Foundation and Prophecy

Much of the successful fantasy that I have read is obsessed with prophecy. Perhaps it makes sense: it harkens back to the old idea of cyclic time, the reassurance that what was will be again. But I don’t get it. Prophecy robs the characters of agency; it turns them into puppets. Yet it comes up again and again in the most successful fantasy—and science fiction.

Two examples from fantasy will suffice: The Belgariad, which I loved when I was twelve, and The Wheel of Time, which was diverting (though with an infuriatingly childish view of the differences between the sexes) but rapidly became tedious. Both are about young men born into simple farming communities, unaware of their magical potential (echoes of Star Wars). Both replay events of ages past; both are foretold in prophecies. The Wheel of Time tells explicitly of repeating cycles, as its title indicates. The first book of The Belgariad is Pawn of Prophecy.

It is an old pattern. Achilles was fated to live to an old age, or to die young, a hero; Cassandra fortells Agamemnon’s murder—half fasting, half eating, half bathing, half dry1; Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother. But in these stories the prophecy creates tension: Oedipus’s father, in trying to cheat fate, becomes trapped by it. Cassandra’s curse is that no-one will believe her. Achilles makes a choice.

In these newer fantasies, heroism is a birthright: it is like being born with money. The fate of these characters seems unearned. On the one hand, these stories seem to say, anyone could be born a hero or a prince, even a poor farm boy. On the other, heroism is in the hero’s blood, not in his actions. It is a terribly romantic attitude.

How strange then to find it in Isaac Asimov’s rationalist Foundation.

Foundation is about the fall of an empire and the rise of its successor. One man, Hari Seldon, predicts the collapse. He sees that the empire will fall; he sees too that it will be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism. But Seldon is a scientist: a genius of psychohistory. This discipline applies scientific reason to predict the behaviors of large populations. Seldon uses his psychohistory to chart an alternate course for human development, one which will shorten the dark age to a mere millennium. He plants two Foundations and sets them on courses which will control humanity to bring about his shorter dark age (though reading the books, I wonder what characteristic of the dark age makes it dark: the fallen empire seems as flawed as the fragmentation that follows).

Asimov’s Seldon Plan is no less a prophecy for being based on scientific mumbo-jumbo. The naive faith that reason could predict so much is somewhat charming for its obsolescence; like the old Star Trek it makes me wonder that people really thought that way. But it too denies agency to its characters; they are cut-outs whose actions only reveal the power — and justice — of the prophecy. The image of Seldon reappears from time to time to demonstrate the truth of his prediction and underscore the control his science has over humanity. This all strikes me as profoundly anti-human (Wikipedia says paternalistic), and little different from the romances I might expect his rationalism would oppose.

What about the greatest commercial successes — Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings?

Star Wars lacks the explicit prophecy, but the story of Luke echoes both the fantasies I mentioned and the history of his father. More importantly, he too is born a hero: his Force is in his blood.

While Lord of the Rings shares some of the qualities of the other fantasies (the unlikely small-town heroes, the weight of the past on the present), it is not as guilty of predetermining the fates of its characters. While I am convinced that the true subject of the story is technology2, in Lord of the Rings it is race that dictates fate. Body and spirit are split into dwarves and elves. Orcs are fallen elves, echoes of Lucifer. Hobbits embody the romantic values of rural society beloved of Tolkien. Only humans are ambiguous, and they are not central.

The stories are without prophecy, but that doesn’t mean the characters are in command of their futures. What I don’t understand is the popularity of these stories in which heroes do not choose their fate, it chooses them. Do we like to think we are not in control? Do we believe that the only way we can achieve greatness is to have it forced on us? Perhaps we are sensible, like Tolkien’s hobbits, and don’t really want it at all. Though that’s not the choice Achilles would have made.


1 This is how I recall Agamemnon’s death and Cassandra’s prophecy; however, a short search online hasn’t turned up support for this version. There are apparently several variants of the story.

2 Several years ago, an article in the New Yorker explained Tolkien’s romanticism and his objection even to the first automobile in his town.