Harry, Neo, and Prophecy Stories

Well, I’m supposed to be furiously working on a new script right now … but I hated the idea of not following up on this particular topic.  Last week I wrote a piece that compared rolling the dice in a board game with authorial intervention in a plot.  The comments that followed were lively and engaging.  One early remark (by friend and K-Blogger Robosoyo) went off on an interesting tangent:

I’ll be honest: this is why I was disappointed by the last two, and especially the very last Harry Potter book.  Because by book 4, Harry’s luck should have run out, and his own skill/inventiveness/wit should have been the thing saving him.  Instead, Who He Was got him all the way to defeating Voldemort, rather than What He Learned.  The end of book 7 and the git still only knew about five spells, two of which were “Authorio Intrusio” (accio and apparating).1

He makes some good points (“authorio intrusio” is truly inspired), and several commenters voiced their support.  I get it; everyone hates lazy prophecies.  However, I cringe to think that just because a story contains a prophecy it must be obligated to subvert it.  Rowling is a smart writer, and she went out of her way to make it clear that Harry Potter would never be the most skilled/smart/witty of his friends … I have to think that that was intentional.  Maybe it even has something to do with the point of the whole series?

This question sparked an off-blog conversation about “prophecy stories.”  As I see it, prophecy stories contain unexceptional protagonists who have been selected as The One.  Why have they been selected as The One?  Well, that’s sort of the point:  they’ve done nothing to deserve the title; it is thrust upon them and the central question of the story is “Will they live up to it?”  In our current world, which places great emphasis on personal merit and individual choice, this concept may seem completely unrealistic — but remember that for thousands of years people lived in a world where a baby could become a king by virtue of bloodline, and another baby could be born into slavery for similarly arbitrary reasons.  In that older world, the idea of being The One might actually speak very directly to the human experience.

In fact, I would argue that “older world” is a key distinction here.  Prophecy stories almost all take place in ancient worlds (even high tech sci-fi stories Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica occurred long ago in galaxies far away).  This is different from our current age.  Nowadays we crave stories about characters who shape their own destiny.  We want to believe that individual choice and personal merit are the most important determinants of success.2  While true to an extent, it is occasionally very untrue.  Just ask the victims of a natural disaster.

The world is a big place, and there is plenty of room for both kinds of stories.   The problems start when authors try to have it both ways.  That’s usually the point when readers start to revolt.  Any time I see a story about a hero with superpowers (personal merit) who also was predicted by The Ancients (destiny), I start to get nervous.  It means that no matter how the story ends, it will betray one of its central metaphors.3

What happens when authors betray their metaphor?  Well, consider the Matrix trilogy.  Everyone loved the first movie and hated its sequils.  Why?  some people claimed they were too confusing, but so was the original.  Some claim it had too many pointless special effects, to which I ask Why did they feel pointless? Looking back over what happened in that series, I suspect that one of the central problems is that the story transitioned from one of choice to one of destiny.  The first movie is all about Neo choosing to become a hero (as exemplified by the red-pill/blue-pill scene).  The later installments, however, take pains to reveal that Neo has never really been in control of his own destiny — that everything he’s ever done has been part of a plan.  This is a literal slap in the face for the audience, as it’s telling us that we (along with Neo) were fools for ever caring about which pill he chose.  Ha ha.  Joke’s on us.

So how does this tie back to Harry Potter?  Well, I would argue that just as The Matrix began with the premise of choice, the Harry Potter books built their foundation on prophecy.  Baby Harry defeated Voldemort not by his actions, but simply by being The One.   In the end, [SPOILER ALERT] he defeats Voldemort in the very same way — and, to me, any other outcome wouldn’t have felt half so magical.

  1. This is actually an abridged version of a much more in-depth rant Rob published a few years back on his own blog, which is worth a read provided you can accept the premise that Tolkein is a great writer.
  2. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect this storytelling sea-change has something to do with the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and Shakespeare.
  3. This idea has been stolen directly from Matt Bird’s excellent blog post on the subject.

