Destiny’s Children — It is unusual, to say the least, that a novel that is still officially unpublished should make it to number five in the Amazon sales rankings. Although Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell hasn’t made the Booker shortlist, it is already doing something far more valuable: it is worming its way into readers’ hearts. Anyone who has started to read this novel will have seen how easily it insinuates itself with the reader. Although it builds a world of mazes and fancies, it is always charming rather than chaotic, and although its alternative worlds are so labyrinthine, they are always satisfying rather than disturbing.
For sure, it is more subtle and sophisticated than some of the fantasies to which it has been compared, but Clarke’s novel is still essentially a comforting read in the same way that they are. It comforts us on many levels. One reason why a book like this feels so deeply satisfying is that its world is constantly proved to be governed by destiny: the working out of prophecies is a prime motor for the plot.
Many of the most popular fantasy books of this era have this in common; they create worlds in which fate has the upper hand. As soon as you dip into the worlds of JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling you feel aware of the drumming of destiny behind the protagonists’ backs. The characters have roles that are allotted, that they must play out to the end. And even some of those more realistic novels that have added a soupçon of magic to the mix – such as the recent US bestseller, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife – rely on a sense of inescapable destiny, not to terrify the characters but to provide a comforting aura of certainty to their worlds.
Clearly, readers crave this now from writers, they crave being allowed into a world where prophecies, however tricky to understand, will be proved right, and where characters have a destiny mapped out. And what is so telling about our society is that this desire is getting everywhere – out of literature and into everyday life. In a recent, illuminating survey reported in newspapers last week, it was found that believing in horoscopes has become the most popular belief in Britain among 18- to 24-year-olds.
Two thirds of young people, according to this poll of 3,000, believe horoscopes are true – whereas only one third believe that the Bible is true. Two thirds of people would like to think, in other words, that what fantasy writers suggest is characteristic of their invented worlds is really the case in this world; that one’s character and desires and even what decisions one should take next Thursday are governed by forces much bigger than oneself.
In response, the Church of England said hopefully that it is “looking at new ways of attracting young people away from misleading concepts like astrology and towards the message of God”. But you don’t have to read that, say, Geminis such as Rowan Williams are forecast for disappointments this year, to feel that this may be a doomed hope. Two thirds of young people have turned their back on a grand story of cosmic battle, sin and redemption that has been told and retold in incomparable poetry and art and music, in favour of a series of embarrassingly banal platitudes about, say, why long-held plans may bear fruit on Friday and how someone born in January is your ideal mate.
The movement towards astrology may spell doom for the traditional churches, but it doesn’t look good for the rationalists either. Although the tenor of western society is meant to be based in some irreducible way on the primacy of secularism and science, we can’t get away from the fact that a clear majority of young British people believe in a magical system of destiny that is instantly destroyed the moment that any logic is applied to it.
If the banalities of horoscopes have won out where religion or rationalism have failed, that is because horoscopes do something that nothing else in our society knows how to do; they give people a place in the world. They do this without demanding anything in return.
Indeed, perhaps the one good thing you can say about the rise of this particular irrationalism is that it is so undemanding – nobody ever set up a crusade or an inquisition based on the rival claims to truth made by Jonathan Cainer or Sally Brompton. The lack of moral or intellectual substance means that astrology can be taken almost like fiction – believed for a moment, forgotten the next.
But although it looks so flimsy, the strength of this belief does reveal something deep that is happening in our own world: people now think with nostalgic longing of a time when belief in, say, divine providence or class structure or political progress gave individuals a place in a pattern or an enterprise that was bigger than themselves. This society throws people back on themselves alone, and for all the drawbacks of those previous enterprises, the drawback of losing them is also plain.
Today, we keep being told that nothing but our own talents and efforts stands between ourselves and success or failure. The idea that some of the responsibility for what is happening to us lies in the stars is an altogether gentler proposition than that we have nobody to blame for our failures but ourselves. And that is true in everyday life as well as fantasy.