The fault in our stars. Defying the gods. Changing our fate. Star-crossed lovers. Everywhere you look, you find humans struggling with prophecy. We’ve been obsessed with predicting our futures since the dawn of time. The essential question is … can we really? Is there such a thing as Fate to fight against?
In the waking world, astrology and other forms of divination have gone mainstream. Granted, I think this says more about our times than anything. We’re navigating through uncharted waters. Just look around! Anything that can answer the unanswerable is going to comfort a lot of people.
On the other hand, I’ve been promised the end of the world since I was old enough to pay attention. (I was reared in a fundamentalist sect, but that’s a story for another day.) How many doomsday scenarios have I lived through? Mutually Assured Destruction? The election of ______? (It doesn’t matter what name or political party you insert.) Y2K? The end of the Mayan Calendar? The Large Hadron Collider at CERN? Yet, we’re still here … or are we?
Let’s put a pin in physics theories about us living in a simulation (for now) and turn back to literature. Predictions abound in fantasy. Prophecies are a pillar trope in epic fantasy. They’re like assholes: everybody’s got one and most of them stink.
The Prophecy Problem
Every writer and reader on the planet is familiar with the Prophecy trope. Turn the pages of any fantasy novel, grimdark or not, and there’s going to be some vague saying or rhyme about a future event, a chosen one, or doomsday. If it’s central to the plot, especially if there’s a Chosen One trope also in play. Prepare to yawn, if it’s done poorly, because you know what’s going down.
Done wrong, the prophecy trope can be a lazy spoiler, letting the reader know that Perfect Protagonist (usually the author’s Mary Sue stand-in), will win the day because it’s ordained from heaven or something equally stupid. Maybe the hero is reluctant about it or something, but…
The best prophecies are completely turned on their head. They don’t unfold smoothly, or in a way that the reader’s led to expect. Prophecies in my world are deconstructed, subverted, or outright lies. And you’ll never be quite sure which.
The Red Comet
Mad props to George R.R. Martin. One of the best and most infamous examples of prophecies and predictions, and how much bullshit they actually are, is the red comet at the beginning of A Clash of Kings.
Basically, every character sees the comet sailing over the sky and interprets it to fit what they’re doing at the moment they see it. Maester Luwin sees the comet after receiving word that Eddard Stark’s been beheaded; obviously, he takes it as a sign of doom. Dany sees it the night her dragons hatch and interprets it as a sign of her coming. People in Camp Lannister take it as a sign that their new king Joffrey is blessed (ugh) and meanwhile, Melisandre, the red priestess from Asshai has her own theories.
As for me, I imagine George chuckling to himself as he writes everyone and their pet grandmother spawning a theory that suit their own little lives and their small scheme in the cosmos. When in actuality, the red comet is probably just some natural phenomenon. Granted, there’s a little symbolism thrown in: comets in our world are associated with dragons, and they’re balls of ice that burn up as they pass over our atmosphere. Fire and ice, anyone? (That’s my theory on the name of the series anyway.)
The thing is: all of these signs work because of correlation, not causation. The passages about the red comet expose how people interpret the cosmos and use it to find meaning in their lives. It’s magical thinking at its finest. It works, it’s real, only because you believe it is. Whichever competing theory wins becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Same goes for the Azor Ahai prophecy. I won’t go into how this was fucking butchered at the end of the HBO show, but I will say I’ve been eagerly awaiting Winds of Winter for a decade now (any time, George!) to give me some more clarity on how the Azor Ahai prophecy came about. Maybe we’ll get hints in the prequel? (If George has even figured it out for himself by then.)
For now, it seems like we’re getting close, but as Martin subtly points out, prophecies and predictions are so vague that can be applied to whatever you want them to be.
I’d argue there’s a catch though. Going back to the comet, the associations weren’t out of nowhere. Red is associated with blood and war. A lot of the people interpreting the comet’s meaning were about to go to war or were already fighting one. Again though, correlation and causation, or some deliberate sign from the universe, aren’t the same thing. People see what they want to see.
Is there a system?
Astrology, tarot, runes, soothsayers, take your pick. There’s an arsenal of divination tools in the waking world that can easily be borrowed in fiction.
But, there’s a reason grimdark fantasy characters don’t run up to each other and ask, “What’s your sign?” Information is power. As Goerranu says to Illyria, “I tell no secrets for free.”
Grimdark often takes place in a second world or constructed world totally unlike our own contemporary Earth. This means that unless the author has the time or the inclination to come up with their own zodiac wheel and cosmology, that’s not going to happen. (Spoiler Alert: I did. You get to see some of it revealed in Raven Queen, Arise. There will be more coming.)
And there’s a lot that goes into building a system like this. Forget the sun sign bullshit you read in newspapers. It’s complicated. Real astrology has to do with ellipsis, aspects, houses, times of both, horary charts, ephemeris tables galore, and a bunch of minutiae that covers books, courses, blogs, and a host of other writing dating back thousands of years. (What if, like the Litanies in Illyria’s world, these are not divinely inspired, but lies perpetrated by mad gods and false prophets?)
What about tarot or runes? Tarot is a card system going back to the Middle Ages consisting of seventy-two cards. Runes are a system of twenty-four letters (twenty-five runes if you count wyrd) with their own distinct meaning. You could spend a good chunk of your time creating your own runes and tarot, or even an oracle card system, or just use what exists. It’s in the public domain and fun to learn! (When the Temple of Vengeance quadrilogy is complete, I’ll be taking up this project for Illyria’s cosmology. Watch for it coming to a crowdfunding site near you.)
Let’s go back to a grimdark question: Who can make prophecies, doomsday or otherwise? Can anyone pick up a pack of tarot cards and find the Chosen One? Or chop open a hapless sheep and suss out a doomsday prophecy that could come true?
Every Day is Doomsday in the Grimdark
Since most people’s belief about divination in the waking world is that it’s bunk, that’s often the cynical take that grimdark fantasy goes with (see Martin’s prophecies above). If any boob can read signs, then prophecies don’t mean anything. At best, they’re an ego stroke for those who interpret them in their favor. Misinterpretations can lead to wars and much worse.
In a lot of fantasy, the bearers of prophecies are priests, wizards, and other people or creatures in tune with the will of the gods. But, the “How do you know?” question still comes into play.
- Can you really trust the people making the prophecies?
- Don’t they have their own biases and motivations that are being played out rather than this intangible truth of what’s really happening?
- Even if they’re sincere and relaying messages from beyond, how do we know that the gods don’t have their own agendas?
And that’s why I love grimdark fantasy. A lot of critical thinking goes into these worlds that’s not just explained with a “because I said so” or “a wizard did it.”
- In a world where the gods claim complete authority over everyone’s fate, is their will the only valid truth?
- Do your creators have the right to whatever whims they wish to impose upon you?
- What’s the right course of action when you refuse to obey the will of the gods?
- Can you defy heaven without destroying the world in the process?
Raven Queen, Arise explores the collision of competing prophecies, the lies beneath false divination, and one dead woman’s fight against her unwanted fate.