The North Tower #5: Destiny vs. Choice

by Maline

Hello, everybody. Today’s topic is thought to be the second last of my little series on HP prophecies. (We’ll see how well that goes… ;-)) But, before we get to that, I’ll run through the little argumentation task I set for you last week.

Okay, I’ll call the two opposing sides “A” and “B” to make it easier to follow. Let’s go.

(A) Don’t forget that if a person picks up a prophecy that is not about him or her, he or she will go crazy. Harry picked up that prophecy and did not go crazy. Therefore, the prophecy is about him, not Neville.

(B) The prophecy only had Harry’s name on it because the keeper of the halls of prophecies put it there after the attack on him as a child. It was renamed, thus the fact that Harry’s name’s on it might just be a human mistake.

(A) The wording is: “Only the people to whom it refers can lift them [the prophecies] from their shelves without suffering madness.” “To whom it refers” can be interpreted “about whom it was made,” making the labeling unimportant.

(B) The prophecies are only inanimate objects, and it’s the MoM that puts the protective spell on them, making the one they think it’s about the only person to retrieve it.

(A) We know nothing about how the protection works or how the records of prophecies get to the MoM. We only know that they are well protected, which could mean anything.

I’ll stop there. As you see, in this argument, both sides are quite strong and we lack information to really settle the thing. Both sides can use these arguments in combination with other ones about whether Harry or Neville is the One, but they’re not fully convincing just on their own. This kind of “weaker” arguments is often called “complementary arguments,” meaning that, in a debate, you should use them to add weight to your theory, not as your main point. Okay, let’s go on with today’s topic.

Destiny vs. Choice

We stand now before a major problem, a great mystery. On one hand, we have the prophecies, which seem to be showing us the future, no matter what the characters do to stop it. On the other hand, we have the major theme in JKR’s books of the importance of choice. How do these two things work together?

Choice is very important in the HP books. As Dumbledore put it in CoS, it is our choices that show who we really are more than the abilities we’re born with. To think that the future is already decided and impossible to change is a very fatalistic perspective, in which the importance of choice would be very marginal. When it comes to foreseeing the future, what are the rules? Can the characters in HP really shape their own destiny?

The first situation I thought of where a prophecy and choice come in contact is in PoA when Harry saved Pettigrew’s life in the Shrieking Shack. Harry made the choice to save him, thereby fulfilling the prophecy about Wormtail’s escape and Voldemort’s rebirth. Could he have chosen otherwise? Theoretically, yes – but really, when you look at what kind of person Harry is, the answer must be no. Harry is, as Dumbledore remarked in CoS a “true Gryffindor,” meaning noble, courageous and good-hearted. He is also filled with empathy, the capacity of feeling for other people. He’s not the kind of person who would consent to the murder of an unarmed man, unable to defend himself, no matter how horribly evil this person might be. That’s more of a Slytherin thing to do. So, Harry did in effect make the choice that made the prophecy come true, but he couldn’t really have chosen otherwise.

It seems that prophecies (at least if they’re following the Greek tradition, which I think the HP ones do), always come true, and they often do so because of people’s choices. I think this works mainly because they’re fairly imprecise. In the PoA one, it only said that the servant will escape and return to his master, something that could come about in many different ways. Now, if it had said “and the servant will escape because Harry will be unable to kill him and Lupin will turn into a werewolf as they go back to the castle to turn him in,” it would have been a different story. In that case, Harry would certainly have thought twice about sparing Pettigrew’s life and would probably have told Lupin not to come with them back to the castle just then. He would have had a much greater chance of remembering the prophecy in that way. That was not the case, though, and the prophecy came true. [Editor’s note: Harry would also have known that Lupin was a werewolf before the big scene in the Shrieking Shack, so a lot would have changed.]

The other situation that springs to mind is when Voldemort showed up in Godric’s Hollow and killed Harry’s parents. He went there because he’d heard the first part of the OotP prophecy and wanted to prevent it. By making this choice, he accidentally fulfilled the second part (the marking), which he knew nothing about. I believe that, if Voldemort hadn’t made this choice, Harry would be nothing more than a normal wizard boy. I also believe that, if Voldemort had chosen to go to the Longbottoms’ place instead, Neville would be the one having a scar on his forehead and the series would be called “Neville Longbottom and….”

The point is that true prophecies as well as the wisdom of Centaurs (or so it seems) are not like any other kind of divination. We’ve heard it many times: divination is a very imprecise branch of magic and that people’s actions have so many unpredictable consequences that it’s very hard to foretell the future. But, Dumbledore also said, “True Seers are very rare” (PoA), and Firenze said, “Professor Trelawney might have Seen, I do not know” (OotP), indicating that a true prophecy is something very different from ordinary ways of foretelling the future. Note the capitalization of “Seen,” signifying the importance of the word and setting it apart from “seen,” making “See the future” very differently charged from “see the future.”

