Many fantasy books have some type of prophecy. The Lord of the Rings boasts a prophecy about how the King of Gondor will return with healing in his hands. Harry Potter speaks of the “chosen one.” Star Wars has the one who will balance the Force. Most fantasy (and some science fiction) includes a vague prophecy about a future hero who will help good or evil triumph in the world. But why is this? And are prophecies now clichéd and too old-fashion for modern fantasy?
Some History of Fantasy Prophecies
Historically fantasy was wrought with prophecies, and this tradition of prophecies probably translated into the modern cliché. Before Tolkien published The Hobbit and launched the genre into modern times and popular view, he drew from Old Norse and other ancient cultures’ myths. From Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths, such as Beowulf and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, to Greek epics like the Odyssey, prophecies have helped drive the plot. Notably, all of these prophecies were directly tied into religion and dealt with the relationship between gods and humans. Later myths such as the Legends of King Arthur drew inspiration from the prophecies of the Judeo-Christian Bible in addition to Anglo-Saxon myths. J. R. R. Tolkien, who truly popularized fantasy in the modern world, also included a many prophecies and the tradition continued as he led the way for modern fantasy.
But are prophecies now cliché?
Most bloggers, authors, agents, and publishing companies certainly think so, and in most cases, I have to agree. There are countless fantasy novels that contain mediocre to bad poetry that tells some vague and useless prophecy which either we see right through or it makes no sense and is completely useless. When a bland and boring prophecy is used to move the plot along, many readers don’t even notice the lazy writing. But now, readers and publishers are getting more picky. Do we really need a doomsday prophecy to motivate our hero?
But are we just misunderstanding of the purpose of prophecies?
Historically in fantasy and religiously, prophecy has a very specific purpose. In the Bible, the prophets were neither primarily focused on the future nor sent to perform miraculous signs. The prophets were sent to reveal sin and encourage repentance at the present time. Threats of judgement (prophecy) and demonstrations of divine authority (miracles) were the methods to bring about repentance. The biblical purpose of prophecy is to call the people to repentance or to make the way for the Savior.
Interestingly enough, most fantasy throughout history has the same purpose for prophecy. The prophecies in Homer’s Odyssey warn of dire consequences to Odysseus’ actions and set the path for Odysseus to take back his home. The prophecies in the legends of King Arthur make the path for Arthur to become king and warn of the consequences of sin. Lewis’ prophecy in The Silver Chair deals with warning against disobedience, and his prophecy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells of the coming of Aslan. Tolkien’s prophecies in The Silmarillion are simple: don’t do that or you will die/suffer something much worse. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses prophecies to encourage the people of Middle Earth to support Aragorn and Frodo.
So Here are Six Rules for Writing Proper Prophecy:
1. Your prophecy must primarily serve as a call to repentance or as a way of preparing the people for a savior
As covered before, this is the purpose of prophecy. If you want to write a “prophecy” that does neither of these two things, then you have the wrong narrative technique. You may be looking for foreshadowing instead….
2. Don’t use prophecy as foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a fantastic literary technique, but it does not belong in prophecies. Prophecies are supposed to serve a purpose. If your prophecy does not clearly call the people to repentance and clearly warn of the consequences, then it is useless. If the prophecy does not clearly identify and pave the way for the savior, then it is also useless (Note: Not all may recognize the savior, but it must be clear to at least some of the characters and your rational readers.) Prophecy is just too obvious and crude for foreshadowing– try symbols or dialogue if you want to foreshadow.
3. The initial prophecy should not be vague and hard to understand
Note how I used the word “initial.” If a prophecy has be distorted over thousands of years, then it might be hard to understand (especially if a god has not intervened to preserve the prophecy.) But since prophecy is given for a reason to communicate something to your characters, then rational, educated characters need to understand the message. And above all, the reader should understand the message. Characters may be blinded by emotions, but you don’t want to insult your readers by tricking them with something impossible to understand until afterward.
4. Prophecies can have hidden meaning but should have immediate value for the characters
Again, prophecies are communication. It is great to have prophecies with hidden meanings that are discovered afterwards, in fact, many of the best do, but have there be a practical and understandable message as well.
5. Prophecies should involve the divine
Biblical prophecy and prophecy in historical fantasy has always come from God or gods as communication to man. If you don’t make this explicit, then the prophecy will feel like a cheap plot motivator. Now, this doesn’t mean that only religious fantasy can have prophecies. A lot of fantasy deals with gods without messing (much) with religion: think The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings. You can even just barely mention the god that inspired the prophecy and leave it there. Though, I mean, why not address some fun questions about divine and human relationships? But that is up to you.
6. If you are not a master of poetry, then write your prophecy in a different format
Not much is worse than a having bad poetry shoved down your throat. It doesn’t matter the purpose of your prophecy if you put it in a terrible poem. There is no shame in having a prophecy written without meter and rhyme. If it seems to dull, then carve it in stone or put it in a sealed scroll. But if you can’t write poetry, then please don’t. Spare us all.
So what do you think about fictional prophecies? What did I get wrong? Any revisions that you are thinking about for your fictional prophecy? I know that I will be rewriting mine in the next few months. Also do you have any other cliches you would like me to tackle?