Prophecies can add a fascinating plotline to a novel, giving the book depth, mystery and intrigue. It also instills the story with a great sense of importance – as if the ages were just waiting for this one conjuncture of events, or particular character to come to prominence. It can sometimes be found in historical novels, but it is fantasy writing that the use of prophecy is far more common, becoming almost an art form in itself. Many readers may think that creating a fictitious prophecy would be straightforward, but it certainly isn’t, and it is especially difficult if you wish to imbue it with a high level of mystery and complexity. After sprinkling prophecy throughout Game of Thrones, George R R Martin said ‘Prophecies are, you know, a double edge sword. You have to handle them very carefully; I mean, they can add depth and interest to a book, but you don’t want to be too literal or too easy…’ www.adriasnews.com
George R R Martin, Game of Thrones
So let’s look at how a few fantasy authors have handled prophecy and look at their different approaches to this aspect of their writing. As I’ve already mentioned George R R Martin, let’s look at his prophecies that come in the form of prophetic dreams in Game of Thrones. The first example comes from Daenerys Targaryen, at the start of the series, when she is often beaten by her brother, Viserys. This is what she dreams…
“Her thighs were slick with blood. She closed her eyes and whimpered. As if in answer, there was a hideous ripping sound and the crackling of some great fire. When she looked again, Viserys was gone, great columns of flame rose all around, and in the midst of them was the dragon.”
Daenerys becoming the mother of dragons is first foretold in this passage, and from that starts the remarkable journey of Daenerys as she first marries the great Khal Drogo, who rids her of her troublesome brother, and she goes on to become the conqueror queen with the aid of her three dragons – birthed in fire after the death of her husband.
Another of Martin’s prophecies comes from Bran Stark who foresees the impending war with the Lannisters, that will tear the Seven Kingdoms apart. He has a dream showing his father and sisters…
“There were shadows all around them. One shadow was as dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armoured like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armour made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood.”
You will notice that Martin’s prophecies are quite dark and graphic, not sparing the reader from the violence that makes up much of his story, and is a suitable accompaniment to his great series. However his grim and brooding visions are not the only way to go, as our next example shows…
Terry Goodkind, Sword of Truth series.
By winter’s breath,
The counted shadows shall bloom.
If the heir to D’Hara’s vengeance
counts the shadows true,
his umbra will dark the world.
If he counts false,
then his life is forfeit.
You can see that Goodkind’s prophecies come in the form of complex riddles, that the reader can try and decipher, with varied levels of success. This particular prophecy is forked and says that the ‘heir to D’Hara’s vengence’ the sinister Darken Rahl, could either take over the world through the choice he needs to make, or forfeit his life.
What makes Goodkind’s prophecies interesting, are that some lines are easy to decipher, whilst others are more obscured, meaning that you only truly understand the full prophecy when the story reaches its climax. This is important for great prophecy writing – give the reader enough to be intrigued, but not enough to tell them what’s going to transpire, you don’t want to give the game away too early.
This complex problem may explain why some prophecies are not revealed in their entirety at the start of a novel, or series of books, instead coming to light piece by piece, as the characters in the story reveal more of what is to be foretold. This is the technique used in my next example…
Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time series.
Yet one shall be born to face the shadow,
Born once more as he was born before, and shall be born again without end.
The Dragon shall be reborn,
And there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth at his rebirth.
In sackcloth and ashes shall he clothe the people,
And he shall break the world again by his coming,
Tearing apart all ties that bind.
Like the unfettered dawn shall he blind us, and burn us,
Yet shall the Dragon Reborn confront the Shadow at the Last Battle,
And his blood shall give us the light.
Let tears flow, O ye people of the world.
Weep for your salvation.
The full Karaethon cycle prophecy is far too long to write here as it goes on for multiple pages, but it centres on the rebirth of the man known as the Dragon. The man who’d once defeated the Shadow, but in his madness afterwards, destroyed the great civilisation he’d created – a time called ‘The breaking of the world.’
The early passages of the prophecy foretell his rebirth, but as you can tell from the small excerpt shown here, also foretell him destroying the world once again, before he can face the Shadow once again at the Last Battle. Unsurprisingly, the people of his world are not sure whether his coming should be something they should celebrate or dread, as the prophecy is very clear on the destruction he will bring, despite the eventual salvation he offers.
Much of the prophecy is ambiguous and its meaning clouded, so you’re never quite sure how it will come to be fulfilled, but gradually through the series (which is also of an epic length) the passages come true as yet more is revealed. It is a great example of prophecy being done well, but to see prophecy at its best, you really need to go back to the beginning, and the book that started the fantasy genre, I’m talking about Tolkien of course…
J R R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost,
The old that is strong does not whither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring,
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be King.
The first thing to notice about this poem, is the quality of the prose. With the greatest respect to the other great writers used as examples in this article, it is clear that Tolkien’s mastery of poetry was on a far higher level. His passage manages to conjure thoughts of times lost, and hope being renewed. It foretells the Return of the King of the West, the Dunedain Aragorn, who goes by the name Strider in the first of the books, and is far more important than his appearance would suggest.
I think it is a wonderful poem, and a beautiful example of Tolkien’s effortless master of the English language. It shows how fantasy writing can be greatly enhanced by prophecy, but also shows the level of care and work needed by aspiring writers if they are ever going to achieve the spine-tingling sense of portent that a great prophecy produces. Prophecy needs to be treated with care and attention, as it can be the making and breaking of a novel. As George R R Martin’s fantastic character, Tyrion Lannister says in Game of Thrones, “Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head.”