The Great Cycle: Fate and Causality in Modern Fantasy

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”  Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, from the Wheel of Time series.

I’m just sayin’

The Great Cycle is a well worn fantasy trope that is heavily invested in the idea that the world is governed by a series of grand cycles, usually referred to as ages. These cycles end in cataclysms and war, from which the next cycle springs anew.  There is usually a golden age and fall at some point during the cycle, as well. In most versions of the story the protagonists set themselves against the cycle, trying to break it and stave off the impending disaster. In some stories they succeed, in others they do not. Regardless of the outcome however, the Grand Cycle is a profound rejection of causality. The Cycle follows its own logic, or as Robert Jordan would say “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills.” It does not follow a causal chain, it is something that just happens because it is inevitable and the hand of fate always moves towards it.

Some books, movies, and even games have used the idea of a grand cycle are [Spoiler Alert]:

1) The Wheel of Time: Robert Jordans massive epic is perhaps the best use of the grand cycle in modern Fantasy. He makes good use of the lost golden age, the idea of a grand pattern, and a protagonist who eventually decides to try and end the cycle. I found it got too long and repetitive for my tastes, but I enjoyed that Jordan came right out and let the reader know he was writing a tale about the grand cycle right off.

2) Mass Effect: Nobody expects the Great Cycle in a Science Fiction computer game. The main enemies in the mass effect series are the reapers, monstrous artificial entities that periodically wipe out/harvest all life in the universe in order to further their own goals. The protagonists begin to learn of the cycle through contact with artifacts from a vanished species, the Protheans, who attempted to defeat the reapers last time around. I love Mass Effect’s spin on the great cycle. I could simply be a causal event on a grand scale. Although the reapers claim to be without beginning or end. Still cool.

3) Battlestar Galactica (2004): In the most recent iteration of BSG it is suggested that humanity is constantly wiped out by its own robotic creations, the cylons. The final episode contains the lines  “All of this has happened before. But the question remains, does all of this have to happen again?” 

4) Ragnarok: Ragnarok in Norse Mythology is the fated end of the world, when most of the gods die. Interestingly it is seen as part of a cycle and the children of the Gods continue on, presumably to the next cycle.

5) The Stormlight Archive: Brian Sanderson’s next big project appears to include the grand cycle. The Way of Kings pointed toward a Grand Cycle, but with some possible differences… It will be interesting to see how he uses the idea.

The idea of the Grand Cycle has its roots in religious belief, likely originating in early agricultural societies who were very attached to seasonal cycles and thus inclined to view the world that way, I’d guess.

The Great Cycle in Fantasy fiction is ahistorical, being driven by fate over cause and effect. The events that line up to cause the are generally outside human agency. Thus if a story involves the Grand Cycle it is fate driven, even it breaks said cycle. The idea that events are predestined is not a product of reasoned cause and effect, except for notions of physics and philosophy well beyond the scale of most stories.

In theory though, some Grand Cycles, like Mass Effect could be rendered in causal terms. The Reapers claim to be without beginning, but establishing an origin for them would make the cycle causal, albeit on a metascale.

In general I don’t have a problem with the Grand Cycle as a device in Fantasy, or even mythology. On the other hand I hate the way people use the idea of the Grand Cycle in real life. The world as we know it is historical, and while the cause and effect of events are a matter for debate and study, juts because they lie beyond our grasp does not mean that we should shrug our collective shoulders and give up on seeking answers. War is a good example of this. I often hear people utter the phrase “war is inevitable.” On one hand this sort of truism is rather hard to disagree with considering some part of the planet is always at war. One the other hand it is also an excuse for ridiculously lazy thinking about how peace initiatives in the middle east are pointless because they are doomed to fail or how striving towards peace is naive because we will always be drawn into a war eventually. Dropping everything onto the lap of fate, and thus abdicating responsibility ignores the fact that history is progressive, with human life generally getting better as time goes on and science/knowledge advances.

Wars are caused by people, not fate. Attempting to understand the causes allows us to minimize the occurrence in the same way that modern medicine helps us to stave of infection, disease, and even live longer lives (awesome!).

Because I enjoy history I tend to prefer fiction that respects causality. Obviously some authors want to explore ideas of fate and Grand Cycles; I don’t hold that against them. Modern Fantasy is big enough for many different styles of storytelling, after all. However for examining ideas on a human scale, nothing beats causality. Fate and inevitability cheapen events on the human level by ignoring the question why?, which can easily be answered on the scale of human action.


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