I’m a rational sort of person, on the whole. I don’t believe in luck – or certainly not the idea that a spoken phrase or a particular gesture can somehow affect what’s going to happen to me. Yet I find myself referring casually to it all the time. ‘With any luck we’ll get there before dark.’ ‘Fingers crossed it won’t rain.’ ‘Touch wood it will all be OK.’ And it’s not just me. I’m surrounded by a nation of people who swear by their lucky pants and their four-leaf clovers. We pick up pennies, salute lone magpies, and follow our own little rituals before an important match or a public appearance. Most of us probably don’t believe in what we’re doing, not really. But we do it anyway, partly out of habit and partly because, well, you never know.
Superstition in one form or another is common to every culture and belief system. It’s part of human nature to look for associations between things; the ability to make a connection between cause and effect is vital in the fight for survival. And the flip side of that is a tendency to see cause and effect where there is none. We ignore those events that don’t fit our model of the world, and remember those that reinforce it. Of course making wishes on birthday candles works. When I was ten I wished for a puppy and I got one. And if I hadn’t had my lucky mascot in my pocket I never would have passed my exams. The one time I forgot to bring it, the question paper was really hard. It’s the same mental structure that turns coincidence into fate and randomness into ‘everything happens for a reason’. Making sense of the world, even where there’s no sense to be made, is hard-wired into our brains.
So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, two things. One, folklore and superstition are a wonderfully rich source of inspiration for fantasy books set fully or partly in the real world. What if this particular belief was true? What if this children’s rhyme had meaning? What if this old tradition had a hidden purpose? Lots of enjoyable novels have drawn on our folk heritage in this way, from Mike Shevdon’s Sixty-One Nails to Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, and I’m sure there are more out there waiting to be written.
Two, if you’re building your own fantasy world then a rich system of belief, lore and superstition can really help to bring it alive. And it’s important to remember that all superstitions have a logical reason behind them, even if it’s so lost in time that the people themselves don’t remember what it is. For instance, the phrase ‘touch wood’ probably comes from the pagan belief that spirits inhabited every tree and could be summoned or deterred by knocking on the trunk. But it may relate to the Christian cross, or to a ship’s mast, or simply to a children’s game*. ‘Fingers crossed’ again may be Christian or pre-Christian in origin (or both – it seems likely that as with so many things, the older belief systems were subsumed by and incorporated into the new). Black cats derive their negative associations from the Middle Ages belief in witchcraft. And so on. Fantasy superstitions with this kind of historical background can tell your reader a lot about your world.
Bear in mind, too, that in a world where some form of magic exists, certain superstitions may not be superstitions at all. Maybe a particular gesture or set of words really does keep you safe in battle. Or maybe it used to work, but has become so corrupted over time that it no longer does what it’s meant to – or does something completely different. It’s often the case that snippets of knowledge trickle from those who have access to them to those who don’t, frequently in a distorted or misleading form. Thus it’s probable that ‘lucky’ gestures or phrases used by people with no magical ability at all will have their origins in genuinely effective magic. Now that’s a plot point waiting to happen.
So there you have it. Get working on your superstitions, and I’ll see you next week. In the meantime, don’t walk under any ladders …
* The word ‘simply’ is misleading here. Children’s games are often steeped in folklore. But that’s another story.