This is a version of a column that first appeared in The Big Issue. Journalism worth paying for. Every week from street vendors around the UK. Subscriptions are available if you can’t buy on the street. All funds go to the charity.
It was foretold that to base a story on prophecy is lazy. But I’m noticing it more and more in a lot of places it shouldn’t be –in science fiction and fantasy, where anything is possible and imagination should be able to do better than expect you to believe that someone is just special.
There’s the BBC’s Merlin which is rather like Harry Potter. We’re always being told Harry Potter/Merlin is special. He’s the chosen one. Yes he does brave things, but quite frankly, none of them seem as important as the constantly repeated message from everyone he meets that he is THE Harry Potter/Merlin, destined for success and greatness simply because of his birth.
Prophecy is what ruined the second Star Wars trilogy. Remember how well the original Star Wars film started? Luke Skywalker is a bored farm boy, who chooses adventure and finds he can be a great warrior. Then we start getting hints of how his sister might be a great hope, too, just because she’s his sister. By the second trilogy we’re all supposed to accept that it’s special Jedi particle levels in your DNA that get you chosen for training school, and his dad is “born” with great power. Anakin is even born of some implied Virgin birth.
And The Matrix – a wonderful premise just underminded enough to be really annoying, by the idea that the coming of Keanu Reeves “Neo”/The One (get it?) has somehow been prophesied. By who? And how would it be true in a machine world ruled by aliens?
That’s not to say prophecy can’t play an important part in great fantasy fiction, but only when it is treated with ambivalence; as something to be fought for or against. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is told by the witches that he will be king. But is it the hearing of the prophecy that awakens the desire in him?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, according to Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, a “fantastic satire on the idea of prophecy.” The high school girl born to fight the forces of Darkness, who dies early on as the prophecy foretells, but is revived by simple first aid resuscitation. “It’s clever because whatever happens you can always twist the facts to say the prophecy was true all along.” The animated film Kung Fu Panda is an even more recent and empowering play on the idea.
Captain Kirk was always encountering worlds where computers had gone mad and gained control and needed to be re-set to liberate a superstitious population. (Top tip: This can be reliably done by getting Mr Spock to ask the Master computer to calculate to the last possible digit the value of Pi.)
But look what happened to Star Trek. Fed, I think, by a post-colonial guilt for the treatment of Native Americans, in the 90s it fell increasingly in thrall to superstition. A Native American first officer in Star Trek Voyager has visions which get taken seriously. And let’s not mention the Bajorans of Deep Space Nine – a tribe ruled by “prophets” who live in a wormhole. For Copson it’s a strange development: “30 years ago we had science fiction that was rational and progressive. But more recently it’s irrational, mystical aliens with ancient wisdom.”
Perhaps the most annoying “prophecy” of recent fantasy fiction has been Sam Raimi’s original prequel The Great and Powerful Oz. It starts promisingly – Oz is a carnival huckster on the run, but once he arrives in the magical land it turns out he is fulfilling a prophecy about a saviour from the air. It’s especially infuriating because Frank L Baum’s many Oz books are delightfully unreliant on lazy storytelling. A salesman in true life, his all-American fantasy is rooted in reality. Unlike Tolkein’s universe, Oz is a land of working farms and market towns. Everyone has a job – the scarecrow, the tin man, even witches are off selling spells. The Wizard is a fraud. And Dorothy Gale is an ordinary girl with no special powers, just her own courage. In contrast to the catfighting women of the new Disney film, his books actually turn into a feminist utopia, ruled over by Ozma.
In fact lazy prophecy based story telling seems quite a modern invention. The great myths of world cultures are full of prophecies and curses made by capricious gods, but how heroes react to them is what makes for compelling story, character and tragedy. Great heroes like Hector of Troy, sometimes find themselves on the losing side.
My favourite prophecy-defying hero is Karna from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata; often compared to the Iliad. (These cartoons are from the Amar Chitra Katha comic book version.) He is the greatest and noblest warrior, but is cursed and rejected because he is illegitimate and was raised in a low caste. Karna fights on the losing side in the battle of Kurekshetra. Lord Krishna exploits his generosity, getting the god Indra to ask Karna to give away the divine armour that protects him. Karna does so knowing it will doom him. The story haunts me still because it’s about a great soul defying fate, prophecy and still choosing to do the right thing. In an India still cursed by caste discrimination Karna is widely regarded as a great role model. Perhaps modern science and fantasy fiction could do with taking more inspiration from the past.
Oz Revolts! – great blog post on feminism in The Marvellous Land of Oz