The Problem of Prophecy

Prophecy, as a general rule, tends not to be very helpful.

In the midst of the Second Persian War, for example, the Athenians sought the wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi, pleading for Apollo to guide them in their fight. The fact that they did so tells us two things: first, they could be a religious folk, and second, they were totally screwed. After all, it’s not for nothing that “delphic” has entered our English lexicon as a synonym for “utterly unclear.”

The oracle famously told them, “…the wooden wall only shall not fail.” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7)

Excellent! Wonderful advice! Except, wait… hold on. Which wooden wall? You can picture the Athenians milling about in lively confusion: “Do we even have a wooden wall?”

Debate ensued. Some thought the oracle was talking about an old palisade built around the acropolis. Some believed (more bizarrely) that the wooden wall wasn’t a wall at all, but a collection of thorn bushes surrounding the city. Thucydides, of course, carried the day, insisting that his people abandon their city, putting all their faith in their navy. And it worked, no thanks to the oracle, who could have just said, “Ships! Use the damn ships! Oh, and make your stand at Salamis.”

The skeptic, of course, has a very simple answer for all this obfuscation: the whole thing is a con! After all, the basic set-up of the operation doesn’t evoke much confidence. You’ve got a priestess hopped up on laurel leaves and semi-poisonous volcanic fumes (her sanctum was built over a volcanic vent) muttering incoherent sounds. It falls to Apollo’s priests to interpret these sounds, and the priests seem suspiciously good at coming up with “interpretations” that will prove unfalsifiable. Money and donations pour in; alarming gibberish pours out.

Things get a little trickier in fantasy. There is, of course, plenty of religious chicanery in the genre, but there are also many, many novels that involve gods and goddesses who are treated as real beings by both the characters and the author. When these gods decide to say things about the future, you’re faced with the problem of prophecy.

That problem can be stated as follows: If a world’s divinities care enough about the future to say something on the subject, one might reasonably expect them to say something coherent. But, if they say something coherent, well… there goes the story!

Consider, for example, the moment in the Hebrew Bible when God speaks to Abraham:

“Sarah your wife will bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac.” (Genesis 17:19)

Now this is a helpful prophecy! It’s specific, concise, and accurate. On the other hand, imagine if this sort of prophecy existed in, say, Tolkien’s world. We’d learn at the start, “Frodo will carry the ring into Mordor. He’ll lose a finger in the process, but the ring will be destroyed.” Or in A Song of Ice and Fire: “Jon Snow will get it on with Daenerys Targaryen and they’ll have a son whom they’ll name Jimmy SnowFire.” Good prophecy makes for crappy drama.

This is why the prophecies in fantasy are so often Delphic in style. There are, thank god, some plausible explanations for this infuriating style. Each, however, comes with its own set of implications about the metaphysical framework of the world in question.

Explanation 1: The Gods Are Not Omniscient. This explanation takes care of some of the vaguer prophetic utterances. Maybe, to use our Athenian example above, Apollo doesn’t really know what to do. He has an fragmentary glimpse of wood and fire, and does his best. While this would help to explain the lack of actionable intelligence, however, it doesn’t do much to explain the tone. After all, Apollo could just say, “Sorry guys, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with wood. Maybe a wall, maybe not. Good luck with everything!”

Nonetheless, I’m fond of this explanation. It limits the power and influence of the gods, placing the emphasis on the actions and decisions of less divine characters.

Explanation 2: We Don’t Speak God’s Language. This is a pretty common theme in extant, real-world religions. The problem, in this view, isn’t with the wisdom of the divine word, but with our fluency in the language of the divine. A goddess may speak, but we lack the faculties to fully understand her speech.

Something like this seems to be going on in the Bhagavad-Gita when Arjuna demands of Krishna, “If thou holdest [my] intelligence to be greater than works, then why dost thou appoint me to a terrible work?” (Bhagavad-Gita 3:1) Krishna is really trying (and trying and trying) to explain things to Arjuna. He’s not being deliberately obscure, but Arjuna’s human intellect is ill-equipped to understand the scope and complexity of the divine vision.

The danger of this approach, for the writer of fantasy, is that it lends itself to long, didactic passages in which a prophet lectures while everyone else tries to keep up.

Explanation 3: Prophecy is a Test. In this case, the goddess knows the future and could, if she so chose, explain the possibilities quite clearly. The prophecy is presented as a riddle, however, because anyone unable to solve the riddle doesn’t deserve the benefit of divine wisdom. The Biblical book of Revelation seems to fall into this category. It’s filled with quotes like this:

“I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.” (Revelation 11:3)

Great. Two people who are like olive trees and also candlesticks. Very helpful. Biblical scholars have spilled gallons on ink pondering the identity of the “two witnesses,” but the ambiguity is the whole point. The true meaning of the text is available only to those who prove themselves worthy.

Of course, in this case, the writer postulates a divinity interested in actively testing the mortal creatures who crawl the earth, and one would expect such a theology to play a pretty important role in the plot. A “testing” prophecy plus an indifferent god doesn’t seem a plausible combination.

Those strike me as the most common explanations for garbled or obscure prophecy in the fantasy we read, but I’m sure there are others. If you’ve got one, I’d love to hear it!


After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades (forthcoming from Tor on January 14, 2014), is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. He lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley, Facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley, as well as on his blog.

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