Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: A Very Different Approach to Dumbledore and Divination
In psychology, prophecies are dangerous things. Peoples beliefs can shape their choices and the outcomes of their actions. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that, in being made, actually causes itself to become true by virtue of the changed behaviors resulting directly from the expectations. For example, in the stock market, news of an impending crash causes anxiety and low confidence. Investors pull out in droves, and the market crashes as a result. A simpler example is, if you expect to fail at something, you will, consciously or not, put forth a weaker effort, thus bringing failure on yourself.
On reading OotP for the first time, I remember being irritated that Dumbledore had neglected to mention the enormously relevant prophecy to Harry for such a long time. Like Harry, I partially blamed Dumbledore for Siriuss death. To justify his seemingly huge oversight to myself, I continuously struggled with the question, why didnt Dumbledore tell Harry about the prophecy before OotP? But then a different question occurred to me: Why did Dumbledore tell Harry about the prophecy at all? In the wizarding world, prophecies are no less dangerous than in the real world, and should be used with equal caution. Voldemort brought about his own demise at Godrics Hollow through misuse of a prophecy. Is there not a huge risk that Harry could do the same?
Are prophecies important at all?
Just as we expect there to be a strong connection between Books 2 and 6, I have always felt that there was a strong connection between Books 3 and 5, largely because they chronicle the beginning and end of Sirius Black. Of course, both books end with a prophecy by Sybil Trelawney. And moreover, both books also introduce Divination teachers, and thus spend a lot of time philosophizing about the subject. Here the similarities become intriguing. Throughout both books the subject of Divination is brutally attacked at every opportunity, by all characters, good and bad. Not only is Trelawney shown to be infamously incompetent, but the subject itself is dubious AT BEST. Then both books end with their respective prophecies. If we are expected to believe these prophecies, and have faith that they are true, why would JKR devote so much time to showing how fallacious Divination is?
The Prisoner of Azkaban
There are thousands of examples of the wisest characters in the series discrediting Divination; in fact the subjects fall from grace is a major subplot. Hermione, the most respectful of students, walks out of Trelawney’s class in disgust. Merely one example:
McGonagall says to the class, Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic. I shall not conceal from you that I have very little patience with it. True Seers are very rare, and Professor Trelawney –
But at the end of the book, the following conversation takes place:
Harry says, ”Yes…her voice went all deep and her eyes rolled and she said…she said Voldemort’s servant was going to set out to return to him before midnight… She said the servant would help him come back to power…Was it — was she making a real prediction?”
Dumbledore looked mildly impressed. “Do you know, Harry, I think she might have been, he said thoughtfully. Who’d have thought it? That brings her total of real predictions up to two.”
Despite the fact that Dumbledore seems to believe in this prophecy, he tells Harry not to worry too much about it. He says:
“The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed…Professor Trelawney, bless her, is living proof of that .”
Dumbledore’s advice is not to dwell on Trelawney’s words, as we have no way of fully realizing the future. This congruous, sensible approach to prophecies is abruptly, and mystifyingly, changed by the time we get to OotP.
The Order of the Phoenix
The second Divination teacher further shows how woolly the subject of Divination is. Firenze tells his students that humans are hardly ever good at it, and it is still foolish to put too much faith in it when centaurs are involved, because even centaurs sometimes read signs wrongly. One particularly important line is that Firenze wanted to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs knowledge, was foolproof. Another revealing moment is when Dumbledore tells Harry how he planned to end the teaching of Divination in general. And of course, Trelawney is sacked as the least competent Hogwarts teacher.
But then, unlike in PoA, we are expected, along with all of the characters, to put full faith in another one of Trelawneys predictions. Not only are we to believe that her prediction is true, but that it is exceedingly important, and a secret burden Dumbledore has had to hide from Harry for years. To paraphrase the bit of conversation for the few of you who do not know it already by heart:
After seeing his memory of the prophecy in the Pensieve, Harry asks Dumbledore,
”What did that mean?”
“It meant,” said Dumbledore, “that the person who has the only chance of conquering Lord Voldemort for good was born at the end of July, nearly sixteen years ago. This boy would be born to parents who had already defied Voldemort three times.”
”So,” said Harry, “so does that mean that that one of us has got to kill the other one in the end?”
“Yes,” said Dumbledore.
I have a phenomenal amount of trouble with this. We are told that Divination cannot be reliably trusted, and then suddenly it becomes the focal point of the entire series. Dumbledore says that the future is influenced by so many subtle factors that we cannot predict it, but then he expects Harry to surrender to Trelawney’s words.
Of course, I am not saying that there is nothing to the issue of prophecies. The PoA prophecy seems to come true. But for a branch of magic so imprecise and suspect, it takes more than Trelawneys voice getting deep and her eyes rolling to convince me that what she is about to say is gospel. For some reason, however, it seems to be enough for everyone else. There must be something more to these prophecies of hers for everyone to believe them blindly, that I have not been able to figure out.
And of course, I am not saying that the prophecy is not important. I started this editorial saying that prophecies are dangerous simply because, upon knowing them, we change our actions. This prophecy is dangerous obviously because Voldemort thinks that it is true, and Harry is at risk. But now, Harry himself is worse off for knowing. He feels that he must either kill or be killed, and is further isolated in his grief. Personally, I think he has enough to worry about as it is.
And finally, I think it was important for Dumbledore to tell Harry that Voldemort believes in the prophecy, so Harry knows why he is so often his target. But I have no idea why Dumbledore told Harry that one of us has got to kill the other in the end, or that the prophecy should be believed. There is no evidence that this must be the case, and in fact there is all evidence that prophecies are often wrong.
In conclusion, I want to discuss a prediction given by much more reliable sources. I think it is pretty clear from PS/SS that the centaurs predict that Harry will die in the war with Voldemort. To recap pieces of an important conversation:
“Do you realize who this is?” said Firenze. “This is the Potter boy. The quicker he leaves this forest, the better.”
“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?”
“Good luck, Harry Potter,” said Firenze. “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times.”
I’m showing this passage because, though it seems to suggest a great deal, it tells us absolutely nothing. We know Harry’s death has been predicted by centaurs, but that sheds no light as to whether or not it will happen. Predictions tell us nothing. Trelawney’s prophecy, like the centaurs’ prophecy, may be true. It certainly sounds true. But there is no assurance that it is, and believing it to be true has only caused, and could only cause, damage to everyone involved. I see little reason for Harry, or any fans for that matter, to dwell on the prophecy and what it could possibly mean. The nature of prophecies is best described as Dumbledore described the Mirror of Erised:
This will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.