The problem with prophecies

Disclaimer: This blog post has spoilers from recent episodes of Game of Thrones. Read under your own peril.

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Prophecies. A staple in fantasy and at times, science fiction (and science fantasy as a result). The guideline through which many stories live and die in the head of the audience. If the prophecy somehow is not fulfilled directly or through a twist -more on that later-, the audience tends to complain about how it was a cop-out, a plot hole or a mistake. As if the prophecy and the myth from where it is derived is a promise about how the story should develop, like a recipe. Perhaps is due to the tendency that humans have to create patterns and follow them to the letter, out of a sense of familiarity and comfort. Maybe because of personal headcanons make you, the audience to consider that a story should develop in a certain way to fit your interpretation of a prophecy. But prophecies are meant to be vague because they are trying to predict events in the future that are unfolding based on several decisions

I have to say, I’m not a fan of the whole prophecy thing, not a least as a guideline of how a story should develop. I don’t mind a prophecy here and there. I do mind the way it is used to railroad a story. In my humble opinion if you as writer follow to a T a prophecy you created for your story, then something went wrong. Same if as reader you expect a prophecy to work as stated and get angry when it doesn’t. Even in the real world, prophecies are unreliable and subject to interpretation. I mean, if prophecies were that literal, we would be using Nostradamus writings as an almanac, easily expecting what was going to happen and taking one of three options:

-You sit down and let thing happens without doing nothing, taking away your agency (which in storytelling makes for a really boring character and in real life veers in nihilism).

-You try to avert what’s gonna happen, thus changing the future and invalidating the prophecy (Vision of Escaflowne revolves around this, how Fate is actually a probability zone created by free will and changed by our decisions rather than a fixed outcome, which is what the villain wants to do, force the world into his fixed outcome).

-You fulfill said prophecy by setting in motion the causes and effects that will result in it (self-fulfilling prophecies, which sound to me a lot like determinism).

So the reason I’m not a big fan of prophecies as road map’ that populate fantasy is that I’m a firm believer of free will. As a relative once told me, during a philosophical/esoteric talk, you might have a destiny, as you have during a trip, but how you reach it, if at all, is entirely your choice. Prophecies are nice touches that lend depth and worldbuilding to a story, but using them as the blueprint for your story, negates character development and force you to end the narrative in a certain way that might not be entirely organic.

I will put it this way: my personal pet peeve with the last book of Harry Potter (disclaimer: my wife is a huge fan of the series, she actually cried when we visited the Wizarding World in Orlando) is that the ending and the whole quest felt so forced because Rowling had to follow this prophecy:

‘The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives … the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…’
-Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

To me, the plot collapsed under its own weight due to the adherence to the prophecy. Yes, Neville could have fulfilled it. But by half of the saga, it was clear that he was a red herring. The story fell into a pattern and the resolution felt contrived to me (you, of course, are free to disagree). The story was kinda predictable after a certain point. Harry had to die for Voldy to be gone. The challenge there was to see how the author would pull it off -killing the MC or finding a way to keep him alive-. I have been guilty of this on my stories, so I admit this post is also a learning experience for me.

Now, you can tell me that in fiction, prophecies have been not always followed to the letter, playing with the expectations of the reader. The earliest example I can think of is Lord of the Rings, in specific the death of the Witch King of Angmar:

Éowyn: Be gone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!
Nazgûl: Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.
Éowyn: Do what you will, but I will hinder it, if I may.
Nazgûl: Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!
Éowyn: But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Be gone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
-The Return of the King, Lord of the Rings

In this example, Eowyn -with a certain degree of help from Merry- kills an unkillable enemy by taking the prophecy to the letter “No living man can hinder me” and being literal with its interpretation. A woman did the deed. Helped by a hobbit. I wonder if an orc, dwarf or elf or an undead being could have done it too. In this case, the prophecy by Glorfindel was followed to the letter, but by sticking to it, presented the way it was going to be fulfilled: anyone besides a living man could have done it if we play a rules lawyer.

Now, here is one of the most controversial prophecies in fandom, one that’s still debated how it should have been interpreted, regardless to the fact that the original creator already said which interpretation was the right one. I present you with the Chosen One from Star Wars:

“You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force. You believe it’s this…boy?”
―Mace Windu, to Qui-Gon Jinn about Anakin Skywalker

“If the prophecy is true, your apprentice is the only one who can bring the Force back into balance.”
―Mace Windu, to Obi-Wan Kenobi

“You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!”
―Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Anakin Skywalker

How do you interpret ‘balance’? According to Lucas, balance meant to destroy the Sith for their use of the Dark Side was breaking the said balance. Then he introduced the Mortis family and well… things changed. The balance was meant to be achieved by destroying both Jedi and Sith? Or as the NT is kinda trying to imply in The Last Jedi, balance is accepting both the good and the bad of the Force as it is a reflection of the universe, life & death, good and evil? It kinda still fits with Lucas original version of balance because the Sith wanted to control those aspects and by doing it, corrupting the Force and breaking the balance of the natural order.

