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.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on December 15, 2011, in Belgarath, Belgarath the Sorcerer, David Eddings, Fantasy, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think none of us, particularly those who believe humans are given free will, like the idea of a character bound inexorably to a particular fate. I always felt that it was one of the flattening things in THE AENEID, that Aeneas has no choice. And yet, I do also believe that in Real Life there are sometimes events and encounters that God insists will happen. The question is how to repeat that in my fiction.

    I’ve created a fantasy world that includes some people who do see into the future. But I’ve chosen to limit that foreknowledge. These visionaries do not always know the context or implications of what they see, so they have to make choices about the significance of the foreknowledge. That’s one way of dealing with the combination of foreknowledge and prophecy.

    But when I look at examples of prophecy in the Bible, I note that not all of them are what I call Absolute Prophecy – that is, THIS event will DEFINITELY happen. Some prophecies are what I call Conditional Prophecy, where the fulfillment of the prophecy is dependant upon choices made, the combination of factors, agreement of participants.

    But when it comes to “cosmic struggles” between Good and Evil, it takes a lot of thought to construct a fantasy world where Evil’s “inevitable” defeat does not belittle the immediate danger it creates.

  2. This is a terrific post, Brian. And you’ve courteously provided a nice springboard for when I take up the question of necessity and choice in The Children of Hurin in a few weeks.

  3. Sarah is right about conditional prophecy. But many of “absolute” prophecies in Scripture are just vague enough to allow for some surprises in their own way. The Jews were expecting the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, and the Prophet like Moses to be different people. The Messiah would be the Davidic king who would overthrow the Roman empire and restore Israel to her Solomonic glory; the Suffering Servant would sacrifice himself in the war to guarantee the Messiah’s success; and the Prophet like Moses would be his press secretary. Jesus’ major heresy to the religious establishment was his novel notion that the Messiah and the Servant were actually the same person.

    Now the interesting thing is that, from the Old Testament alone, you cannot prove either view conclusively. There is no verse anywhere in the OT that clearly identifies these characters (and no verse that makes their identification impossible, either). You could not know HOW God was going to fulfill the prophecies until after the fact. Lots of fantasy stories that encompass prophecy exploit this ambiguity, which creates a space for creative human action that God (or the gods or fate) dovetail into the prophecy in ways that are surprising but feel inevitable in retrospect after all the facts are in. In Tolkien, it is not often called prophecy–it’s usually a lay (“Seek for the sword which is broken”) or even what Gandalf’s “heart” tells him about Gollum–but it has the same effect. The trick is to write the ending so that it gets fulfilled but not in any way that anyone could have predicted. Sammath Naur is one of the best fulfillments of that requirement ever penned.

    See my treatment of this issue with respect to the Music of the Ainur and Frodo at Amon Hen in MERE HUMANITY: G. K. CHESTERTON, C. S. LEWIS, AND J. R. R. TOLKIEN ON THE HUMAN CONDITION (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), pp. 117 ff.

  4. I had a bit of fun approaching the prophecy issue head on in my “Destiny” novella (featuring a giant werepoodle, among other things). I started out with a prophetess (on her deathbed, which made it way more believable) foretelling that the royal offspring of two nations would take over the known world and create an everlasting empire. She gave a nice specific date for it, too.

    But instead of passively letting it happen (who would do that anyway?), I had the nations of the world scheme and plot and produce a half dozen likely offspring who fit the bill. And then they launched them into the world to “fulfill” the prophecy. Of course, they had no idea which one it would be, if any of them.

    So the people consciously worked toward fulfilling the prophecy themselves. Free will or destiny? Hmmmm…

    Or we could ignore the conundrum and just focus on how much fun it is to write stories featuring giant werepoodles and a very annoying dagger…

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