Fate and Causality in Fantasy, a primer.

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” – Socrates (attr)

It is hard to find a decent dictionary definition of fate. However, for the purposes of this article, which deals primarily with fiction and a little bit with politics, fate is is a deterministic outcome that defies rational cause and effect. Fate has a long and storied tradition in literature. The Greek playwrights of old preferred using fate as a device, possibly because they wanted to to focus on the reaction to an event and thus obfuscated cause. While the Greeks certainly understood cause and effect, their dramas were more about evoking an emotional reaction. It doesn’t matter how Oedipus comes to kill his father and marries his mother, is is prophesied that he will do so and that’s that. Indeed Oedipus journey seems kind of random when you read it: he keeps running into strange tests and wierd characters on his way to fulfilling the prophecy. I mean seriously, what does the Sphinx have to do with anything? you could mix up the individual scenes in the middle part of his journey and it would barely effect the story. There is no cause and effect beyond the prophecy. The idea was to invoke pathos in the audience, a sense of common human failing and helplessness against an uncaring universe. Fate is good for this, because if we could see cause and effect in Oedipus’ journey, we might feel less sympathetic. It is an interesting device.

Here are some of the more common uses of Fate in Fantasy fiction

1) Prophecy: Prophecy is the king of irrational causes and is very common in fantasy fiction. The prophecy contains information about an event that will happen in the future. It can be deterministic and unavoidable like the prophecy given to Oedipus’parents or it can be a sort of if/then statement wherein if a certain set of conditions is met at a certain time: BOOM payoff. This second form of prophecy is very popular in modern fantasy, as it sets up a sort of race to see who controls the outcome or if it can be foiled. Often much of the fun is in seeing how events line up in unexpected ways to create the effect predicted by the prophecy, no matter how much the characters try to avoid it.

The causality of prophecy is usually Prophecy –> doesn’t matter = Effect or Prophecy Conditions –> Conditions met (y/n) = Effect if yes. Some authors can be very clever with this device and part of the fun is how convoluted it can get.

2) The Gods: In the Homer’s Odyssey, the Hero Odysseus has offended several of the gods because of his role in the fall of Troy. They influence nature itself to rebel against him sending him to several seemingly unrelated places and hindering his journey. Again, the island of the cyclops or Circe’s domain could be moved in continuity without changing the story much, other than having to re-arrange the number of dead crewmen. Odysseus is gonna wander until the gods get tired of tormenting him, or a friendly god intervenes. In the end, he could have walked home in less time (Should have hitched a ride with Xenophon, I guess).

The Causality here is God Interferes = Effect, often in a series of semi-related events. The god might inflict some misfortune at point A, then another at point B, and another at point C in the narrative. Interestingly some modern authors have reversed this. I’m thinking of Victor Hugo here, where the priest saves Valjean and this little act of kindness ripples throughout the whole narrative, the idea being that God lives in that kind act.

In some cases a callous system can take the place of a cruel god. In these stories the tragedy is unavoidable and the system is beyond cause and effect, and largely ineffable.

3) Destiny: There are quite a few stories in fantasy that involve characters with destinies. They are destined to do a particular thing and are driven to fulfill that task. They rarely waver from their course, and because of this have rather fallen out of favour in the modern day. Rational causes and effect make for a vastly superior linear story because it is more relatable and engages our thought processes. Destiny can also be used as a positive form of Doom, a event favours the character without a sensible cause or effect. A boy randomly finding a magic sword that sets him on the path to greatness, for example. (Although you could follow causes for an even more interesting tale, just how did that blade get there?)

4) Doom: In normal usage, people lash out against fate when they feel that they are wronged by an event that they had no control over. If your arm gets broken by a falling tree branch on a perfectly calm day you would likely curse your luck or rail against fate. There is likely a rational explanation for the breaking of the branch, but not too many people would follow that complex layer of causes. Its just easier to blame fate, especially if that first bad event leads to a second, like losing your job because said branch breaks your arm and you are then late for work. Doom in literature posits an uncaring or downright hostile universe, where bad things happen for no particular reason, often randomly. People will always be poor. Wars cannot be avoided. Life sucks. Some authors use this device brilliantly, using savage chance to evoke the frailty of life or just write a wicked western. Other writers use it lazily and would be better off showing us why things suck so badly in their world. “It just does” only cuts it if you are really good.

In rhetoric “that’s just the way things are” is often used a smokescreen; people are often lured in by this because it is easier to follow than a complex chain of cause and effect.

Modern Fantasy also has plenty of novels that are based on rational cause and effect. Tolkien makes good use of cause and effect to tell the story of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings. The properties of the ring are well defined and the journey mostly makes sense moving from A to B to C in a rational fashion all the way to mount doom. One of the reasons that Tom Bombadil frustrates me so much is that he breaks this sense of causality, appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing entirely from the story for no discernible reason. I mean seriously Tom, we could use your help against Sauron over here bud.

More recently, the Dresden Files follow the style of detective novels where the narrative is driven by the main character following causal links from a catalyst event to the final confrontation. The main character, Harry Dresden, usually uses the event, often a murder or some weird magical happening (frogs!), to determine suspects, motive, background, and rationally predict outcomes (although he often fails at all three) in a very rational manner, despite dealing with supernatural elements. Because we can follow Harry’s line of reasoning, we are tied into to the story. This creates a very believable world despite the use of Fantastic elements.

Of course cause and effect also have their limits, especially in Fantasy. Many a great magic system has been over-explained, for example. More on this later.


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