But I often wonder what would have happened if Lucas had eschewed the whole Chosen One thing and just stick to making Anakin a really powerful Force user that went bad like many talented people do in real life? Maybe we wouldn’t have to hear about ‘midichlorians’. The thing is Lucas kinda tied his hands by introducing the Chosen One thing and then tried to retrofit it with the previous lore established in the OT. I know, his biggest inspiration was the ‘Journey of the Hero’. But that is just a  way to tell a story, not the only blueprint for it.

This takes me to the issue at hand, which is where this post gets spoilery: Game of Thrones. In particular, S8 Ep 3 ‘The Battle of Winterfell’ where everyone, including Kit Harington, were expecting a  fateful duel between Jon and the Night King. A duel that never happened. Jon got stuck with an undead dragon, Dany was surrounded by wights and defended only by Ser Jorah and in a very interesting twist, Arya stabbed the mortal enemy of mankind and saved the day, enraging a lot of people that think that it invalidates the books and the prophecies about Azor Ahai, The Prince that was Promised, and so on.

But here is the thing, Martin has made a point of leaving said legends and prophecies open to interpretation. He describes himself as a ‘gardener’, which means he has a basic outline of how the story will go but is leaving himself room to create the story. And to do that, the legends and prophecies in the books -and by extention, the show- had to be kept vague.

So let’s examine this:

Complaint one: Jon/Dany was meant to be AA, TPtwP, etc. and the one that delivered the final blow to the NK. I admit I was of this mindset at first, until my wife told me, with reason, that no prophecy actually works literally in the real world. And GoT/ASOIAF is meant to be a fantasy story with a certain degree on real-world logic on it.

So the prophecy used  for the show, as expressed in the book says:

“There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.” 

A Clash of Kings, Chapter 10, Davos I.

If you notice, it never says that AA will kill the darkness, just that it will dispell it. I contend, and this is a personal interpretation, that Lightbringer is not meant to be a sword, but a coalition of people willing to stop the darkness. The first Lightbringer was the Night’s Watch:

I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.

So in a way, Jon & Dany did fulfill that part of the prophecy, because the set things in motion, gathered people willing to fight the darkness and did everything possible to allow for Arya to deliver the decisive blow. Heck, without Jon in the North as a king, Arya would have probably gone south to kill Cersei. The Battle of Winterfell is showing us a new Lightbringer: the coalition of the living created by Jon & Dany. The description of this bit from The World of Ice & Fire, about the Long Night mentions:

How long the darkness endured no man can say, but all agree it was only when a great warrior – known variously as Hyrkoon the Hero, Azor Ahai, Yin Tar, Neferion, and Eldric Shadowchaser – arose to give courage to the race of men and lead the virtuous into battle with his blazing sword Lightbringer that the darkness was put to rout, and light and love returned once more to the world.

The World of Ice & Fire, The Bones and Beyond.

It doesn’t mention the woman with a monkey’s tail that’s referred in another part of the text*, but that’s another point. Most people would assume that is a single warrior with different names. But what if is, in reality, a coalition of heroes from different parts of the world save it and with the pass of time, their figures got mixed into a single being. I mean, that’s the basis of the Faith of the Seven in a way.

Complaint two: by killing the NK so early, the show was left without a bigger villain and is back to petty squabbles for a throne. Well, the thing is, that it is actually consistent with the source material. The story of Westeros didn’t stop with the end of first Long Night nor will ‘stop’ with the end of the second one (a very short one actually). And here is why:

When the daughter of the Opal Emperor ascended to power as the Amethyst Empress, her envious brother cast her down and proclaimed himself the Bloodstone Emperor and began a reign of terror and slavery, in which he practiced dark arts and necromancy, took a tiger-woman for his bride, feasted on human flesh and cast down the gods of Yi Ti to worship a black stone fallen from the sky. This Blood Betrayal, as it is known in the annals of the Further East, ushered in the Long Night, with the Maiden-Made-of-Light turning her back on the world, while the Lion of Night came forth to punish the wickedness of man. The darkness ended when a great warrior rose to lead the virtuous into battle with the sword Lightbringer in his hand. Light was restored, but the Great Empire was not reborn for the restored world was a broken place where every tribe of men went its own way, fearful of all the others, and war, lust, and murder had endured.

