Like most of you, I grew up devouring Harry Potter, but I’m not sure how many of you had problems understanding just how the big prophecy worked. I know I did. Basically, Voldemort’s stooge overhears a seer prophesy that a true adversary to Voldemort will rise, and that “neither can live while the other survives”. Much ink is spilled, both in fandom and in the canon, over just what this prophecy means. Does it mean that Harry is fated to kill Voldemort (or Voldemort, Harry) or does Harry’s free will operate outside the confines of this prophecy? If the prophecy is true, it means Harry really is the Chosen One, chosen by fate to confront Voldemort. But that could mean that Harry doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. In the final book, Harry doesn’t seem like he does have a choice; the universe seems like it’s manipulated him to the point where he feels utterly compelled to fulfill the prophecy. The conflict is between fate, or providence, and free will. If we look at real-world ideas about providence and free will, we can get a better idea of how these might work.
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.