March 14, 2011

on prophecies in fantasy

This particular mechanic in fantasy stories irks me to no end. I hate prophecies. I do. With a fiery passion that delivers me into a malicious rampage at the mere mention. I’ll contain myself for your sakes and explain why.

Most prophecies are completely unnecessary. I mean it. Usually, authors place prophecies where they can’t find any other way to get the characters to move forward. When the plot drags or the hero has no tangible reason to keep going rather than turn back, insert prophetic vision, meeting with oracle, or ominously ominous omen. But, dear hero, you are destined for this journey! For example…

In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel takes Frodo and Sam to look in the “Mirror of Galadriel” where they see visions of the Shire burning and the Hobbits bound by chains (in the film), Sam’s gaffer being evicted, the White Wizard and a black ship with a white fortress with seven towers (in the book), and the Eye of Sauron.

Sam must choose between returning to the Shire and preventing such horrible things from happening, or to continue on with Frodo and save the world. In the film, the vision does not come true. In the book, however, Frodo’s visions come to pass, even though the Lady Galadriel claims that not all visions within the Mirror come true.

In Harry Potter in the Order of the Phoenix, the story revolves around a prophecy made shortly before Harry’s birth, saying the one with the power to vanquish Voldemort would be born. To stop the prophecy coming true, Voldemort tried killing Harry, but he failed, causing the prophecy to take hold.

Dumbledore claims that the prophecy is only true because Voldemort believes in it, and Harry can either ignore it or prepare himself. This prophecy isn’t so bad, since its placement is near the end of the series, and it actually went into effect before the narrative even began. However, its true function is to strengthen Harry’s resolve, not that he really needed it. The Potters could have just as easily pissed Voldemort off, and that’s why he killed them, rather than needing a prophetic prompt.

In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anikin Skywalker has a premonitory dream that his wife Padmé Amidala dies. Despite his best efforts to save her, she still dies.

In the Greek Legend of Oedipus, the Oracle of Apollo prophesized that if Jocasta, the queen of Thebes, had a son, the son would kill her husband and marry her. Despite the king’s preventative measures, Oedipus grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother.

These are the ever popular self-fulfilling prophecies. One tries to take measures against the prophecy, pretty much ensuring that the prophecy will happen. These are the most tragic. No one seems to learn that prophecies always come true, no matter what.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there are two prophecies.
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
Surprise: Aslan returns.

The second prophecy reads:
When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
The evil time will be over and done.
Surprise: The Pevensies take the throne and the evil time ends.

In the recent Alice in Wonderland film, a prophecy foretells that Alice will slay the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day and restore the White Queen to power.

Said slaying happens on said day. Hoorah…

These are the prophecies that annoy me into a rampage worthy of Godzilla. At the beginning of the story, the author tells us exactly what is going to happen, because prophecies are never wrong, not in fiction. The main character has no choice. There is no option for them to reject the prophecy, because it will come true regardless of what the character tries to do (see self-fulfilling prophecy). The story could easily function without a prophecy, harboring a much stronger-willed character. If the hero has no choice in the matter, there is nothing significant about his fulfilling the prophecy. But oh, if he has a choice, if he chooses to face the evil of the world, even though he can turn back at any time, then the act is significant.

Personally, I think that fantasy could do without prophecies. I imagine the oracles are tired of spouting off world-saving prophecies every other week.

Imagine all those stories without the prophecies. If the heroes chose to defy the forces against them without the pressure of a prophecy, then the choices would have meant more.

Frodo didn’t need Galadriel to show him anything. He was already committed to destroying the ring. It was Tolkien’s excuse to liven up a rather dull scene.

Voldemort didn’t need a prophecy to attack the Potters. As I said before, they could have just pissed him off. He’s evil. He can kill when someone eats the last pumpkin pasty. Lily’s sacrifice still would have saved Harry.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are there for the tragedy, but they always make the targets look like total idiots.

What would have happened had there been no prophecies in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Lucy still would have met Mr. Tumnus. Edmund would still have met the White Witch and told her about Mr. Tumnus and Lucy. Edmund would have run off and told the Witch about Aslan. And so on. The reasoning behind the White Witch’s interest in the humans could have easily been because of her experience with them, as evidenced in The Magician’s Nephew. Or maybe the arrival of humans always equaled bad things for the bad things. It doesn’t have to be labeled as a prophecy or recited to the reader so that we know the ending thirty pages in.

In the Percy Jackson novels, the prophecies sort of work. They seek out the oracle so that they know what to do, because otherwise, the heroes would have no clue where to start their quests. The inciting incident has already happened, and they just need a little guidance. I applaud Mr. Riordan on how he structured the prophecies. They aren’t old, fabled prophecies passed down through legend. They’re prophecies that happen within the present narrative. In The Lightning Thief, the Oracle selects Percy Jackson and tells him
You shall go west, and face the god who has turned,
You shall find what was stolen, and see it safely returned,
You shall be betrayed by one who calls you a friend,
And you shall fail to save what matters most, in the end.
Yes, all that happens, but at the beginning of the story, it doesn’t spell out: you are going to face this particular god at this particular location at this particular time, and this particular person will betray you. There are no particulars. It’s cryptic enough that it works.

So, I’ve established that fantasy loves prophecies. In your writing, do you suffer from prophetic plot points? Can the story function without it?

If the answer to the first question is yes, 99.9% of the time, the answer to the second question is yes.

Happy writing!


  1. I agree that a lot of time prophecies--and even their less fiery cousin, foreshadowing--don't do a whole lot. Yet, they can be effective for non-direct-plotting elements--like highlighting a character's choices or weaknesses, or world-building, or heightening interpersonal conflict. I think the question is, as you mention, whether or not the prophecy does something other than a quick jazz-hands on a dull scene. Jazz hands of any kind should be eliminated!

  2. Excellent point, Rowenna! I agree that non-plot-related prophetic elements are quite fascinating. The ones that have no purpose other than spicing up an otherwise dull moment are the ones that irk me so.

  3. You know, I thought I was the only one that rolled his/her eyes at prophecies. They should be used only when necessary and then sparingly.

  4. You have some excellent points about prophecies being overused and worse, misused, though I have to disagree with you on the point of Voldemort. Evil isn't a motivation, it's a side-effect. I find it much easier to believe that he would try to kill Harry out of fear, trying to protect his position rather than trying to punish the Potters.

  5. Eric, a good point. Once you realize Voldemort's motivations were based in fear, he becomes slightly more human. The point of the matter was that I think the story could have done without the prophecy, but of course, that would mean the fifth book would be in non-existence. The story works well with the prophecy because it was more than just a way to tell us what was going to happen. There was depth to it, which I applaud. I love the Harry Potter books. I just wonder how the story would have functioned had Voldemort gone after the Potters without a prophecy.

  6. I know exactly what you mean! So many other fantasies incorporate prophecies and sometimes I feel like they are cop outs. Okay, that may not be fair, but when an author throws in a prophecy in the third book of a gotta wonder.

    Great post, as always.