This post is about the theme of prophecy in my two favourite series of books: The Harry Potter series, by JK Rowling, and The Belgariad by David and Leigh Eddings. This will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books but intend to, you have been warned.
In Harry Potter, Harry lives the first 11 years of his life with his Aunt and Uncle because his parents die when he was a child. He was told they died in a car crash. On his 11th birthday, he discovers that they were actually killed by Lord Voldemort. He later learns that the only reason Voldemort killed them was that they were protecting their son, Harry, who was Voldemort’s real target. It is not until Harry is almost 16 that his headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, told Harry the reason Voldemort wanted to kill him in the first place. Dumbledore tells Harry of a prophecy that was made about a year before his birth:
The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…
As Harry and Dumbledore discuss, the prophecy means that one of Harry and Voldemort will kill the other. However, Dumbledore is very clear that the prophecy is not to be viewed in a fatalistic way. As Dumbledore explains, one of Voldemort’s. spies overheard the first half of the prophecy as it was made. Voldemort believed that Harry was born with the power to vanquish him, and therefore set out to destroy him while he was only a baby. In fact, the prophecy did not specify that Harry himself was the child in question – Neville Longbottom, a contemporary of Harry’s, also fulfilled the requirements of being born at the end of July to parents who had defied Voldemort three times. But crucially, Voldemort singled out Harry, who he thought to be a greater threat. The result was that because Harry’s mother died to save him, the curse that Voldemort used on Harry did not work. Harry was ‘marked as Voldemort’s equal’ by the scar that the curse left behind. He had ‘power Voldemort knows not’ because of his mother’s sacrifice, which gave him unique protection against Voldemort and which he would not have had if Voldemort had not attacked him.
Voldemort had not heard the second half of the prophecy, so did not realise that in attacking Harry, he would hand him the weapons necessary to defeat him.
All of this means that if Voldemort had not chosen to attack Harry, Harry would not later be in a position to defeat Voldemort. It was Voldemort’s personal choice that fulfilled part of the prophecy.
Sixteen years later, Dumbledore impresses on Harry that Harry himself now has the choice to continue to fulfil the prophecy. Harry can choose to ignore the prophecy if he wishes. There is no destiny that forces him to choose one course of action or another. However, unfortunately, because Voldemort continues to follow the prophecy, he continues to hunt Harry, so in the end, it is likely that one of them will kill the other. But not because of the prophecy. Because of their choices.
The prophecy does not dictate what will happen. As Dumbledore explains to Harry, there are many prophecies that have been made and never fulfilled. Although this is not explained explicitly in the books, it seems that some wizards, such as Voldemort, view prophecies as things which must be fulfilled, whereas others, such as Dumbledore, do not. The interesting thing is that after all Dumbledore’s insistences that the prophecy only describes one possible future, rather than dictating the only possible future, in the end, Harry and Voldemort do end up battling to the death. But not because the prophecy forces them to do it; rather, because they choose to do it.
The Belgariad is a less well-known series of books, so perhaps requires some introduction. Written by David and Leigh Eddings, The Belgariad is a five book fantasy series starring Garion, a simple farm boy who gets caught up in a quest to fulfil a prophecy that will decide the fate of the universe. The series has a slightly more ‘epic’ scale than the Harry Potter series, though I would class it as heroic fantasy rather than epic fantasy.
Since childhood, Garion has experienced an audible voice in his head that knows what he is thinking, is often described as ‘dry’ and certainly seems to possess a personality and a sense of humour. The voice accompanies Garion for a while, sometimes giving him advice or instructions, and then at last reveals exactly what it is. Firstly, the voice explains to Garion that originally the universe had a single purpose, a destiny. Then something happened that wasn’t intended, and from that point on there had been two possible fates of the universe – one good and one evil. The voice in Garion’s head is the consciousness or awareness of one of these fates.
Later, the voice directs Garion to a document which is the record of one of these prophecies and which states:
Behold, it shall come to pass that in a certain moment, that which must be and that which must not be shall meet, and in that meeting shall be decided all that has gone before and all that will come after. Then will the Child of Light and the Child of Dark face each other in the broken tomb, and the stars will shudder and grow dim.
