Prophecy has deep roots within fantasy novels, making it a desired-and maligned-trope within the genre. As a reader, I’ve long considered the concept of prophecy intriguing, that visions from the past might predict future events. It’s a belief that has captured the imagination of millions of humans, spanning civilizations that predate recorded history.
However, the very word prophecy has become cringe-worthy to many readers. Why? Do they really hate prophecy, or have they have just become jaded by poor execution of the trope?
Stories about a fabled Chosen One, destined to save the world, tend to devalue the protagonist and the choices he or she makes. If their actions are preordained, are the characters then just going through the motions? If the protagonist is fated to save everyone, do the events that occur up to that point have any consequence? Does he or she even face risk of failure or death if destiny is on their side?
As a fantasy author and reader, I believe that prophecy can enrich a compelling tale if properly executed. I see prophecy as a vision of a possible future, but is just one of many such visions, each containing its own result. The prophet’s role is to note the unique aspects of a benevolent vision relating to a future event and then communicate those aspects in written form for others to use as reference. The recorded prophecy acts as a warning and can be used as guidance. However, if visions are nothing but a series of images, interpretation is required. The person who experienced the vision might not understand the imagery, but they can record it in hopes that others might understand and take appropriate action.
To distill it down to basics, a prophecy could be as simple as:
If you see a person who matches description xyz, don’t kill them. Help them, because they have things to do, things that could prevent some really bad stuff. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I know it’s important. This person is not your savior, but they might be the spark needed, in the right spot, at the right time.
The key is to maintain a vagueness that leaves multiple paths open, while also providing the hints required so those involved can make informed choices when they happen upon a crossroad.
I find the mystery of prophecy the most intriguing aspect. Somebody must do something at a certain time and good things will happen, but we don’t know who, when, or what. A good author cleverly masks key details until the right moment, but in hindsight, the answer becomes obvious to the reader. Isn’t that how the real world works anyway? Being in the right place at the right time can change your life.
As a reader, I'd rather not see prophecy disappear just because it’s a well-worn trope. If authors avoided all well-worn tropes, there’d soon be nothing left to write. Instead, I beg authors to use prophecy wisely, for with such power comes great responsibility.
Full disclosure: I’m guilty of this trope
I included prophecy in The Runes of Issalia series, but attempted to do so in the manner I found interesting as a reader. In the excerpts below, you get an idea of how prophecy works within the world of Issalia and how it impacts the story.
An Excerpt from The Buried Symbol
Background: This excerpt involves a classroom session from book one, where the Brock first learns about the art of prophecy.
Varius smiled. “I will now introduce a third ability that can manifest through Order: prophecy.”
She glided down the aisle as she spoke. “Prophecy is an ability relating to the prediction of future events. While it can appear in various forms, the most common form is often perceived as simple intuition. It’s that little warning in the back of your mind that causes you to react to something about to happen, even before it occurs.”
“I realize that this is a complex concept, so let me give you an example. Someone who has a strong connection with Order might enter a room but stop suddenly, not knowing why. A second later, the chandelier above falls to the floor right where the person would have been if he or she hadn’t stopped. In this case, a subtle ability in prophecy becomes a sort of additional sense, catching the smallest glimpse into their own immediate future.”
“You may wonder how this is possible. How could one see into the future? To understand, you need think of Order as a force that exists not only in the present, but also in the past and in the future. I’ve explained that Order is within all living things as the life force that binds us. While we only experience time in this moment, always moving forward in a linear fashion, the Order existing within you has existed throughout your whole past and extends into your future, stretching forward like a thread through time. When connected to that force of Order, you may be able to extend that connection out just a bit into the future, giving you a glimpse of what is coming.”
“There are two key items to note. First, it’s far easier to see into your own future than the future of others, because it’s tied to you. Second, the near future is much easier to determine than a more distant future. Your thread of Order extending in the past has been defined and is singular, but your future is an array of possibilities, fanning out wide from the present. The closer you are to now, the less variability there is to your future and the easier it is to foretell.”
