May, the turning of the season, is a time for rituals, traditions, and celebrations. When I was a young girl in Arizona, my schoolmates and I would step outside the monotony of the classroom every May 1st to twirl colorful ribbons around the maypole. On Cinco de Mayo a few days later, we would don sombreros and learn traditional Mexican dances. Other, lesser rituals followed later in the month: annual band concerts and talent shows, report cards, scrubbing down desks and packing up classrooms for the summer.
While I didn’t always understand the cultural significance of May Day or Cinco de Mayo at the time, the importance of ritual itself—the sameness, the excitement, the knowledge that so many before had walked these same steps and so many after me would follow—made me feel a part of something greater and more significant than myself. I, the annoying geek, last chosen for sports and happier with a book than a ball, was no less special than those around me. I was a small cog in a bigger wheel. Despite my idiosyncrasies and inadequacies, I belonged.
As I grew older, the importance of these and many other rituals, as well as the history behind them, gave depth and meaning to the cultures I studied, the movies I watched, and, most importantly, the books I read. Rituals, whether they are to celebrate fertility or praise the turning of a season, to mourn the death of a loved one or honor a life well-lived, define cultural boundaries and expectations. They also define character (or lack thereof). Whether or not a character chooses to pray or how one follows or defies societal norms and expectations can reveal a great deal in very few words.
Currently, I’m working my way through Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second in his Game of Thrones series. The characters often refer to “the old gods and the new,” giving some weight to the world, but it wasn’t until I read the scene in which Catelyn Stark seeks out a sept and prays to the Seven that I really understood who these gods were and appreciated the depth of her beliefs. The scene gave a gravity to the world that made it so much more real for me. Say what you will of Martin; he does a bang-up job of worldbuilding. Similarly, Lord of the Rings, the gold standard of fantasy, also features well-worn worlds steeped in rituals and time-honored traditions, and one of my favorite, lesser-known series, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori fully develops a Japanese-inspired world defined by tradition. Ken Scholes’ Psalms of Isaak explores the darker side of rituals with religions steeped in torture and blood sacrifice; the conflicts that arise from the impending spread of this religion drive his series toward its conclusion.
Whether the author borrows heavily from past cultures or creates its own rituals and traditions, whether the acts and emotions of those involved are private or public, highly personal or shared by a nation, one thing is for certain: as in real life, rituals and traditions give the characters—and the readers—a greater sense of belonging. They give weight to a fictional world; like the layer of dirt on Aragorn’s cloak, they make a world feel less new, less tidy.
I’d love to hear how rituals and traditions play a role in what you’re reading (or writing)! How do they impact the fiction we love, or love to hate?
posted by Kim Vandervort