The Point of the Prophecy
The Harry Potter fans who missed out on theorizing about the books in 2004 are in luck: Seemingly everywhere you turn, the fandom is deep in discussions about Trelawney’s prophecies. I’m here to present my own addition to the discourse – but fair warning: This will be among the denser reads at the Three Broomsticks.
Trelawney’s First Prophecy
The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….” (OotP 841)
In “Severus Snape and the Chosen Ones: What If Voldemort Chose the Longbottoms?,” we covered how the choices of Lord Voldemort and Severus Snape are what lead to the extraordinary circumstances that allow Harry to defeat Voldemort, thereby fulfilling the prophecy. But here’s what I find fascinating: The prophecy’s existence and deliverance are what created that choice in the first place.
To clarify, this is not the exact same thing as the classic trope of Greek mythology: By acting on a prophecy, you make it come true. Although that part is also in play because Dumbledore impresses upon us, “If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not!” (HBP 510)
But it’s not just about Voldemort choosing to act on it. If it were not for Lily getting the choice to stand aside and still deciding to sacrifice herself, there would be no Chosen One. That is what sets everything in motion and creates the myriad magical connections between Harry and Voldemort that produce the one-in-a-million scenario where Voldemort is defeated. And had the prophecy never existed, Lily would not be in a position to sacrifice herself.
I find this striking: Without the prophecy existing, there is no way it comes true. Put another way, the prophecy makes itself possible only by existing in the first place.
For those like me who are fond of math, we can put this in terms of mathematical logic. We take two statements: (1) The prophecy exists. (2) The prophecy comes true. My argument is that the existence of the prophecy is the converse implication of it coming true.
For anyone rusty on truth tables, here’s how conditional statements work:
Note that the prophecy coming true is not the material implication of its existence – it could still not have come true despite existing. As Dumbledore points out, “Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled?” (HBP 510) Therefore, the material implication is not at work here.
However, the converse implication is true here. The only way the prophecy comes true is if it exists in the first place. And one of the first things we learned in ninth-grade math is that the converse implication is logically the same thing as the inverse implication. So if the prophecy did not exist, it could not have come true.
This is striking because the magic seems almost sentient, for want of a better word. Gaming out how world events could unfold, finding the precise circumstances and wording to influence them, and seizing upon the moment to deliver a message for the listeners to act upon that is orders of magnitude more intelligent than any of the other magic we come across. In fact, it is essentially uncharted territory in Jo’s wizarding world; the closest we come is the sentience of wands, which seems a lot more simplistic than the deliverance of prophecies. Because the prophecies do not report objective truths but rather selective possibilities, there has to be some method to the madness.
The implications of this are staggering to me: It implies the existence in the wizarding world of some higher power, one that’s omniscient regarding potential futures and therefore able to dole out prophecies. I’ll hearken back to Buffy parlance and refer to it as the Powers That Be (TPTB). Given Jo’s religious background, it’s not hard to guess that TPTB are intended to be something in the Christian vein, but the particulars of that are beyond the scope of my column. So I’ll stick with TPTB.
Crucially, TPTB appear to be engaging in some activism by issuing Trelawney’s first prophecy. If the prophecy is to be believed – specifically the definite article in the opening that states Harry is “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord” – then it’s only thanks to the prophecy’s existence that Voldemort meets his downfall. No prophecy equals a victorious Voldemort and the darkest time line. So TPTB appear to have an interest in Voldemort’s downfall and are working to bring it about with the tools available to them: Seers.
This opens up a whole world of questions about Seers – how they work, who they are, and so forth. Trelawney and the other characters speak of Seers as people who have “the gift” of the Inner Eye. Through the lens of what we’ve uncovered, the Seers appear to be receptacles for the messages of the Powers That Be – tools for TPTB to use in whatever crusade they have on their hands.
Among that list of questions: What is it that makes Seers able to receive prophecies as opposed to everyone else? Given how proud our Trelawney is of being descended from the celebrated Seer Cassandra Trelawney, there appears to be a genetic component. In fact, viewed through this lens, maybe the Sight didn’t “skip three generations” between Cassandra and Sybill (OotP 314) – maybe TPTB just didn’t have anything they needed to say during those three generations.
Trelawney’s Second Prophecy
This is all well and good, but we have another data point to work with: Trelawney’s second prophecy.
It will happen tonight. The Dark Lord lies alone and friendless, abandoned by his followers. His servant has been chained these twelve years. Tonight, before midnight… the servant will break free and set out to rejoin his master. The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant’s aid, greater and more terrible than ever before. Tonight… before midnight… the servant… will set out… to rejoin… his master…” (PoA 324)
This seems to be a very different beast of a prophecy. Unlike the first prophecy, the events foretold in the second prophecy seem to happen wholly independently of anyone hearing it or acting on it. Harry hears the prophecy and forgets all about it until the following day when most of it has already come true (the servant has broken out and set out to rejoin his master).
If the events of the prophecy come true regardless of the prophecy’s existence, then this is not the same converse implication as the first prophecy. So if the second prophecy’s existence does not set its events in motion, why does it exist? Just as an FYI for Harry? What is the endgame of TPTB in delivering the second prophecy?
