that social responsibility will be further adopted, incrementally and more widely. If we don’t, then society can only become more morally bankrupt, the victim of increasingly totalitarian regimes that rule by division, fear and suspicion.

      Myself, I have like you steered more towards uplifting books than depressing ones, though I haven’t minded the odd challenge. Many teachers I follow have likewise focused on child-oriented books that emphasise social resilience, positivity and creativity. It cheers me no end.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. “And in times of rapid, profound change, where control instead of being self-generated is palpably external and seemingly arbitrary, maybe narratives that suggest that the weak and downtrodden may be destined to right the balance are quite literally the lifeline that we need.”

    This makes a lot of sense. Narratives containing a chosen one seem to be about that kind of rebalancing. Even the Christian story carries this chosen one / rebalancing trope really clearly – “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

    For me though I prefer Terry Pratchett’s answer to power… “Back down on the plains, if you kicked people they kicked back. Up here, when you kicked people up they moved away and waited for you leg to fall off. How could a king go down in history ruling a people like that? You couldn’t oppress them any more than you could oppress a mattress.”

    In times when the people with power seem to be messing things up right, left and centre and we realise that we have little or no ability to control our own lives, stories like this dangle a thread of hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Trust Pterry to come up with his usual oblique words of wisdom, Jo! Idealogues aim to get a rise out of their opponents by constantly seeing how much controversial they can get away: one way to counter their taunting and tantalising is not to play their game but be proactive in different ways.

      The mattress approach only works as an analogy in a limited way, however, just as civil disobedience and passive resistance only achieves so much against an energetic malign power.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I see what you mean. Passive resistance can only go so far, most especially when those in power have no morals. This is, perhaps why the Chosen One idea resonates so strongly when things like this are going on.

        What I like about Pratchett’s approach has more to do with the attitude that approach embodies than the actual passive resistance model I think. Because the people of Lancre don’t take their King too seriously they don’t get hooked into many of the barbs which amoral leaders catch people with so it acts as a protective attitude.

        Anyway, thanks for another very thought provoking post!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. elmediat

    I found while teaching that there was a group of students who could not suspend their disbelief willingly. They had trouble with fantasy & science fiction. To them, realism of setting, character, and events rested experiences that “actually” existed. Unicorns & Martians are not real, so narratives about them are not real – realistic, offering truths that applied to real life. They struggled with finding meaning in phantasmagoria & the magical. These were students in grades 10 & 12. There wouldn’t be many, one or two would show in a class from year to year.

    The Canadian novel, Tay John ( 1939) by Howard O’Hagan, has the quality of magic realism, and explores the nature of perception, narrative, and truth through the story of legend of Tay John. It can help some readers bridge (their perceived) gap between realism & fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really interesting, this apparent absence or at least limitation of imaginative capability, the kind of mind that has to take things literally, a mentality that has no understanding of metaphor and mistakes simile for insult.

      On the other hand there are the imaginations that are susceptible to manipulation, the ones that ignore the nose on the face for a belief in, say, extraterrestrial lizard invasion, who apparently can’t be shaken from their grip of conspiracy theories but who may yet be swayed by a contradictory promulgation from their prophet-leader. Both types are dangerous, hein?

      Thanks for the pointer to the O’Hagan novel: quite apart from the intrinsic qualities you outline I feel a need to read more Canadian authors. Oh, and Antipodean writers. And wordsmiths from other countries and cultures…

      Liked by 1 person

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