11 Comments Leave a Comment

  • kbryna says:

    I just read *The Emerald Atlas* after a friend suggested it. I forced my way through it – it has many things working against it, in my opinion – but when I got to “THERE’S A PROPHECY? ABOUT US?” I thought I was going to puke.
    A good prophecy is nothing to laugh at. A good prophecy *story* is even more worthwhile – think about Lyra in *His Dark Materials* – she’s a prophecy child. And Percy Jackson, whose series ends (In *The Last Olympian*) with perhaps the most satisfying conclusion to a series that I know of. Even HP’s prophecy doesn’t bother me that much, because like everything in Rowling’s invented world, it only needs to be representational. Everything’s a function there (except, I think, the very fine, elaborate Other World – that’s the point of the series if you ask me, which you didn’t).
    The bigger problem is that prophecy is used lazily by bad writers and bad editors and bad people who make bad decisions to publish crap books. A prophecy can’t, shouldn’t, doesn’t replace *motivation.* Or, you know, *characterization.* And it also shouldn’t foreclose everything that follows – a bit like the fatalist reaction to the possibility that everything is pre-ordained and fated to happen: if that’s the case, why should anyone bother actively doing anything, if everything is going to happen anyhow, one way or another?
    The refusal to play Prophecy is part of why I love UN LUN DUN so much (but only a small part, because there are so many things I love about it).

    At the moment, it’s the sheer unoriginality of the prophecy that is galling to me. Unless your book is doing something really new or different or compelling, leave the prophecy-plot out of it. They’re so unnecessary, and only enhance certain stories in very specific ways.

  • josh says:

    Robert McKee disagrees with you, and I guess so do I. I think Mr. Out-of-Hand was right. Although there was a prophecy that made Mr. Potter special, he had to actively choose what to do with the situation that was thrust upon him. While I haven’t actually read any of the Potter books (they don’t impress me much – sue me), I suspect this is what Out-of-Hand is referring to.

    As McKee says, luck should not intrude past the first act. Choice, choice, choice. Why? For the same reason that we do not go to the movie theater to watch documentary footage of those natural disasters of which you speak.

    We KNOW the world sucks a lot of the time. We KNOW that life’s hard and then you die. We go to stories to find hope – to believe that we CAN make choices and actively participate in our lives. And although many choose to live vicariously through these stories forever, some take inspiration and LIVE. At least, that’s what I hope for – knowing, as I do, that I’m just a schlub like anyone else.

    What we really want, I think, is a tension between free will and determinism, and we want our protagonists to live in that tension for as long as possible, before finally – at the last possible moment – tipping the scales through a real, live choice.

  • Kbryna, because of your recommendation, Mary and I will now finish the Percy Jackson series. (We had stalled out on book 3.)

    Josh, I think you’re 100% right that the best stories play on that tension between free will and determinism. However, I would argue that unless the author has the freedom to ultimately choose determinism (which you argued he cannot do without ruining his story), then the tension is artificial … and thus undramatic.

  • josh says:

    There is a difference, I think, between what we “ought” to be able to do as writers, and what “the masses” will tolerate. The question you have to ask yourself, I think, is whether it bothers you that by choosing determinism, you shrink your audience by a lot.

    I suppose it’s a cyclic argument, though, because then we start asking whether you have a choice to choose or not choose choice.

    But I’m tired and not thinking straight. The day should seriously end at six o’clock.

  • josh says:

    Also, isn’t sequel spelled with two “e”s? You gotta use google chrome, man… it autospellchecks.

  • Curse you and your typo-spotting powers! More seriously, though, I do want to thank you for engaging on this topic. As with a lot of the ideas I post on this site, there a lot of holes in the argument, and it’s great to have people chime in when something doesn’t ring true for them.

  • Roboseyo says:

    Thanks for the post… I’d like to respond to it more, but will have to wait until I’ve finished writing two papers for my studies. (spoilers all over)

    Until then… thinking back more, one of the things that bothered me about Harry wasn’t so much that he was The Chosen One, but that 1. he got SO much help from SO many people and Authorial Intrusions (Dobby, The Half Blood Prince’s marginalia, the felix felicis potion, uncanny appearances of The Sword of Griffindor, and a barrel of monkeys’ worth of wand quirks, not to mention Ron’s loyalty, Hermione’s badass-ness, the loyalty and talent of Dumbledore’s Army, the advice of numerous adults, the Marauder’s map, the invisibility cloak, and Dumbledore’s clues, to begin with) and yet he spent most of his time sullenly resenting them because he was The One, and Nobody Understood How It Felt To Be The One rather than showing gratitude and humility in the face of all the help he got; nor did he ever look at himself and go “Crap. I’m getting a lot of help. It’s time for me to muckle down and become a better wizard, in case that well dries up.” Ender Wiggin was grateful for the people he led, and generous in spirit. He was talented, and he drove himself to the limit to make his talent peak, because he understood the stakes.