Here, I must direct you to read one of my favorite pieces published on MuggleNet in recent memory: a feature by Sophia Jenkins titled “Clairvoyance or Coincidence: What Makes a Prophecy Real?” For me, reading this feature was a breakthrough! Sophia presents an excellent argument: that prophecies are delivered when the circumstances align to make the events described therein probable (or possible).
On the topic of the first prophecy:
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 Trelawney had not made this prophecy within earshot of [Snape and Dumbledore], the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true.
And on the topic of the second prophecy:
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.
I am in complete agreement: Prophecies are delivered at a given time because that is when circumstances have aligned to make them possible. For the first prophecy, Snape listening at the door is what made its events possible; hence, it was delivered then. For the second prophecy, Buckbeak losing his appeal makes its events possible, just as Sophia said.
But the two prophecies are different beasts – the existence of the first is part of what made it possible, which is not true of the second. Here is the key point: We need to think of two questions independently when it comes to the deliverance of prophecies. When and why both need to be answered, but they can have different answers. The first prophecy’s “when” and “why” are connected; the second prophecy’s aren’t.
Sophia answered the “when” of both prophecies. We have a “why” for the first prophecy: TPTB are attempting to engineer Voldemort’s downfall. Which brings us to the final critical question of this editorial: Why do TPTB deliver the second prophecy?
The Consequences of the Second Prophecy
Let’s take stock of what we think we know. TPTB had a goal in mind. TPTB deliver prophecies that influence events, such that their goal is likelier to be achieved. The only goal that we know TPTB had was to cause Voldemort’s downfall (otherwise, the first prophecy wouldn’t exist).
Now, I’m assuming TPTB didn’t screw up the whole endeavor (not necessarily a safe assumption, but if it’s wrong, then this exercise becomes impossible). What are the effects of the second prophecy’s existence?
Harry, the one who hears it, does not act on the information in any way, either before it comes true or after. He sort of tells Ron and Hermione, who both dismiss it (GoF 149-150). He does tell Dumbledore about the prophecy, though:
‘Professor Dumbledore – yesterday, when I was having my Divination exam, Professor Trelawney went very – very strange.’
‘Indeed?’ said Dumbledore. ‘Er – stranger than usual, you mean?’
‘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.’ Harry stared up at Dumbledore. ‘And then she sort of became normal again, and she couldn’t remember anything she’d said. 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. I should offer her a pay raise….’ (PoA 426)
Dumbledore downplays it, probably to calm Harry (who’s already quite emotional and often ends up in dangerous situations). Dumbledore (and Jo) also does some great foreshadowing of the first prophecy, which was one of the earliest things the fandom figured out ahead of time. But behind the scenes, Dumbledore definitely takes it under advisement.
At this moment in time, which I covered on page 68 of Dumbledore: The Life and Lies of Hogwarts’s Renowned Headmaster, Dumbledore has a falling out with Snape and replaces him with Mad-Eye Moody. The lion’s share of this decision stems from Dumbledore’s need to have someone watch over Harry regularly. But we can now paint a fuller picture of his decision-making.
Dumbledore hears that Voldemort is rising again (and if my assessment of Dumbledore’s semi-regular use of Legilimency is correct, he probably gets the exact wording out of Harry’s mind). He knows there’s a good chance Voldemort returns to the scene sooner rather than later. That is why Dumbledore calls in his trusted friend Alastor Moody to keep an eye on Harry once Snape proves no longer reliable – he knows he needs a really good point person for the trouble ahead.
So Dumbledore’s decision to hire Moody is influenced by the second prophecy – and Moody’s hiring appears to be the most direct effect of the second prophecy’s existence. So now we have a jumping-off point.
The Servant of Lord Voldemort
Dumbledore hires Alastor Moody for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, but unbeknownst to him, it’s actually Barty Crouch, Jr., and that makes for, to borrow a turn of phrase from Josie Kearns, “a very bad year for Albus Dumbledore.”
Barty Crouch, Jr., through an Oscar-worthy performance and sheer cunning, engineers events such that Lord Voldemort is able to rise again, greater and more terrible than ever before. Assuming TPTB’s goals were met, it would appear that this is what TPTB wanted. So here is our million-Galleon question: Why was this the desired outcome?
Remember what he did, in his ignorance, in his greed and his cruelty” (DH 708)
Amid the chain of events that leads to Voldemort’s downfall, one of the essential steps is Voldemort being resurrected by using Harry’s blood in the flesh, blood, and bone potion. That is what keeps Lily’s sacrifice in play and allows Harry to survive the destruction of the Scarcrux. This is the reason TPTB deliver the second prophecy: to stay on track for the goal of eventually defeating Voldemort.
Voldemort helpfully explains to us, in the middle of his monologue to his Death Eaters, how he is only able to get Harry and his blood thanks to the efforts of Crouch, Jr.
‘But the blood of a foe … Wormtail would have had me use any wizard, would you not, Wormtail? Any wizard who hated me … as so many of them still do. But I knew the one I must use, if I was to rise again, more powerful than I had been when I had fallen. I wanted Harry Potter’s blood.’
