Theme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end. It binds the elements of character, conversation, action, and reaction, making the story cohesive. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.
A common theme in literature is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability. Good versus evil is a common trope of genre fantasy. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.
Author L.E. Modesitt Jr. has taken the theme of chaos and order and built his Magic of Recluce series around the contrasts and conflicts of the two fundamental forms of magic arising in the world of Recluce. Each side is explored from the protagonists’ POV in different books as the series progresses.
Modesitt digs deep and discovers the way each side’s magic works and the fundamental changes the mage goes through from the use of magic. He lays bare the moral and ethical values that each side holds dear. Politics and the slim justifications we hold dearly to for the sometimes-inhumane way in which we treat others is central to his work, showing that neither side is without sin.
When it comes to good and evil, each considers themselves morally superior, and believe they are the side of good. Both sides are wary of those who walk that gray path in the middle. This allows Modesitt real opportunities to put his protagonists through the wringer.
The late Roger Zelazney’s brilliant Chronicles of Amber series also details the distinctions between Chaos and Order, and moral and ethical challenges of those who travel from reality to reality through the shadows by walking the pattern, with each shadow growing more radical depending on the distance from Castle Amber (which represents Order). In several of his works, elements of each are combined freely and interchangeably.
Zelazney’s Jack of Shadows and Changeling, for example, revolve around the tensions between the two worlds of magic and technology, which manifest as order and chaos.
But what is chaos, and what is order?
Google also defines Order as:
Either side of the coin, when taken to an extreme, can be truly evil.
Consider chaos, or Anarchy. When a culture descends into anarchy, you have an absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual. While this frequently begins as an attempt to allow for individual freedoms without state interference, history shows that what follows is the emergence of a violent culture that is beyond the reach of the law.
There is no law as we see it, and no one capable of enforcing it. The strongest, most violent thugs rise to the top and frequently war with each other, while the common person is caught in the middle. Followers of each warlord are rewarded with the spoils of conquest, which are often goods taken from the common citizen who must somehow survive under that tyranny.
Now let’s look at order: totalitarianism, or total order can also be a form of tyranny. Everything is static, and nothing changes. There is centralized control by an autocratic authority, combined with the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to absolute state authority. No divergence from the norm can be tolerated, and good, obedient citizens are rewarded, while deviants who are seen to be free-thinkers: intellectuals and artists are persecuted and imprisoned, or killed.
Anarchy=instability and a breakdown of society. Totalitarianism=lack of growth and stagnation of society.
For most people’s comfort, a good society allows for both law and creativity.
In extreme types of societies, power is everything, and drawing negative attention to yourself is dangerous. Thus chaos-based societies are usually represented in literature as having an underlying order that holds them together, and order-based societies are often represented as requiring the ability to grow and change, but within certain parameters.
The theme of order and chaos can really power a story-line, and the way you perceive them will not be the way another author sees them. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and Roger Zelazney couldn’t be more different in the way they portrayed these concepts.
If you haven’t read either of these two authors’ works, I highly recommend them.
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This post first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy in the post Theme: chaos or stability by Connie J. Jasperson © Oct. 12, 2015.