Clairvoyance or Coincidence: What Makes a Prophecy Real?
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore makes it clear to Harry that not all prophecies come true:
If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled?” (HBP 510).
A prophecy is not something that is sure to happen but rather something that is likely to happen, given certain decisions that people make. What, then, causes a prophecy to be made? If a prophecy is so uncertain, then what makes something a “true” prophecy rather than just an educated guess?
Professor Trelawney makes only two prophecies that are considered real – one about Harry having the power to destroy Voldemort and the other about Voldemort rising again. Let’s take a look at Trelawney’s first prophecy. She makes it at the Hog’s Head Inn in the middle of a job interview with Dumbledore. Unknown to either of them, Death Eater Severus Snape is listening at the keyhole, perhaps having been given the mission to tail Dumbledore whenever Dumbledore goes outside the castle.
The timing and setting of this prophecy are essential. Trelawney would not have made this prophecy if she hadn’t been in this exact place with these exact people listening to her. If Snape had not heard the prophecy, Voldemort would never have known to go after Harry and his parents. And if Snape had not begged Voldemort to spare Lily’s life, Lily would not have been able to make the choice to give her life for Harry, thereby protecting him from death. Dumbledore, in hearing the prophecy as well, is able to put a plan in motion to protect and train Harry so that he becomes the person with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord. If Trelawney had not made this prophecy within earshot of these two people, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true.
Trelawney does not consciously know that Snape is listening outside the door, but the part of her that is tuned in to the magic of the future does understand this and is able to see a whole path laid out based on the choices people are likely to make. In the fashion of a classic Greek tragedy, people’s responses to Trelawney’s first prophecy are what cause it to come true.
Trelawney makes her second prophecy for slightly different reasons. In this case, the fact that Harry hears Trelawney’s prophecy about Lord Voldemort’s servant returning does not actually affect any of his actions. Instead, Trelawney makes the prophecy because of actions that are going on outside the room at that very moment. While Harry is in his Divination exam, Hagrid is losing his appeal to save Buckbeak. Perhaps at the very moment that Buckbeak’s appeal is lost is when Trelawney goes into her trance.
What does Buckbeak’s appeal have to do with Peter Pettigrew escaping? When Buckbeak loses the appeal, Harry, Ron, and Hermione go down to Hagrid’s hut to console him. There they find Scabbers, and Ron soon gets dragged under the Whomping Willow. Lupin is watching the Marauder’s Map because he expects the trio to sneak down to Hagrid’s and quickly rushes after them when he sees Peter Pettigrew, forgetting to take his potion. Snape sees them on the Marauder’s Map and soon joins. If Buckbeak hadn’t lost the appeal, then the events of that night would not have occurred and Pettigrew wouldn’t have run back to Voldemort.
Real prophecies, then, occur in specific moments when all the people and actions align to promote the likelihood of a certain series of momentous events. Sometimes, those events occur because of the people who are around to listen to the prophecy, and sometimes, they are simply an effect of decisions made that trigger the prophecy to be told. A true Seer is able to tune in to those magical moments and receive and communicate what the future might hold. People’s choices, however, are vitally important, and either of Trelawney’s prophecies could easily have not come true if people had acted in unpredictable ways.