The prophecy of the chosen one is considered to be a tired trope by many fantasy readers. Indeed, many books use prophecy as a crutch to make it easier on the characters and push the plot along. But when done well, prophecy makes it harder on the characters, not easier, and enhances the mythic quality of the novel.
I love prophecy and the tale of the chosen one. I love when I realize a new book will detail another hero’s journey, and I break out in goosebumps when the prophecy sends our hero forth. The Lord of the Rings teems with prophecy—most of the main characters have legends attached to them. Harry Potter’s entire dilemma would not exist if a prophet hadn’t spewed her ambiguous foretelling, setting Voldemort against him. When in the hands of a master, a prophecy can be devastating. It can wring the chosen one dry, even crushing her spirit and leaving her quest shrouded in doom. A prophecy can add a lyricism to the novel, which makes the writing sing. It cloaks a novel with a hint of ancient folklore. Before you give up on prophecy, read one of these five masterfully prophetic books.
The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
When the dark is rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone…
This is the classic use of prophecy and is pure poetry, adding mystery and suspense to the series. The series is set in modern times but follows the Arthurian legends as evil emerges in our world. The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, sets the stage for the prophecy. The next four books force characters Will, Jane, Barney, Simon, and Bran to use the prophecy to unravel the mystery of how to defeat the dark forces which rise against them. Always suspenseful, sometimes heartbreaking, this young adult series is one to reread again and again.
The Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling
First shall be the Guardian, a vessel of light in the darkness. Then the Shaft and the Vanguard, who shall fail and not fail if the Guide, the Unseen One, goes forth. And last again shall be the Guardian, whose portion is bitter, bitter as gall.
Flewelling is a master of the prophecy. Her prophecies are not kind, comfortable paths for her characters. They carry heartbreak and abandonment and cruelty. The Nightrunner series begins with the above prophecy, leading to shocking betrayal for Seregil and Alec. Does she leave her characters alone after they resolve the quest? Of course not—there is no escaping the bitter hand of prophecy in the kingdom of Skala. The next prophecy, given to Alec, tears apart the two lovers and creates a backdrop for the remaining series.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
The curse will be lifted only through the will of a man who would lay down his life three times for the House of Chalion.
How can a man die three times? This question destroys the love of Royina Ista as she tries to save her family from the curse, and threatens to destroy the entire royal family if our hero Cazaril cannot plan and think his way to the answer. The follow-up novel, Paladin of Souls, follows Ista as she tries to rebuild her life after her failure to fulfill the prophecy on her own, desolate and abandoned by the gods she tried to serve.
The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop
To paraphrase the prophet, Tersa: The day is coming that the debt will be called in, and the Blood will have to answer for what they’ve become. Witch is coming. The living myth, the dreams made flesh.
What happens when you are the chosen one that your own family hopes is never born? In this dark fantasy series, Bishop shows us. When Jaenelle is born, her own family does not recognize as Witch. Indeed her grandmother states in Jaenelle’s hearing that if Witch comes, “I would hope that someone would have the courage to strangle it in the cradle.” Jaenelle must undergo horrific abuse while hiding who she is and what she stands for so she can escape those who would control her and the darkness justice she conceals.
The Demon Cycle by Peter Brett
The demons have arisen and wards protect humans from utter destruction. The religion states that a Deliverer protected the people, until mankind turned their back on him. The prophecy states that the Deliverer will return to banish the demons “and lo, ye shall know the Deliverer, For he shall be marked upon his bare flesh…”
It’s easy—our hero Arlen is the Deliverer. He has the tattoos. Of course, he denies it, but he’s just modest. Right? But… who is this Jardir guy from the desert? And why does he seem stronger than Arlen? Wait, how can there be two Deliverers, especially if the two despise each other? And what if the two Deliverers end up killing each other? Who is going to deliver the people then? Oh, naughty, naughty Peter Brett, causing us to doubt and wonder which of his group of characters will really be able to deliver the people from the demons—if any. Brett shows that belief is more powerful than accuracy in naming the chosen one and fulfilling prophecy.
Are there books you particularly love the use of prophecy in, or is it just too tired a subject?
Kelley Grant grew up in the hills of Ohio’s Amish country. Her best friends were the books she read, stories she created and the forest and fields that inspired her. She and her husband live on a wooded hilltop and are owned by five cats, a dog and numerous uninvited critters. Besides writing, Kelley teaches yoga and meditation, sings kirtan with her husband, and designs brochures and media. Her latest book, The World Weavers, is out May 31st from Harper Voyager.