Another Belgarath Issue: The Problem of Predestination in Fiction
It’s finals week at the school where I teach, and we’re all buried with the work of the season. So, for that reason, I’ll keep this short and (hopefully) sweet.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading through David and Leigh Eddings’ Belgarath the Sorcerer, and while doing so a few issues caught my attention. This week I would like to bring up the idea of predestination and how it poses problems not just for the Eddings, but for the rest of us too.
If you’ve read through the book, you know that one of its major themes is the interplay between two all-powerful entities called the “Necessities.” There is a good Necessity and an evil Necessity, both manipulating the various sides in the cosmic conflict, making sure that everything happens when it should and how it should. After the departure of the gods, the Necessities take on more and more important roles in the world, communicating through prophecy. Belgarath himself calls this “predestination” and notes that he often gets frustrated with it.
Of course, predestination and prophecy in a book like this have other effects on the reader (at least this one). While I’ve enjoyed the book quite a bit, I can’t recall a single “edge of your seat” moment. It may well be that it is my status as a historian helps me to appreciate it; I can easily see where someone looking for drama, tension, and action would get bored quickly. I tend to think that’s due to a couple of reasons:
- The first is external: most readers know how the ultimate story of the world is going to turn out anyway. Even if, like me, you haven’t read The Belgariad or The Mallorean you pick up more than enough to know that Torak won’t win in the end. In fact, his history as a dark god seems to be to move from one defeat to the next, learning nothing. (I actually found him rather comic by the end.) That feeling of certainty does much to take away any thought of suspense.
- The second is internal. As the book progresses and the Necessities take over, it becomes relatively clear that the main characters have little or no say in what is happening. There are a few references here and there to the possibility of someone “going off script” and creating a new “EVENT,” but only once (that I recall) does there seem to be any serious chance of that happening–the timetable leading up to the Battle of Vo Mimbre. So, not only is there no question of how it will turn out, I never felt any concern over whether a particular character would succeed or fail either.
It seems to me that this danger is inherent in any attempt to use prophecy or predestination in our writing, and that the Eddings handled it as well as anyone. Much of what makes our stories interesting is the idea that no one knows how things will progress. We want to end well, desperately, but in order to grab our attention, there must be the very real possibility that it might all fall to pieces.
It’s similar to our discussion last year about heroes. A perfect hero is no inspiration at all. We can’t identify with that. Neither can we identify (on a day-to-day level) with the idea that choice doesn’t matter or that things can’t go wrong. Bringing predestination and prophecy into our books drops us right into the middle of a massive theological debate over a contradiction (predestination v. free will) that hundreds of combined years of human experience still hasn’t solved.
In my own writing, I’ve generally avoided the question by simply not including prophecies. I’m going to have to give it some thought before I do. Any intelligent use of predestination must begin, in my opinion, with the sense of paradox that we see in the real world.
How to convey that is another matter entirely! Please leave your thoughts in the comments. It should make for some good discussion.