[…] ‘Not even I can touch him [at the Dursleys] […] I was not yet strong enough to attempt kidnap in the midst of a horde of Ministry wizards [at the Quidditch World Cup]. And then, the boy would return to Hogwarts, where he is under the crooked nose of that Muggle-loving fool from morning until night. So how could I take him?’
‘Why … by using […] my one faithful Death Eater, stationed at Hogwarts, to ensure that the boy’s name was entered into the Goblet of Fire. Use my Death Eater to ensure that the boy won the tournament – that he touched the Triwizard Cup first – the cup which my Death Eater had turned into a Portkey, which would bring him here, beyond the reach of Dumbledore’s help and protection, and into my waiting arms.” (GoF 656-7)
Voldemort’s implication is clear: Were it not for Crouch, Jr., being at Hogwarts, he believes he would have been unable to get to Harry to use his blood for the regeneration. And Crouch, Jr., could not be at Hogwarts, in a position to get Harry through the tournament, had Dumbledore not called upon Alastor Moody. So it all comes back to that second prophecy influencing Dumbledore to call in reinforcements.
To go back to Sophia’s essay, once Buckbeak loses his appeal, it becomes probable (but not certain) that Pettigrew will set out to rejoin Voldemort and bring him back to power. But what would have happened had Pettigrew rejoined Voldemort without the second prophecy creating the circumstances for Crouch, Jr., to deliver Harry?
While we can’t know for certain, I believe Voldemort would have agreed with Wormtail and crafted himself a new body out of someone else’s blood. Voldemort is already compromising his lofty goals in order to get back his body: “I set my sights lower … I would settle for my old body back again, and my old strength” (GoF 656).
Voldemort is patient: “I have waited thirteen years. A few more months will make no difference” (GoF 10). But I’m sure his patience has its limits. It could be years before he’d be able to snag Harry Potter – years in which Voldemort exists as a baby, at the mercy of Wormtail’s nurturing; years in which Harry Potter can become a more formidable foe, Death Eaters in Azkaban can waste away, Death Eaters out of Azkaban can get further into their cushy retirements, and Dumbledore can further expand his influence. That time is too precious to Voldemort; he would have settled for using another wizard to come back. And then TPTB lose their best shot of seeing Voldemort defeated.
So in order to better the odds of Voldemort using Harry’s blood, TPTB deliver Trelawney’s second prophecy – counting on the fact that if Harry hears it, Dumbledore will get wind of it.
There is a very cool bit of irony in Crouch’s role in the second prophecy because it could have referred to him. Think back to the text: “His servant has been chained these twelve years.” In this instance, the servant could be Peter Pettigrew (as it does, in fact, end up being) or Barty Crouch, Jr., who has been magically chained these 12 years by his father’s Imperius Curse – the prophecy could have been interpreted to refer to him fighting off the Imperius Curse and setting out to join Voldemort. That didn’t happen, but it was a possible interpretation – just as Neville was a possible interpretation of the first prophecy.
This is an interesting facet of prophecies: They always seem to refer to two possible candidates before the events are set in motion. Harry and Neville for the first one, Pettigrew and Crouch for the second. Perhaps this ambiguity is a necessary feature of prophecies for some reason – a limitation on how direct TPTB can be in their communication. This just goes to show what a fool’s errand it is to attempt to interpret prophecies without hindsight.
Obviously, with hindsight, it’s obvious that Trelawney’s second prophecy refers to Pettigrew. But there is the irony: The prophecy is about one servant of Lord Voldemort, but it is issued to influence events around the other servant of Lord Voldemort – and both are necessary to make it come true.
A Different Outlook
Taking a step back, it’s a bit odd to introduce an apparently divine force into a book series that has been finished for a decade and a half and analyzed to the high heavens since then. But for me, at least, this has helped me make sense of several things I found puzzling about the mechanics of prophecies in the series. I think it’s an elegant solution to a lot of different threads in the series.
Did Jo have this in mind when she wrote it, or am I making sense of something that was never more than a literary device for her? Given Jo’s openness about her religion, I don’t think it’s implausible for her to have a higher power included in the wizarding world. But I also think it’s somewhat beside the point since I’m more interested in the Watsonian explanations than the Doylist ones.
This framework of TPTB leaves me with far more questions than when I started, many of which I asked throughout the essay as they occurred. But here’s a big one: If the entire Hall of Prophecy is filled with prophecies, where else are TPTB meddling, and why? (This would be the part where, in a more optimistic time, I’d add, “And what does this all mean for Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts?!?”)
The other thing that I find most interesting here is the fateful importance assigned to characters who will not be featured in the wizarding world’s histories of the Vold War. The central conflict between Harry and Voldemort is well and good, but the prophecies are not as concerned with influencing the actions of the Chosen One. Instead, the prophecies are about Severus Snape and Barty Crouch, Jr., and how their actions ensure Voldemort’s fatal weaknesses. It just goes to show that it’s hard to tell who the major players in a conflict will truly be, even when there are grandiose prophecies seemingly spelling it out.