It turns out that Garion is currently the ‘Child of Light’ (a title that passes from person to person at times), he embodies one of the prophecies and has to reset things to how they should be. A converging point is coming, after which only one of the two prophecies will continue to exist. Garion has a task to do, and if he succeeds, all will be right. If he fails, then chaos and destruction will follow. As a result of this, everything that exists will become a part of whichever prophecy prevails. Everyone has two possible destinies – for some people, the differences are small, for others, they are enormous. The universe, and the prophecy, has been waiting for Garion for millions of years.
So how does this work out in the story? How does this conscious prophecy interact with other characters? As already described, sometimes it talks to Garion and instructs him. Sometimes it speaks through Garion directly to other people. It is able to influence and manipulate other people directly – it is not restricted to being inside Garion’s head.
This sounds quite all-powerful, but it must be remembered that there is an alternate prophecy of equal power working against the prophecy in Garion’s head. And there are certain things that are forbidden or impossible, even for the prophecy. The prophecy itself argues that the very term ‘prophecy’ is misleading, as nothing is said about which prophecy will win or lose, and nothing about the future is certain – there are two possibilities for everything. The confrontation between the Child of Light and the Child of Dark is going to happen, the whole universe is rushing towards it, but no-one can predict the outcome.
One of the most interesting moments comes when a throwaway remark from a minor character causes an event that changes the course of the story. It is discussed that the throwaway remark might have been the only reason the minor character was born in the first place. As one character comments, ‘the prophecy leaves nothing to chance’. The prophecy does everything it can to make things ready for the final confrontation, but in the end, no-one knows what will happen until it happens.
I must admit that I am not as expert on The Belgariad as on Harry Potter. But as far as I can work out, the role of the prophecy is to direct events so that the crucial characters are ready for the confrontation when it occurs – that they have had the right experience, they know what they need to know, and they are in the right places at the right times. The prophecy cannot do anything, but it influences people as necessary to make sure everything is ready, and the alternate prophecy is doing exactly the same. Another important point is that the major characters on the ‘good’ side are aware of the prophecy and are cooperating with it, they are not merely puppets. The prophecy cannot force anyone to do anything, but it influences where it can.
Comparing the two
In The Belgariad the prophecy is a conscious personality, one of two destinies, trying to set things up to its own advantage. One of the two prophecies will be fulfilled, and one will not. If Garion’s prophecy is fulfilled, things will look very different from what will happen if it is not fulfilled.
In Harry Potter, the prophecy is a prediction that may or may not be fulfilled. The fulfilment or otherwise determines the fate of many characters. In a way, the only difference is the consciousness of the prophecies. In both stories, characters can choose to follow the prophecy or not, but the fact that The Belgariad’s prophecy is conscious means that it has much more of a direct say in what happens. This is paralleled in Harry Potter by the character of Dumbledore, who knows the prophecy and helps Harry deal with it, giving him advice and instructions. The combination of the spoken prophecy and the character of Dumbledore combine to have a similar role to that of the conscious prophecy in The Belgariad.
One of the main themes in Rowling’s books is that of fate and choice and she is clear to make the point that characters are able to make choices. The Harry Potter books are anti-fate. The Belgariad, on the face of it, seems more pro-fate, but reading carefully I see that it is not. To me, the prophecy in The Belgariad is very like some views of God. He will speak to people, try to reason with them and give them advice, even instructions, but he will not force them to do anything. He is like the chess grandmaster who can see the big picture of the game of life, can predict the opponents moves and is ready with an infinite number of counter-moves, but when it comes down to it, he lets people make their own choices. Very like the character of Dumbledore.
There are also Christian parallels in the Harry Potter ideas of fate and choice. Harry is clearly a messianic figure and just like Jesus (and Garion), he finds himself to be the potential fulfilment of a prophecy, but the prophecy does not force him into any particular course of action – he chooses his path for himself.
Harry, Garion and Jesus are all the subjects of a prophecy, they all have roles in saving the world in some way, they are all guided by seemingly omniscient characters (Dumbledore, the conscious prophecy, his Father), and they all make their own choices about how to live their lives and how (and even whether) to fulfil the prophecy made about them.