Happy Halloween, everyone! A while back I mentioned that the use of prophecy was one of the reasons that I didn’t like James Patterson’s Witch and Wizard. Admittedly, this was only one of a host of problems with the novel, but it was a significant issue. I claimed that there was a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way of presenting prophecy in fiction. I may have overstated this somewhat, there are likely several right ways and several wrong ways of presenting prophecy, but there are things that you certainly should and should not do. Someone asked about this in a comment and, since it is far too complicated for a comment response, I thought I’d dedicate a post or two to the subject. There are a few key factors in how prophecies are historically presented, and we all know that I emphasize attention to real world details in fiction. While speculative fiction does not deal with the real world, it must still be believable, and examining and using real world details can help to achieve this end. So:
1) Prophecies are Usually General in Nature: Most historical prophecies are non-specific and could have multiple possible outcomes. This is one of the major problems that I had with Patterson’s use of prophecy. The statement: John Smith will invade New York City with an army of giant roaches on December 12, 2027 is not a claim that would ever appear as a prophecy. There are some biblical prophecies that are quite specific, and a few of the prophecies of Nostradamus and the Prophets of the LDS Church are fairly specific. However, even the claim: A child of the line of David will be born in Bethlehem, is incredibly specific for a prophecy. In fact, there are several Old Testament scholars who argue that the book of Daniel was not written until circa 200 BCE (about the time it was accepted into the Hebrew canon) predominantly because the book has very specific prophecies that serve as strong evidence of supernatural inspiration if it was written before the rise of Rome. A much more common prophecy might be: A great disaster will befall the mighty people. This kind of general terminology is very common in actual prophecies.
2) Prophecies are Often Written in Metaphoric or Symbolic Language: While it is certainly not unheard of for prophecies to use straightforward language (as in the prophecy about Bethlehem above), they often do not. Prophecies generally require some degree of interpretation precisely because they use symbolic language. In the prophecies of Nostradamus and the prophecies of the Greek oracles this was quite common. It is also seen frequently in biblical prophecy. For instance, Isaiah 17 speaks of a ‘tall, smooth people’ who have been interpreted as Nubians, Assyrians, and Egyptians by different scholars. Similarly, the prophecies of Daniel often use animals to represent world powers, and the prophecies of Revelation use strongly figurative language to present world events.
3) Prophecies are Generally False: Biblical prophecy stands out because it is a great exception to this rule. A large portion of Old Testament prophecy, and some New Testament prophecy, is arguably factual. Again, this is why many scholars argue for late dates for Daniel and some of the minor prophets, and one of the reasons (though not the primary reason) that some scholars argue for two or more authors for the book of Isaiah, one Preexilic and the rest Postexilic. Outside of scripture, Nostradamus is probably the most accurate prophet in world history and his prophecies are only about 50% (I think) accurate.
4) Prophecies are Always Given in a Context: Prophecies don’t speak of nothing. Consider the Greek Oracles or Frank Herbert’s use of prophecy in Dune. Prophecies, even those that are false, are generally significant to the culture and exist in the context of a body of religious or occult lore with which the culture is familiar. Prophecies don’t stand alone. Even the prophecies of Nostradamus, probably the closest major prophecies to ‘standing alone’ exist in the context of the prophet’s life, occult beliefs and practices, and his body of work.
5) Prophecies are Often Misinterpreted: Because they are given in vague, symbolic, or metaphorical language, and because they speak of events to come, prophecies are very easy to misinterpret. Consider the prophecies surrounding the Jewish messiah. Several scholars have shown that Jesus of Nazareth, at least in the recorded gospels, fulfills over a hundred different Old Testament prophecies (a ridiculous feat in and of itself). However, the Jews never expected a messiah that would be crucified by the Romans. The oracle in Oedipus Rex is another good example of this. The prophecy is self-fulfilling because it was misinterpreted by Oedipus’ father as a warning to be rid of the child.
6) Prophecies Come from a ‘Reliable’ Source: In Witch and Wizard Patterson has his ‘prophecies’ appearing randomly on what sounds like an electronic display board in an abandoned department store. He even mentions that most of the ‘prophecies’ have to do with upcoming sales. Historically speaking, whether the prophecies are true or false, they come from a source that is fundamentally trustworthy to the people to whom the prophecy is give. The Greek’s believed in the oracles, the Jews believed in the prophets, many occultists believe in Nostradamus, and members of the LDS church believe in the Prophet of the LDS church. The source must be fundamentally trustworthy to the prophecies recipients.
7) Prophecies Rarely Give the Whole Story: Consider again the Greek Oracles and biblical prophecies. Both generally gave either a very general overview of events (i.e. Daniels prophecies), or a partial story (i.e. Oedipus Rex and Messianic prophecies). While Messianic prophecies do give us a fair picture overall, this picture only becomes clear when the hundreds… let me be clear here hundreds… of messianic prophecies in the Old Testament are compiled, analyzed, and pieced together. No particular messianic prophecy gives a clear picture of what to expect. Instead, each provides a small piece of the greater puzzle.
So, if you are thinking about using prophecy in a story, consider these basic principles before you give it a whirl. I’m not against the use of prophecy, especially in fantasy stories. Honestly, I think that when prophecy is done well it can provide an exciting and interesting element to the story. Frank Herbert’s use of prophecy in Dune is an excellent example of this. However, be careful that you don’t make simple mistakes that lead to ‘prophecies’ that are 1) too easy, 2) pointless, or 3) unbelievable. Instead, make the prophecies a real and living part of your world.