Archive for the ‘folklore’ Category

I’ve talked about prophecies that are a Fake-Out — that is, a prophecy is given and does come true but in an unexpected way. But let’s not pretend, there can also be stories where the prediction is just outright False.

Maybe the “seer” is a con-artist, issuing prophecies that get clients to give them money somehow. Maybe the “oracle” is more interested in pleasures of the flesh, and will tell a succession of lovers that they are “destined” for each other.

False Prophets, unfortunately, have lots of usefulness for governments and institutions. A regime facing unrest might receive a “prophecy” of war if the Beloved Leader is questioned. Or a televangelist might proclaim that “God will take him home” unless a certain amount of donations are received. Someone might even (shudder) foretell that the world is ending and persuade their followers to drink poison.

A mistaken oracle doesn’t have to be wicked, though. The “seer” might mean well and believe that they are foretelling truly (whether by a vision or some method of divination) but there’s no actual magic there. Meanwhile, in the comedic fantasy movie Willow, a village priest declares he must consult the Bones, but then whispers “the Bones tell me nothing” and asks the title character what he wants to do. Once the character decides, he proclaims, “The Bones have spoken!”

As writers, we have rich ground to explore with a False Prophet. The evil seer who predicts the death of a rival — and then hires assassins. The wealthy merchant who always receives the best prophecies money can buy. Or the person of good heart who fudges their prediction in order to help someone out.

My prediction: fantasy authors will continue to write about Destiny and those who tell it for many years to come!

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It’s all well and good to debate the chances that a particular oracle’s words will come true or not, but I suspect the real unknown is not the relative skill of the prophet. It’s in the one who receives the prophecy.

In many legends, the prophecy only begins to come true when somebody believes it, and acts upon it. In my novel, Too Many Princes, King Unferth of Crutham receives a prophecy that if he doesn’t have more than 20 sons, no son of his will succeed him on the throne. Everything about Unferth’s life changes as he scrambles to have children with as many women as possible — and much to the disgust of his queen.

Merlyn receives a vision of a great king uniting Britain in an era of peace. He then begins manipulating the events that lead to King Arthur’s conception, his training in secret, and his eventual coronation.

Gandalf knows of a prophecy that the sword Narsil will one day be re-forged and re-named Anduril. Then the lost heir of Gondor will be restored to his throne. Gandalf makes it a point to befriend Aragorn and make sure he follows the steps necessary to claim his destiny.

In perhaps the greatest prophecy tale from Greek legend, King Acrisius of Argo receives a prophecy that his daughter’s son will one day kill him and seize his throne. He decides to lock Danae up in a tower, but she is still impregnated by the god Zeus. So Acrisius shuts mother and son up in a chest and throws it into the sea. The chest comes to land, and the boy grows up to, indeed, overthrow his grandfather.

The Perseus story, in particular, shows how acting on the prophecy can create its own outcome. After all, most kings hope to have an heir of their own bloodline. Like, say, a grandson. What if, instead of trying to slay Danae and her child, Acrisius had welcomed Perseus as his future heir? Perseus would still have followed Acrisius to the throne, but without the necessity of killing him first.

I predict: There will be one more post to this thread!

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Prophecies and those who deliver them are a time-honored tradition in mythology, and hence in our modern fantasy genre. From the Oracle at Delphi to Merlyn the Magician to Dream Girl (Legion of Superheroes comic book), characters are shown to predict the future.

Naturally people are tantalized by the possibility of knowing their future. Some hope to spot a red thread and find their future spouse. Some want to know if their car is about to break down or will keep running a little longer. All of us wish that we had some control over what comes next in our lives.

As writers, we can draw on this longing. But when using prophecy (and its near-twin, time travel) there is a key decision to make: is the future Fixed, Flexible, or Fractured?

If the future is Fixed, then it is possible to make predictions with 100% accuracy. In this setting, prophets would enjoy great prestige. People would pay great sums to find out if their merchant ship will reach port with a cargo that makes them rich — or sink, leaving them penniless. On the other hand, unscrupulous individuals and governments would make every effort to control a reliable oracle. In Aditi Khorana’s novel The Library of Fates, a young girl with prophetic powers is enslaved by a cruel despot.

If the future is Flexible, then what is foreseen may or may not come true. No prophet would be able to establish a record as 100% accurate, even with the best intentions. Oracles might be respected, but people would rely as much on other sources of information to make decisions about their lives. For storytellers, this is a great way to create tension. Neither the reader nor the other characters can know if the oracle is correct about what is to come.

In many stories, the future can be Fractured by important decisions. One great example is Bradbury’s famous short story, The Sound of Thunder, where a time-traveling hunter steps on a butterfly and returns to find reality altered. If something so small can change the future, then prophets would have enormous difficulty making accurate predictions. Or, the prophecy they make can be true for a while, but have an “expiration date” when some other event fractures the future again. In such a setting, it would not be likely for oracles to have any respect at all. Foretellings might have greater urgency, however, since they must be acted on quickly before something changes.

What do you think? How do you use prophecies in your storytelling?

