You may or may not know this, but I read a lot of fantasy. And not just any fantasy, I tend to read the high fantasy, sword and sorcery type. You know the ones, with the wizards and mages standing alongside the guys with armour and swords? Those ones? I can’t help it, though. It is something about the covers with their epic yet predictable mix of forests, mountains, people wearing robes and/or with swords and, of course, the horses. It just gets me every time.
That, and the often hilarious setups. (For example, the one I just bought? Magical twins separated at birth. Can I get a hells to the yes?) I have a lot of trouble walking past them, is what I’m saying.
But there’s one setup that makes me cringe every time. One setup that needs to have something else backing it up (Magical twins, for example) in order for me to pick it up. One setup that by itself goes straight past the ‘sounds hilarious’ mark and straight into the territory of ‘sounds awful’.
That setup, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, is the prophecy.
If you’ve somehow never come across the prophecy storyline, you obviously haven’t read that much. Or, worse, you obviously haven’t read Harry Potter. If that’s the case, stop reading my musings about fiction now and go read all seven books. The first three are quite short so it’s okay. You’ll ease your way into it.
Done? Okay. Now we can talk.
So by now you know that prophecies are predictions that are generally mystical in nature, they usually concern the protagonist and they generally concern the fate of the world and how the hero is going to save it.
And, if you’ve caught on to the tone of this post and you’ve read more than one instance of the prophecy in action, you’ll know that generally it’s a sign of lazy writing.
Need your protagonist to leave their comfortable existence as a farm boy and go adventuring? PROPHECY! Your normal rules don’t allow you to bring adults out of the Matrix? PROPHECY! You need your hero to be distinguished from Joe Bloggs down the road? PROPHECY!
Prophecies are like the get out of jail free cards of fantasy fiction and I hate them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Prophecies can, of course, serve a purpose and sometimes they are even used well. Let’s take the Harry Potter prophecy for a second. Now, the beauty of Harry’s prophecy is that it, largely, doesn’t concern him and, in fact, he only finds out about it at the end of the fifth book when the majority of his story has already been told.
Now before anyone starts angrily complaining that of course the prophecy concerns Harry, can I ask what exactly Harry does in response to the prophecy? Kill Voldemort? Wasn’t he already on the path to do that anyway? Didn’t the whole ‘Voldemort killed his parents and now intends to take down the whole wizarding world’ thing kind of mean that Harry was on the path to kill Voldemort anyway? Not to mention the fact that Harry, with his over-developed ego and knack for making everything about him (I have issues with Harry. Let’s not get into them) would probably have named himself chief evil-overlord killer sans prophecy anyway. So the prophecy itself didn’t affect him that much. What did affect him was the way everyone acted because of the prophecy. They acted because someone looked around (presumably with their hands in their pockets and while chewing gum — wizarding gum) and said ‘Yep. That kid. That’s the one right there who’ll save the wizarding world from Voldemort.’
And because all the rational adults decided that the prophecy was true, Voldy went around killin’ and we get the setup to Harry Potter.
But was it destiny? What if everyone had collectively ignored the ‘prophecy’ of the crazy lady? Would Harry have still grown up as a self-entitled arrogant little prick with a hero complex?
And that’s a prophecy done well. That’s a prophecy that sets up the book but doesn’t impose upon it.
By contrast, let’s look at Christopher Paolini’s Eragon books. For those who haven’t read it, no need. Picture Middle Earth but call it something different, then add in an evil overlord and also a plucky boy who finds an egg which hatches into the last dragon in the world and fill in the blanks for yourself.
You might detect a small touch of contempt for the series on my part. That’s mostly because I’m jealous of people who are much more successful than I’ll ever be. Deal.
Regardless of petty jealousy, Eragon is a good example of a badly used prophecy (the kind that I dislike immensely). On one hand, Eragon’s hero’s journey doesn’t begin with a prophecy, so that’s a relief. But there’s still a prophecy half way through the first book that sets my teeth on edge. It spells out three things: That Eragon will defeat the evil overlord, that he’ll find help under a particular tree and that he’ll one day leave the land forever.
…What purpose did the prophecy serve? As the last Dragon rider who isn’t a scary evil overlord was there ever any doubt he’d have to fight the guy? Even if Eragon didn’t have the hero-complex thing going he’d have to fight the evil guy eventually as a means of self preservation. And the finding aid under a tree? Why did that need to be prophesied? Couldn’t he just find the aid randomly along his journey, chuck it in his pocket and then whistle along his way Chekhov’s Gun style?
As for leaving the land forever… I won’t spoil it if you haven’t slogged your way through the four books (if you enjoy fantasy they are worth a read if only because they descend into farce and clichés amazingly quickly and Eragon’s dragon, Saphira, is a genuinely fun character) but the whole leaving the country thing doesn’t feel like a genuine choice on the character’s part— more of a “Welp, checked off the rest of the prophecy, time to do that last part now. It was foretold, don’t you know?”
So, basically, what I’m saying is that prophecies suck and don’t use them. Or if you have to use it (whyyy?) use it in a way that doesn’t give your characters a step by step through their journey.
Or possibly turn it on its head.
A particularly great series I read years ago had the protagonist convinced that he was the subject of the ancient prophecy, so convinced that he was the subject of it that he stood up in front of a bunch of people and declared it so…Only to have it thrown back in his face and for him to be declared as the antichrist for pretending to be the chosen one. He then spent the rest of the books trying to redeem himself for his mistake.
Now that’s how you do a prophecy.
Ultimately, though, prophecies often have the opposite effect that they intend. A prophecy is supposed to have a grandiose effect, making your hero’s journey one that is destined and more epic. In reality, it makes their journey prewritten and less effective than if your hero set out upon their journey of their own volition. Which is more powerful? Someone saving the world because fate decrees it? Or someone saving the world because it needs some saving and they’ve got the ability and the will to do so?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a world to save.