    Harry’s track record as a WIZARD:
    1. develop a powerful patronus
    2. give up on occlumency
    3. resist the imperius curse
    4. use the disarming spell spell a lot (which is like a WWE wrestler having “run out of the ring” as his signature move)
    5. ride a broomstick real good
    6. have a special wand. and then another even specialer wand…
    7. but still get defeated by almost every adult wizard he faced (sometimes with startling ease) except Voldemort… and then not show gratitude to the wizards who bailed him out or protected him, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

    By the end, I just didn’t LIKE Harry, and that’s one of my main criteria for getting involved in, and enjoying a story.

    My theory for why Matrix 2 and 3 were less interesting than 1 is similar to yours:
    Once Neo was The One, the outcome was never in doubt anymore, so the only action segments in Matrices 2 and 3 that were interesting were when OTHER people were fighting – Morpheus or Trinity or the citizens of Zion, because whenever Neo threw down, it might have looked cool, but you knew who was going to win. That’s why they had to dump him 400 miles away and use him as a Deus Ex Matrixa in the best action sequence in Matrix 2: the freeway fight scene. And when he started matrixing (controlling/ seeing computers) in real life, too, it was a bridge too far.

    Where do Paul and Leto Atreides fit into your understanding of The Prophecy Story?

  • Craig Chapman says:

    I wanted to thank everyone for a really enjoyable debate.

    I was also left wanting at the end of Harry Potter – perhaps most by his (for lack of a better term) resurrection (one could say, the ultimate bail-out). I commend Roboseyo for articulating this dissatisfaction and for his mention of Ender – I couldn’t agree more.

    On the point of Ender’s Game: In some ways, the parallel series about Bean speaks even more to this topic. Ender knew that something big was at stake (but he never knew what it was), and worked to become the hero. Bean knew exactly what was at stake and actively strove to be the greatest sidekick. Bean’s story functions as a YOU-ARE-NOT-THE-ONE prophecy – the moment he chooses to NOT be the hero (and the reason he makes that choice) is one of my all-time favorite book moments.

    …I also wanted to thank Roboseyo for a good laugh – the HP to WWE reference is too good…

  • brad says:

    First off: Hey Jonathan. It’s been a long time! Deb and I have been enjoying catching up on your writing here.

    Where there is prophecy, there is a gap in logic and/or order. It takes the trajectory out of the tangible, predictable or even fair. But to me, even (or especially) in their arbitrariness, episodes of prophecy seem to reflect reality.

    I would assert that most of Neo’s story in the first Matrix is not as much about making choices as it is about accepting destiny. Maybe that’s a subtle difference, but it strikes me that there isn’t much Neo is doing to lead the story. Therefore in 2 and 3, destiny wasn’t a slap in the face (literally or otherwise ;-) ) to me. The story is sufficiently compelling in a destiny paradigm. But it would have been vastly more effective if the part was played by, for example, Leonardo di Caprio. There are human realities that need to be contended with — the lesson here is that it requires acting not just action. (This is also exactly where the new Tron epically failed.) Destined outcomes are highly engaging when they are arrived at in vividly human terms. For example, check out Iron Man 2.

    When it comes right down to it, people want something that they can relate to. Okay, so maybe some people can’t relate to prophecy, and it could be lazy. But if told well, everyone can relate to a character contending with a prophecy she doesn’t particularly want or know what to do with.

  • Heather Jeanne says:

    Warning, this comment is SPOILER HEAVY. End of warning.

    Honestly, I think that Harry Potter’s fate has a great deal to do with choice…it just isn’t always his choice. He’s lauded as the Chosen One because of a prophecy that says a child will be the end of Lord Voldemort, a child born to parents who thrice defied him at a certain time of year. Harry and Neville Longbottom fit the bill and Voldemort decided that Harry, the “half-blood” (in the eyes of purist, anyhow)poses the greater threat. Voldemort decided that Harry was his greatest enemy, killed his parents, and so created his greatest enemy. When Harry is brooding over the prophecy he’s just learned about, his friends point out that it doesn’t change anything — Voldemort was always going to try to kill him. He was always going to feel compelled to destroy Voldemort, because of their shared history.

    So there is predetermination here, but it has very much to do with the choices another person made.

    It’s also worth pointing out that Harry decides to take the hero’s route in response to his history. In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore makes it pretty clear that Harry was placed in Gryffindor over Slytherin because it was where he wanted to be, not because he was destined for heroism.

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