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Wyrd. An ancient word that echoes into today’s weird and wonderful domain of genre fiction. Today we use the word “weird” to describe anything strange or hard to explain. “Did you see those weird lights in the sky?” It can also encompass unexpected or unpleasant behavior. “That kid was acting weird.”

But for our long-ago ancestors, wyrd was a religious and philosophical concept. It grappled with the question of predestination. Do people have free will, or are we all prisoners of an unknowable fate?

The origin of this word comes from Norse mythology. The Norns were a magical sisterhood who were responsible for the fate of all creatures. Best known of these are Wyrd (or Urd), Skuld and Verdandy, three goddesses who represented the past, present and future. They held a role very similar to the Three Fates of Greek lore. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos were depicted as weavers whose tapestry spanned the universe. Both sets of goddesses were believed to hold power over every human, from the lowly peasant to the mighty king.

In the Norse version, Wyrd was not only the goddess who determined one’s destiny, but was also used to indicate the actual destiny. Many tales referred to Wyrd and the other Norns as whimsical and inscrutable beings whose will could never be gainsaid.

Yet, there was a parallel belief that people’s own actions could influence their wyrd. Presumably, good and kind actions would bring about a happy destiny, while selfish or evil actions would lead to disaster. This applied to groups, as well. The collective actions of a clan, community, or even a nation could shape its wyrd by pleasing or offending the Norns.

This idea of a magical fate that couldn’t be denied is one that comes down to us in many forms of modern fantasy and science fiction. How often does a story begin with a prophecy? How many times have we witnessed the struggles of a Chosen One who must rise to meet their destiny?

It would seem that the eternal question of Wyrd is with us to this day.

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The best known incident involving a U-2 is from 1960. Pilot Francis Gary Powers took off from Pakistan with the intention of photographing  several Soviet installations while heading for Norway. Their starting date of May 1 was a serious miscalculation, however. May Day was a huge holiday in the Soviet Union. Civilian flights were grounded to allow for military demonstration flights. The U-2 stood out in this environment. It was immediately tracked by Soviet air forces. 

Due to its high altitude, the U-2 could not be attacked directly by fighter planes. Instead, a missile brought it down. Powers ejected, but chose not to use a “poison pill” in his possession. He was captured alive. The U-2 itself was not as badly damaged as military planners had expected given a crash from such altitude. This allowed the Soviets to recover and study the wreckage, advancing their own aircraft technology. 

The C. I. A. fell back on their cover story, that the pilot had lost consciousness due to a failure of the oxygen system. After allowing the U. S. to release this information, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed the truth. This was a huge embarrassment to the United States both internally and internationally. It derailed a major diplomatic conference, two weeks later, and may eventually have led to the ouster of Khrushchev by hard-liners who thought he had been too conciliatory toward the U. S. In America, C. I. A. director Allen Dulles was excoriated at a major Congressional hearing.

As for the pilot, Powers followed his orders and cooperated with Soviet authorities. He was convicted of espionage and served time in prison before being released in 1962. Many in the U. S. blamed Powers for not using his “poison pill” after being shot down. However, it appears Powers’ orders were not explicitly that he should commit suicide. Several U-2 pilots had been killed in crashes during development and testing, so whoever wrote the orders must have considered it impossible for Powers to walk away from a crash. 

It just goes to show, you should never underestimate a Dragon Lady and her rider.

Wyrmflight: A Hoard of Dragon Lore — $4.99 e-book or $17.99 trade paperback. Available at Amazon or Draft2Digital.

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Back in 2017, I posted about a comic book character named The Dragon Lady. Now it turns out there was also a jet named “Dragon Lady” from around the same era. 

The U-2 “Dragon Lady” was designed and built by Lockheed Martin corporation beginning in the mid-1950s. U. S. military leaders wanted to improve their ability to conduct aerial surveillance on enemies such as the Soviet Union and China. Flying at high altitudes, the U-2 was able to capture highly detailed images (within the technical capabilities of the era) of foreign installations throughout the Cold War.

The first model, the U-2A, went into service in 1956. They have proven to be a durable and useful craft. The Dragon Lady is still in service today, with the U-2S having been upgraded in 2012. 

The U-2 was operated under direction of the Central Intelligence Agency, and thus the Dragon Lady was little known to the public. Each surveillance flight was carefully planned, with a cover story in case of discovery. There was some disagreement about this, with civilian aviation experts advising to be honest if the flights were found out. However, the C. I. A. followed its instinct and went ahead using cover stories. 

This practice had serious repercussions when a U-2 got busted. Literally. Check back on Wednesday to learn more.

Wyrmflight: A Hoard of Dragon Lore — $4.99 e-book or $17.99 trade paperback. Available at Amazon or Draft2Digital.

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Fire and Heist, by Sarah Beth Durst, is a YA book featuring people who can assume draconic form — or maybe it’s the reverse. They get up to some mischief while trying to blend among ordinary humans. 

I recently read a review by Teri Polen on her blog, Books and Such. Rather than steal her thunder, I thought I’d link to her post, so here’s the link. Polen is a prolific reviewer, and I highly recommend her blog. Go ahead and check it out!

Wyrmflight: A Hoard of Dragon Lore — $4.99 e-book or $17.99 trade paperback. Available at Amazon or Draft2Digital.

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