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The Tricky Art of Prophecy


Prophecy is as important to the fantasy genre as magic. It’s what starts the whole thing off, mentioning a hero that will come to save the day. Sometimes it even tries to spell out how the hero will go about performing the usually impossible task of saving the entire world from danger. But most often the hero is left to slog through the adventure with the knowledge that he or she alone is responsible for the fate of a everyone.

That would kinda put a damper on your day wouldn’t it?

One of my favorite authors, Terry Goodkind, uses prophecy but the there is often more than one way to interpret the words. This adds a super awesome element of tension throughout his Sword of Truth series. The reader is led to think the prophecy means one thing but at the end of it all, Richard Cypher finds new meaning in the cryptic words, leaving the reader cheering his brilliance.

One of the things prophecy is supposed to do is allow someone to predict the future and thus act accordingly. But most of the time it seems as though most prophecy is difficult, if not impossible to interpret.

Take Nostradamus. There is so much dedicated to his prophecies. The problem is, people can only attribute his prophecies to some event after the event happens and they are able to go back and read his works. Part of the problem is the vague nature of the prophecies and the translation of them into various languages. Let’s look at some examples:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning

Many people think this was his vision of the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Ummm…to me, this could be anything at all! There’s no mention of airplanes, terrorists, buildings. So the interpretation is sketchy and reaching a little far in my opinion.

Beasts ferocious with hunger will swim across the rivers,
greater part of the army will be against Hister.
The great one will cause him to be dragged in a cage of iron,
when the German infant observes no law.

This quatrain is supposed to indicate the fall of Adolf Hitler. People leap to the conclusion that Hister really means Hitler, even though Nostradamus has never been known (to my knowledge) to have ever used a person’s name in any of his prophecies. It could mean anything, really. Just because it sounds similar to Hitler doesn’t mean this is what the quatrain refers to.

Prophecy can be a dangerous thing, especially when in the wrong hands. Just look at Harry Potter! A prophecy led to Harry’s parents being killed, Harry bearing the scar that links him to He-Who-Mus-Not-Be-Named, his being ruthlessly hunted all his years of school at Hogwarts, and eventually to Voldy’s own downfall.

But in all seriousness, it would be so easy for someone to misinterpret one of Nostradamus’ prophecies and take matters into their own hands, maybe start killing people, trying to prevent something from happening that they don’t even really know is going to happen.

I tackle this issue of prophecy in my Portals of Destiny series (soon to be published through Booktrope Publishing) and I admit, I am using Mr. Goodkind’s approach to the whole thing. The prophecy is purposefully vague, and will have more than one interpretation. It all depends on the reader and how they view the world. And that’s exactly as I want it to be. By the end of the series, people will question the very nature of prophecy and the ability to actually predict the future, and if things turn out well for the heroes, was that was prophecy meant all along? Or did they rewrite a history that the prophets couldn’t predict?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this truly fascinating subject!!!

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4 Comments on “The Tricky Art of Prophecy”

  1. W.E. Linde May 25, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Nice post! It’s interesting how difficult it is to separate symbolic meaning in prophecy from literal interpretation. That’s where prophecy gets difficult AND interesting. I approached prophecy in a similar way as you mention above for my novella. My protagonists and antagonists have shared interpretation of prophecy that doesn’t pan out the way they expect.

    A good fantasy story doesn’t use prophecy as a crutch to resolve difficult scenes. I think prophecy should be more of a mcguffin, a tool to propel the plot along. Done correctly, it adds that element of mystery that really makes a story enjoyable. But it’s such a staple (actually, probably overused), that a fantasy writer has to have more to offer. Kind of like using dragons. Everyone has one, so your dragons better be doing something interesting.

    • shayfabbro May 25, 2012 at 10:00 am #

      Exactly! I have always been fascinated with Nostradamus and watched any show on History Channel that came on about his quatrains. I think we sort of wish that there was a way to predict awful things so that we might try to avoid them.

  2. nrlymrtl May 25, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    I enjoyed how prophecy was used in the H. Potter series – it was part of the mystery and a driver of the plot, but did not overburden the characters with limited choices.

    In Watership Down by R. Adams, I found the prophecy piece to be used in order to move the story forward or to be the miraculous save that kept the bunnies alive. I liked the overall book, but the prophecy pieces I found to be a cheap and easy way out of writer’s dilemma.

    If prophecy is overused, I tend to put the book down and walk away.

  3. Ellen Gregory May 25, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    My pet hate is the self-fulfilling prophecy, which in my view happens in Harry Potter. If Voldy hadnt gone after Harry’s parents in response to the prophecy, there would have been no connection and no Harry saving the day. (I LOVE HP despite this.)

    I don’t believe fantasy has to have prophecy though. It can be wonderful without it too!

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