I’ve always had strong feelings about the use of prophecy in storytelling. Prophecies can either flesh out a story and support its plot, or frustrate the reader by being too obvious or too trite.
So what do I look for in a good prophecy? Well, when prophecy is used effectively, it doesn’t take away from the storytelling. It suggests a possible series of events to the characters, but it doesn’t give a ton away; essentially, it’s kind of vague. Prophecies can employ some double meanings, but they shouldn’t be entirely pedantic. What I mean by this is, they should have some meat to them—they shouldn’t be constantly fulfilled by a technicality. For example, if the prophecy says the character will experience death, there should be some mortal consequences, rather than like, having them orgasm and calling it a “little death” or something stupid like that. (I made up that example, but lordy if you see someone doing that in a story please tell me first.) It should also engage the reader in trying to understand what it foreshadows before the characters experience to what it’s predicting.
One universe that uses prophecies really well is that of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. The two series draw heavily on Greek and Roman mythology, and predicting the future was a large part of both cultures. On the Roman side, the campers draw on the ancient Roman practice of entrail augury to discover whether certain outcomes are favorable—but since this is modern America, they gut stuffed animals instead of actual birds, and read the signs in the fluff. On the Greek side, at Camp Half-Blood, they look to the Oracle, the spirit of the ancient Oracle of Delphi, to see the future. The Oracle provides minor prophecies to any demigod who wants to leave the camp to go on a quest, to guide their adventure. She also occasionally issues major prophecies known as Great Prophecies, that tend to cause major paradigm shifts upon their fulfillment. In the first series, for example, a Great Prophecy states that a child of the Big Three—Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades—would make or break the fate of Olympus. These gods all swear off extramarital child-begetting to avoid it ever coming to pass, but in the end a child fathered by each of them ends up on the playing field. When the prophecy does come true, it ushers in a new age for Olympus, where the gods are treated more equally and all the demigod children are claimed by their godly parent.
What I like about Riordan’s prophecies is that they give the plot a starting point, but they don’t overwhelm the story, nor are they irrelevant to the point of being useless. They give the heroes something of a guideline—“puzzle out what I mean and it’ll help you complete your quest more quickly”—but the plot doesn’t turn on them ticking off another couplet in the prophecy. They may realize later on that they’ve fulfilled something, or they may actually seek something out with the intention to do so, but they don’t just nip from place to place ticking prophetic boxes. At the same time, they’re not just window-dressing to the story: heroes are still concerned about what they mean, and do try to use them as clues or guidance.
However, in part because future-telling is tricksy, sometimes prophecies can muddle the plotlines of an otherwise awesome story. Probably my go-to example of a prophecy that didn’t really need to be included at all is the prophecy that Harry and his friends battle over at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The meaty part of this prophecy was the “either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives” part, which suggested that Harry would have to be the one to kill Voldemort. I remember the first time I read that, I wanted to throw the book across the room. Of fucking course Harry would have to be the one to kill Voldemort! He’s the main fucking character! And it would be downright unVoldemortlike for Lord Snakeface to allow some peon to kill his greatest enemy. The sacrifice of my problematic fave Sirius Black (for whom Lady Geek Girl and I later held a funeral service with some other friends) didn’t seem worth the knowledge gained from a prophecy that mostly told us what we already knew.
I’m not the only one who’s annoyed by pedantic prophecy fulfillment, either. In Macbeth, it’s foretold that Macbeth will not be defeated until Birnam Wood marches to Dunsinane—a feat that seems impossible, since it’s, well, a forest. How does it move? Well, according to Shakespeare, it was fulfilled when Macbeth’s enemies creeped up on his castle, using tree branches from Birnam Wood as cover. Furthermore, it’s predicted that Macbeth cannot be defeated by any man born of woman—but his rival Macduff was born via C-section. Eyy. No less an author than Tolkien was so frustrated with this sort of cop-out prophesying that he reworked both of these ideas into his own Lord of the Rings. He gave his story real marching trees—the Ents of Fangorn Forest. And instead of pulling the weird “I never came out of a vagina so I wasn’t technically born of woman” thing for a male hero, he took the more obvious route and just had a lady beat the Witch-King’s “no man may kill me” prophecy.
Prophecy can be difficult to do right, but when it works, it really works. Unfortunately, when it doesn’t work as a story element, it can be infuriating, confusing, or a combination of both. What are some of your favorite stories that involve prophecies? Let me know in the comments!
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Nothing irks me more than an extremely obvious prophecy. It’s like the author didn’t want to bother with subtle foreshadowing to build suspense in the story.
Perfect! I have been trying to decide if I should include a prophecy in my newest story. This article definitely gave me some much-needed pointers. Thanks so much!
The prophecy in Order of the Phoenix did feel quite obvious, but I did like how they built on it in Half Blood Prince, with Dumbledore implying that prophecies aren’t always fulfilled and noting that it wouldn’t have meant anything if Voldemort never knew about it. JK Rowling said in an interview that she was inspired by Macbeth and wondering whether he would still have killed Duncan if he never met the witches.
The TV series Being Human used prophecies in quite interesting ways. In Season 3, one of the main characters gets a prophecy about how he will die and spends the whole season trying to get out of it, causing all sorts of problems in the process – but it turns out the prophecy-maker just made it up to troll him. Season 4 has a more explicit ‘saviour’ prophecy – but it turns out there’s a missing segment that turns everything on its end, and a future timeline where the world basically ends because of everybody following what they thought was the complete prophecy.
What i find interesting about the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy and it’s key Prophecy is that the Audience is never shown it directly at all. I don’t think anyway that there is any reference to it that is clearly quoted it verbatim, we also seem vague descriptions clouded by assumptions and interpretations.
That might be an example of exactly the kind of thing being complained about here, how it can allow it to mean anything. But I think that makes a great Prophecy for how the real life Ancient prophecies that certain people still revere, mainly in the Abrahamic religions. So many Bible Prophecies are now more known by what modern Bible teaches have assumed them to mean.
In spite of this lack of direct knowledge of it, it does seem simple to get the gist of what the Prophecy did say and what is only assumed. It’ about someone bringing Balance to the force. The Jedi assumed that meant the Sith’s destruction even though that was completely illogical, in the Prequel era the Force is heavily tilted in the Light Side’s favor with thousands of Jedi and only 2 Sith.
I want to respond to something you said early on. ” For example, if the prophecy says the character will experience death, there should be some mortal consequences, rather than like, having them orgasm and calling it a “little death” or something stupid like that.” The idea that the Male Orgasm can be symbolic of death and resurrection, and visa verse, is actually a very real part of the beliefs of actual fertility cults. So labeling that analogy a stupid cop out is actually offensive to real life Neo-Pagans.
I agree with you about the prophecy in Harry Potter – it frustrated me! Especially in the location of the story it is put at, as the climax of the action in Order to the Phoenix. It didn’t provide enough new info for that. Now, maybe if it came earlier in the series when Harry was still figuring things out… or if it came later but wasn’t set up to have a whole book revolve around it… Ah well.