It seems like the wisdom of Centaurs and prophecies are connected. They’re both ruled by something greater than the human world, by the Universe or some force behind it (yes, a parallel to God can easily be drawn here, but JKR doesn’t really do that so neither will I; I’m just pointing at a possible interpretation). This force is the ultimate mystery, in the HP universe as well as in our own, and has been subject to people’s thoughts and wonderings for millennia: is there something greater out there which knows (and decides) the fate of the world? Do we create our own destiny? And so on. As much as I’d love to go all philosophical on you, I’ll stay away from those ones right now or we’ll never see the end of this. 🙂

My point is that prophecies work in a different time frame than “real time,” very much like the time-turner. The prophecy is not formed before the actions take place; it is formed simultaneously before, during and after. Confused? Imagine that time is a road and that you’re driving on it. You know where you are because you’re seeing it (that’s the present). You know where you have been because you’ve seen it (that’s the past). You might be able to guess what lies ahead through signs that you’ve seen along the way (that’s the future), but you’ll never know. There might be a big rock blocking the way just behind a curve that you didn’t foresee would be there. Divination would be what the driver’s doing, trying to guess what lies ahead based on what is likely to happen (e.g., in their first class, Trelawney foresees that Neville will break a cup. She’s probably heard tales about how clumsy he is and realizes that this is a probable event).

Now, imagine that someone else is driving the car and you’re on a mountain seeing the entire road from above. You know 1) what lies ahead of the car and 2) how the driver will act along the way (because you’re all-knowing too, isn’t that cool?). So, you’re not seeing only where the car is at a specific moment, you’re seeing where the car is at every different point along the way. You see at the same time past, present and future, which is quite impossible for us humans to really imagine as we have a three-dimensional way of thinking. Now, say that you want to interfere with what the car is doing. Right now, it’s going to get safely to the next town (and, at the same time, it’s already there). You, on the other hand, want it to crash into a big rock lying on the road. So, you put up a warning sign saying, “Beware of big rock”. You do not, however, say when this rock will appear and make sure that the driver is distracted from remembering the sign by putting up a big poster advertising an all-nude strip joint just before he arrives at it. This makes the driver jam into the rock, just as you foretold.

Same thing with Voldemort and Professor Trelawney’s first prophecy. What’s the one thing that would make Voldemort go over to the Potters’ (or Longbottoms’) and try to kill their son and thereby lose all his powers? Well, you create a prophecy stating a threat and don’t let him hear all of it. It’s like the Greek story about Oedipus. How do you make a guy kill his dad and marry his mom? You tell this to his dad, who’ll send the boy away in self-protection, with the result that he’ll not know who his real parents are and therefore have no problem with killing and marrying them (which he’d never done if they’d raised him themselves).

So, am I saying that the HP universe is interfering with the HP human world? Yes, I am. I base this partly on my theory concerning the balance of good and evil in the universe (NT3): how the pendulum always swings back after you push it to one side, trying to reach equilibrium. So, if there’s a great push towards evil, there’ll be a great force wanting to push it back in the direction of good and vice versa (e.g., if the evil driver of the car (that he’s probably stolen from an old lady) has been able to get away from justice and is killing little birds with the exhaust from his car every mile along the way, the good side of the universe will make sure that there’s a donut shop a bit further along with a cop inside).

Much more important, though: (this is my more cynical literary analyst view, the one above is my philosophical one) on the Harry Potter road, JKR is the person up on the cliff, and we’re sitting in the back seat of the car. She’s the boss in the HP universe and knows exactly what’s going to happen and to whom. She wants Voldy to go attack Harry (or there wouldn’t have been a story to write), so she lets him hear the beginning of the prophecy and make his choice between Harry and Neville (knowing that he will choose Harry because of his own background). She then wants Harry (and the readers) to know that Voldy’s going to come back for real and that there’ll be a huge fight (“and the Dark Lord will rise again, greater and more terrible than ever before,” PoA). So, she lets Professor Trelawney get her second true prophecy, which Harry won’t be allowed to remember when he is in a position to stop it from coming true. Also, by doing this, she creates the “mystical bond” between Harry and Pettigrew, which will certainly be very important to her storyline in the last books. I further believe that she lets Harry get to know Dumbledore’s interpretation (note:interpretation, not necessarily correct) of the prophecy, knowing that if Harry believes that he or Voldy will have to kill the other in the end, it will influence his actions and lead things along the “right” path (“right” being where JKR wants them to go). She’s the writer. She’s the goddess of the HP universe. She alone holds the ultimate truth. She alone can see past, present and future at the same time. What we’re doing, and what most characters in HP are doing, is divination – a very imprecise branch of magic. She alone can truly See.

In addition, this doesn’t really conflict with the importance of choice for the following reason: it says that our choices show who we really are (or at least, how the HP characters are), not that they allow us to escape our destiny. According to my memory, JKR hasn’t addressed the problem of fate yet. It seems like the true prophecies and the wisdom of centaurs hold, and that that isn’t a problem. The personalities of the characters are shown by their actions for the most part (which, by the way, is one of the classic methods of characterization), and this gives readers clues about what will come about and why. Little by little, we too will come to know the characters; and then, we might approach the place where JKR has been standing all along, up on the mountain, looking down at the HP road, seeing all points at once and understanding how it all works. I don’t think we’ll ever get the complete picture, though. After all, the only person who truly understands a work of literature is the person who wrote it.

I’ll now go get my own Inner Eye started for next week’s series finale: the End of Days, What the Prophecies Tell Us.

See you guys!