Using Prophecy As A Plot Device
Though I am a writer who likes to dabble in multiple genres, the one I always find myself falling back on is fantasy. My favorite genre is fantasy and my favorite books are fantasy (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc). I find the themes of life most strongly and beautifully reflected in fantasy stories, whether in epics like LotR or in more fairy-tale-ish novels like George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. There is just something about painting a different world where good and evil wage war on a surface level reflecting what is inside that really appeals to me.
One of the most popular plot devices in fantasy novels is the use of prophecy.
Today I'm going to talk a little bit about using prophecy in your fantasy novel, how to make it unique, how to thread it through your story, and how to go about penning something that seems really cheesy when you start.
So first things first, what does prophecy look like in a novel? Well, there is an example I can give for that...
The above is an example of prophecy from The Lord of the Rings. It concerns the return of the rightful king of Gondor and Arnor and the restoration of the Numenorian line that had fallen into shadow. Basically, it is an oft-quoted poem that tells of how Aragorn, a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, will take up the empty kingship of Gondor.
There is always a lot of symbolism in prophecy, skewing it so that it is harder for the characters and thereby the audience to discern what it is really getting at. It's like a cleverly concealed spoiler. :P The great thing is that even if your audience has a pretty good idea what it means, they cannot know for sure until you tell them. And the more symbolism you use the harder it will be to figure out. Yay for being difficult!
If we were to take apart this poem however, we can see how it applies to Aragorn pretty clearly. It also helps if you're a LotR nerd like me and know a little bit of Middle-Earth history...
"All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost."
This first part refers to Aragorn's less than perfect appearance when we first come across him at the Inn of the Prancing Pony through Frodo's POV. Frodo is unsure of this stranger, who is dirty from travel, weather-beaten and dangerous looking. It does not help that all those in the inn are suspicious of Aragorn (whom they call Strider - for his long legs, no joke) and all those who they refer to as Rangers, wanderers in the wild. However, as Frodo talks to and gets to know Strider he realizes the truth of not judging a book by it's cover and soon learns that Aragorn is likely the most noble man he's yet met.
"The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost."
Here the prophecy refers to Aragorn's ancient ancestral line that is, at the moment, on the brink of extinction. Yet, has managed to hang on all this time.
"From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring."
This speaks specifically to Aragorn as the heir of Gondor and Arnor and the new and final hope of the Dunedain people. How he is the "light" that will spring from the shadows to save them at the last possible moment.
"Renewed shall be blade that was broken."
Here we are given a hint of history concerning the sword that Aragorn carries, Narsil. It was broken years and years ago when his ancestor, Isildur, fought Sauron and cut the One Ring from his finger and destroyed him - temporarily. It is symbolic for Aragorn to be carrying the "shards of Narsil", the blade of his kingly ancestor and a forefather of his lineage. The sword is later reforged by the elves for Aragorn specifically, and he renames it Anduril, the Flame of the West.
"And the crownless again shall be king."
This one is pretty clear, the wandering Ranger known as Strider, a crownless son of kings, will be the king once more. King of the reunited kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, restoring Numenorian rule to the world of men.
Isn't that cool? You can learn pretty much everything you need to know about who Aragorn is just through a few lines of prophecy. I am personally a big fan of symbolism and parallel themes in stories, especially fantasy as it seems to work best there. To me something like that is really, really fascinating.
However, it is very easy for something like prophecy to become cliche and overused. There's nothing wrong with a commonly-used theme in your story - like prophecy - but it's much better when you can flip the cliche on its head and come up with something new and interesting.
So, here are five ways to do just that with the element of prophecy in your novel.
1. MAKE IT SUBTLE. If your character stumbles upon a strange old woman in the woods who seems to know an awful lot about him and where he is going, chances are she's going to be telling him his future at some point in there. Likewise, if your character is just woke up from a dream about their loved one being eaten by a pack of wolves we as an audience are going to have a pretty good clue about their fate. Go for something more subtle. I am personally a fan of how George RR Martin went about this in his first book of the ASOIAF series, A Game of Thrones. In the first chapter he has his characters, the Starks (a noble family of the fictional kingdom of Westeros and wardens of the North) stumble upon the body of a huge, dead direwolf (a kind of freakishly big wolf). It was evidently a mother, as there are six pups huddle up against her body. One for each of the six Stark children (as the direwolf is the sigil of their house). They discover the mother died from swallowing the antler of a stag, which got caught in her throat. Later we are introduced to the king's family, the Baratheons, whose house sigil is a stag...
See how that works? By the time the Baratheons come around we as an audience may have already forgot about the stag and wolf incident. But at the end of the book, King Robert Baratheon is dead, due in part to Lord Eddard Stark's nosing around the capital city, and Eddard is dead as well, killed because of Robert. At the beginning this suspicion is planted in our subconscious but it is so subtle we don't really notice until it is too late.
This is a great example of using prophecy in a subtle manner to achieve a better audience reaction.
2. USE SYMBOLISM. Don't go around straight up saying exactly what's going to happen in the future. Make it difficult to figure out, twist your words and don't say exactly what you mean. Like George Martin uses the wolves and stags, use something that is symbolic to your characters, or the situation they will be facing.
3. FORESHADOW INSTEAD OF PROPHESY. Similar to the example I gave in my first point, go for foreshadowing with certain symbolic events rather than a straight up prophecy with a poem to match. I did something similar to this with a character of mine, whose death is foreshadowed quite heavily throughout the first two books of the series. From the character's birth to day of death, the notion that they will not live as long as the rest is threaded through the narrative again and again. Of course one does not need to use quite as much foreshadowing as I did to get this point across, even one thing that your readers can look back on and see the connection will be sufficient.
4. TWIST THE PROPHECY. Alternatively, if you have a prophecy that seems really clear but skew it so that is has a double meaning, you can also surprise your audience. If they have an outcome fixed in their minds it will be all the more shocking to reveal something completely unexpected, yet still relevant.
5. MAKE THE OUTCOME OPEN. If your prophecy has multiple possible outcomes, this is also great for making your audience uncertain of what will happen. George Martin does this really great twice in his A Song of Ice and Fire series with the prophecy concerning Cersei Lannister which goes; "Queen you shall be, until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear." There are at least three solid options for characters who would fit the "younger and more beautiful queen" piece. They being Daenerys Targaryen, Margaery Tyrell and Sansa Stark. Any of whom could fit the bill, something which is still keeping fans guessing to this day since Mr. Martin writes REALLYYYY slowly.
Well, there you are! Five ways to work with prophecy in your novel. To any fellow fantasy writers out there, have you dabbled with this plot device? Do you find it difficult to come up with a theme to weave through your work with prophecy or is it something you enjoy? Let me know in the comments below!