“There is also a far more rare manifestation of prophecy. This is true prophecy, where a person will experience a vision of some critical event in the future, possibly a distant future. In this form of prophecy, one must connect to the more broad force of Order that exists in all living things. How this occurs is unknown, though many theories exist. In all documented cases throughout history, though there are few, this type of prophecy has served as a warning used to guide and prepare for some critical event.”
“You won’t find this in any books, for it is only handed down verbally.” She paused, scanning the room. “Without a doubt, mankind would not have defeated The Banished Horde if the Ministry hadn’t followed the guidance of such a prophecy. Ignoring that prophecy would have resulted in our utter defeat and in the extermination of mankind.”
Here is an Excerpt from The Emblem Throne.
Background: A tribal people called the Tantarri capture Brock and his companions. Upon discovering that Brock can wield a fabled lost magic, a Tantarri mystic forces Brock to experience a grim vision of a possible future-a future in which a dark force destroys the human race. The Tantarri then relate the details of an ancient prophecy intended to help prevent that dire outcome.
Brock asked a different way. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with me.”
“To understand, first you must understand how true prophecy works.” The old man explained. “Imagine you toss a stone into a pool, sending ripples across the peaceful surface of the water. Now imagine the water to be the calm of life magic, what you call Order. When a world-changing event occurs, it is like the stone dropping into the peaceful pool of Order, sending ripples outward, even into the past. Those with the ability of true prophecy encounter these ripples in the form of visions. Since these events are in the future, there are variations in the outcome, dictated by people’s actions leading up to the event itself. You see, our future is not pre-determined, it is the result of a convergence of what might happen and the choices we make in life.”
Brock nodded, confirming that he understood. “So you are saying that this vision is one of many possible futures, which means there are other possible outcomes.”
“It is good that can think with reason.” Yuranni shared a small smile. “I have seen similar visions of this event hundreds of times. All but once, I have witnessed the same heartbreaking outcome.”
“So this prophecy, you’re saying that it describes me.” Brock realized it was difficult to argue, based on the specifics described. “Where did you get this?”
Elder Yuranni spoke. “It was written by my ancestor, Elder Duratti, roughly four hundred years ago. He was the first of the Tantarri elders and was the first to experience visions of this event. Like me, he had hundreds of prophetic visions, all but a single instance ending in despair. The prophecy you just heard are the words he wrote after his vision of hope.” Yuranni paused, frowning. “Since his passing, his ancestors have seen many times that number, never again seeing this single path to an outcome of survival. That is, until the night I entered your dreams.”
Brock swallowed hard. Four hundred years was a long time for these people to wait. One vision resulting in survival among thousands ending in doom spoke to poor odds. Though disheartening, it wasn’t in his nature to give up hope.
“Okay, let’s say I believe you. What can I do? I can’t stop an army, I’m just one person.”
Head Clansman Turan spoke again. “There is more in the prophecy. Listen closely.”
He unrolled the scroll again, finding the passage he needed. “Guided by a single warrior of the head clansman’s line, this Outlander must lead a quest for secrets hidden within a throne marked by runes. Guard the Outlander well, for the quest will be fraught with peril and death. With this prize in hand, they must free the lost magic and meet the armies of evil in the heart of Tantarri lands when the portent reaches the evening sky. Should the quest fail, the end of humanity is certain. Of this fate, there can be no doubt. This vision is the greatest truth I will ever record.”
Turan paused, glancing at Brock and then at Puri before continuing. “There was more to my vision, though I know not what it means.” He read, unrolling the scroll to reveal the bottom. “The Outlander must close the world’s wound and stop the bleeding before it’s too late. He must also find the truth and set it free, for the lost magic hides within a web of lies. The coming days will be dark for mankind. Remember, when the portent shifts to the evening sky, death will roll across the plains of Tantarri.”
Admittedly, Brock walks away from this discussion quite confused. However, he is merely the leader of the group and others provide information that gives them initial direction. They set off on a quest filled with surprises, some being informative toward fulfilling the prophecy as they prepare for a final battle with the fate of the world at stake.