The World of Ice & Fire, Yi Ti.

G.R.R. Martin story has always been about humans being their own worst enemy (like in real life). An often overlooked part of the Azor Ahai/PtwP myth/prophecy says (and this is the part everyone is ignoring) that after the Long Night ended, the land was left in a state of constant war and chaos. So yes, a magical monster was killed, but the very real monster that hides inside every person is still there. Which if you think, fits with what the show is doing.

I know it’s kinda iffy to bring book canon to the show canon when in the show they had barely discussed the prophecy beyond that Azor Ahai will save the realm (it doesn’t really specify from whom, darkness can take many forms: ice zombies, mad queens…). But the theme seems to be consistent in both forms. The show might have taken liberties, but the theme remains: humanity is it’s own worst enemy. Jon still has time to become Azor Ahai, but it won’t be in the epic fantasy way we expect. It will be in one more set to a more ‘realistic’ world, or as realistic as a world with dragons and ice zombies can be. And he can become that (or Dany will, the coin is still in the air) because the evil hasn’t gone away, it is still there. And unlike with the White Walkers, this evil doesn’t go away immediately when you stab the leader. It never truly goes away. Darkness is always inside us. And every epic battle, real and in fiction, has consequences.

Or to put it this way: after WWII ended and the bigger evil was defeated, we were still left with a very dangerous monster (Stalin), a Cold War and the realm in disarray, with the threat of nuclear war looming over our heads. And it hasn’t really gone away. History is nothing but a long succession of smaller histories all linked together. In fantasy, we are preconditioned to stop reading after the hero takes down the bad guy, but we rarely stop to consider the aftermath. I mean, I have always wondered what happened to the orcs in LOTR after the fall of the Sauron. were they massacred? Or Were they free to create their own culture and perhaps someday become somewhat of a nation?

Bottom line, prophecies in the real world rarely come to happen as they are intended because the future is always in motion, thousands of small decisions change the outcomes of our day to day interactions. History seems to us, set in stone because we can see the logical chain of causes and effects that made certain events happen the way they did, but truth is that we see it in that way because we are living in the result of those interactions: for us to exist in the way we do, things had to happen in that way. But it doesn’t apply to future events. So I don’t see why prophecies have to be interpreted as the only way events have to unfold in a narrative. For us as writers, is hard to keep vague things because, in the way we are the gods of the worlds we create, we can see how things are gonna end. It is even more difficult if you are a plotter/architect. A pantser/gardener -kinda can allow themselves a certain degree of surprise. But the concept of the ending is usually set in stone, even if the road there is not laid out yet.

The problem with prophecies is that they are a double-edged sword when used in a story. Either you get railroaded by them or you leave them so open to interpretation that the audience will complain. Actually, in both cases, someone is gonna complain. Prophecies shouldn’t be used as the blueprint for your story. Otherwise, it becomes predictable or will contradict other parts of your story. Prophecies should be used as hints, as red herrings, as potential futures. And keeping them vague is really tricky.

Thus, prophecies should be used judiciously. Personally, I prefer the second option, both as audience and as a writer, as it gives more leeway to the imagination and clever twist, to represent the chaotic nature of our world instead of a deterministic one. Because living in a deterministic world must be the most soul-crushing experience ever.

That’s what I liked about what’s going on in Game of Thrones in its final episodes and the source material: the prophecies leave room for interpretation based on the cultural contexts of the characters and the audience. There is a myriad way everything can unfold. I don’t think I’m that good of a writer to pull it off in my stories -hence why I haven’t even attempted to write a prophecy for them- but I certainly can enjoy when others do it. Because it keeps my interest. I love not knowing whats’ gonna happen, to be in the edge of my seat screaming at Jon for not being able to reach the Night King on time and be pleasantly surprised that Arya did. And to me, that helps to make a good story a great one.

*“This legend has spread west from Asshai, and the followers of R’hllor claim that this hero was named Azor Ahai, and prophesy his return. In the Jade Compendium, Colloquo Votar recounts a curious legend from Yi Ti, which states that the sun hid its face from the earth for a lifetime, ashamed at something none could discover, and that disaster was averted only by the deeds of a woman with a monkey’s tail.” George R. R. Martin, Elio Garcia & Linda Antonsson. “The World of Ice & Fire.”

 

A brief story of Science Fantasy

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Image by sykosan

Earlier today, someone at the FB writers’ group to which I belong, asked (and I quote):

“I have long been assured that ‘Science Fantasy’ is a ‘thing’? So why can’t I find this genre in the BISAC fiction codes?”

