Sunday, May 22, 2011

still here

The twenty-fourth of May
Is the Queen's birthday.
If you don't give us a holiday
We'll all run away.

As you may have noticed, the world didn't end, and the Rapture didn't occur this weekend. Which I'm quite pleased about, as here in Canada we have a long weekend, and I'd hate for it to be interrupted by the Tribulations. (The caterpillars are a problem, but not--thankfully--a plague).

It may be that prophecies are in the air, but I was moved to rant over on Evil Editor when the umpty-umpteenth query involving a prophecy and a chosen one who was the only one who could deliver the land from the evil. The chosen one, by the way, was an adolescent girl.
Which is not to assume that the book (or any of the other books fitting those criteria) is necessarily a bad book. Just a book with a plot that made me bang my head on the nearest available flat surface.

In the invaluable Tough Guide to Fantasyland by the wonderful and much-missed Diana Wynne Jones, the entry on Prophecy begins :
is used by the Management to make sure that no Tourist is unduly surprised by events, and by GODDESSES AND GODS to make sure that people do as the deity wants. All Prophecies come true. This is a Rule.
Less succinctly, if you are a writer (the Management), you include a prophecy in your book (the Tour) so that your reader (the Tourist) will know ahead of time how the story will end.
You include a prophecy so that your characters (the Tour Companions) will have no freedom of choice and thus no character development, because no matter what they do, how they squirm, they will fulfill that prophecy line by line, no skipping ahead.
Why would anyone do that?

It can't be just lazy plotting (though that's probably a factor), because usually the reluctant heroes are coerced into action not only by the Prophecy but by some personal incentives as well (known in movie trailers as This time it's personal) such as loved ones being taken prisoner or killed, whole villages being slaughtered, the world is going to end and that means him and his little dog too, .... So if your plot is already poking your character with pointy sticks in the direction you want, what's the prophecy for?
I suppose there's some fun in reading on to find out what twisty language and hidden meanings the prophecy will turn out to be using, but that's kind of a thin, distant pleasure, isn't it? Like doing a really old crossword puzzle.

Where does this expectation of prophecy come from? Tolkien didn't make a big deal of prophecies in Lord of the Rings, as best I recall. There was the business of the sword that is broken, but that was more of a sad song than a directive. David Eddings used a prophecy extensively, but in a rather more unusual way, by making the prophecy a character of sorts.
Maybe if I had read lots of Big Fat Fantasy aka Extruded Fantasy Product I'd have a better idea of the origins and requirements of prophecy in fantasy. Maybe I'd even see the point of it.
But the next time I see a query that uses the word 'prophecy', I'd be thrilled beyond words if it turned out that the prophecy was false or mistaken, or referred to something else entirely. Or was a trap set up by the Evil Overlord.
Or, heck, was just misinterpreted several times, so that everyone thought it had already been fulfilled. How many different historic events have Nostradamus's prophecies been refitted to?
After all, if Mr. Camping can get his doomsday prophecy wrong, why should Seers, Dreams, Runes and Omens always get it right?


Phoenix Sullivan said...

Did you ever think the Rapture didn't happen because a Chosen One somewhere played out their destiny and averted the apocalypse? Hmmm? Did you?

Thinking about this very thing as there's another prophecy-laden query on my blog today.

batgirl said...

A Chosen One disproving a Prophecy?
Is that allowed?

Terri-Lynne said...

Everyone who intends to write a "prophecy" story should be forced to read any one of a number of Terry Pratchett Discworld books. Many of them have prophecies that MUST BE FULFILLED TO SAVE ALL THE WORLD!!! But he turns it on its head every time, and a different way every time. If you MUST do a chosen one prophecy--Pratchett will be your guide. :)

Sharon Needles said...

Absolutely the worst "prophecy series" I ever read? Those nasty things that started with LOrd Foul's Bane. Just. Kill. Me.

Prophecy stories are either written out of a lack of imagination or laziness. Unless, as Terri-Lynne says, you're Pratchett.

batgirl said...

PTerry is a genius and can turn even a Chosen One into gold.
Though, y'know, there's all sorts of fun one could have by subverting prophecies and so little one can have by playing them straight, you'd think a few of us lesser writers would follow his lead?

Sharon, you actually read more than one of the Moral Leper series? I salute your courage and endurance. I was spared even reading the rape because I couldn't deal with One More Bloody Pseudo-Germanic Compound Name, and threw the first book across the room at the 3d or 4th of them.
Have you heard of clench-racing? I think it's the only worthwhile use of those books.

Sharon Needles said...

Clench-racing? I have not heard of such a thing. Do enlighten me!

batgirl said...

The explanation of clench racing is found here:

But let me steal the quote: "Clench-Racing, whose inventor Nick Lowe recommends it as a great way to get thrown out of bookshops. Up to six can play. The rules are simple: each player takes a different volume of Stephen Donaldson's blockbuster Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, opens it at random, and leafs feverishly through the text. You win by being first to find the word "clench" (or "clenched", "clenching", etc). It's a fast, furious sport, and a round rarely lasts a full minute.

The original point of Clench-Racing was to highlight Donaldson's peculiar fondness for this gritty word. If players get too good at locating "clench", Lowe slyly suggests switching to "other favourite Donaldson words like wince, flinch, gag, rasp, exigency, mendacity, articulate, macerate, mien, limn, vertigo, cynosure ..."

Sharon Needles said...

Was Donaldson married to his thesaurus?

batgirl said...

I think it was more like a mad, passionate affair de coeur. Though he never achieved the heights (depths?) of Lionel Fanthorpe.