It’s an interesting and fair question, moreover, because it is a discussion my publisher and I have had regarding under which genre list my novel at Amazon (ultimately, the distributor opted for Science Fiction, which well, might work, although I still argue it is Science Fantasy or Futuristic Fantasy).

So I replied the following. Bear in mind that this is what I recall from several consultations at the usual sites (Wikipedia, TV Tropes), The Complete Guide to Fantasy Subgenres by Best Fantasy Books, my recollections of Issac Asimov’s essay compilation and my own readings.

Currently, it is difficult to get a clear cut classification of Science Fantasy for two reasons:

1) As shown in the Complete Guide to… there are tons of Fantasy subgenres, and if you recall my previous posts on Science Fantasy, I see it more as a grading scale. So they often get mixed between them and with Science Fiction, that has become an umbrella term for the general public and thus, for several bookstores.

2) History. So sit down, grab a cup of coffee and listen to old uncle Ricardo explain it the best he can:

Originally Science Fantasy was published in the same magazines as Weird Fiction and original Heroic Fantasy (think Lovecraft for the former, Robert E. Howard for the later) during the ’20s and ’30s. Often got confused with straight fantasy, being fantasy an umbrella term for non-literary work or noir. That’s why you get things like the Cthulhu Mythos that mix horror, magic and science or stuff like Planetary Romances such as ‘John Carter of Mars.’

Science Fiction as we know it today was a counterproposal of that, encouraged by  John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who as per Asimov’s recollection, was adamant of having sound scientific knowledge behind every story he published (what we now know as Hard Science Fiction). It slowly pushed away from the mixture of genres and laid out the rules of what we know now as classic Science Fiction (Asimov, Heinlen, and Clarke). But if you read their older work, especially of authors like Bradbury, many of them wrote still a mix of Fantasy and SF.

With the advent of LOTR in the later part of the ’50s ( trivia time: incidentally helping to create the environmental movement), the division between Science Fiction and Fantasy became more entrenched. And the weird/horror part of the mix got separated into horror and the new weird (Charlie Stross for example). But if you notice, for example, some of the works of Stephen King go back to those roots (The Dark Tower, The Stand even It). But for many years, authors and readers tried to keep them separated, although there are stories that get them mixed.

You have cases where authors adamantly said their work belonged to one or the other, which was the case of Anne McCaffrey and the Dragonriders of Pern series (she might say it was straight SF, but they read like fantasy to me). Authors that started writing their sagas as fantasy and through connecting them with their other work or as result of worldbuilding created fantasy worlds in post-apocalyptic future Earth, like Terry Brooks and the Shannara series or The Book of Swords Series by Fred Saberhagen. Finally, the third group of authors never bothered with such divisions, instead of looking for the best mix of elements to tell the story at hand, like Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series or Roger Zelazny and his various works, like was the case of Creatures of Light and Darkness or Lord of Light.  And then you have authors such as Steven Brust of the Dragaera series that abide by the rule of cool as prescribed in the following quote:

“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

― Steven Brust

Personally, I abide by that rule too.

So as you can see, Science Fantasy hasn’t truly disappeared, just mutated, sometimes ignored, sometimes confused. The only place where Science Fantasy has been published continually since the ’20s as it’s own genre is in superhero comics (which started as pulp fiction), but now they have their own sub-genre in the literature (in part, thanks to Wild Cards by GRR Martin).

However, its existence has influenced our pop culture in ways are not that obvious. That’s why we have Star Wars and Saturday Morning cartoons from the ’80s (e.g. Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors or Thundercats), because Lucas and those other creative artists grew up watching old pulp serials, reading classic comics. For them, the mix of genres was obvious and useful. But the literary world -always influenced by commercial interests and marketing strategies- changes slowly. I recall as a kid, that fantasy was still considered SF in many places (and I’m an 80’s kid) and bookstores still tend to put fantasy books in SF shelves. I recall a bookstore chain in the UK that puts Patrick Rothfuss’Kingkiller Chronicles’ next to Star Trek novels. Because for the general public, they are the same.

There is however one country where Science Fantasy does have its own classification as a literary and cinematic genre: Japan. They do like their eclectic mixes and both their video games and anime show that. We don’t notice because when they get ported this side of the world, they get classified in our rigid system. For example, Dragon Ball started as fantasy (with super advanced technology) and now has aliens fighting deities and androids, with a not so healthy mix of time travel and multiverses. Or Final Fantasy, that started as a somewhat straight fantasy and by VII had megacities, modern tech, spaceships and schizo mix of magic and technology known as magitech.

With the advent of superhero franchises at the cinemas and book adaptations for modern sensibilities, I believe that Science Fantasy is on the rise again, but it will take some time to catch up in renown as its own subgenre.