Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Not Like It's Important

Why does everyone ignore the prophet?

The Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David
Plenty of legends come equipped with a voice of either doom or reason, laying out the future in five easy steps, free of charge. Soothsayers, hedge witches, fortune tellers: if you're living in a legend, there's almost always a prophet of some sort lurking around the next corner. What's better, their prophecy will come true.

But if you're living in a legend, it's all but required that you ignore it.

Cassandra wailed of doom for Troy for ten years, to no avail. Moses pulled off an astounding number of miracles while Pharaoh just scoffed. Merlin, taking it perhaps farther than any other prophet, foresaw the exact manner of his own death and still fell into Nimue's trap. Once, okay, you ignore portents of ruin and hope for the best. But when they come true, it would make sense to listen next time.

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh, Robert Leinweber
And these prophets in particular had excellent track records. Arthur has no excuse for ignoring Merlin's warning; when the brain behind your throne tells you something, you'd better pay attention. Moses turned the only source of water in a desert kingdom to blood on, essentially, a dare. That alone should have made Pharaoh sit up and take notice. Cassandra had been foreseeing all manner of unpleasant things for years, although her case is particularly cruel. Because she refused a randy god's booty call, no one was ever going to be able to believe her.

Ignoring the prophet creates not only a crushing loss in-story, but a particularly frustrating read. While characters blunder on down the plot road, the readers are left scowling and upset with their heroes, who just can't seem to clean the wax out of their ears long enough to hear the crucial tidbit. "Why didn't you just not marry Guinevere?" I've wanted to yell. "Why can't they just give Helen back? Why don't you let his freaking people go?" Like the prophets, we see it coming a mile away. Watching doom draw closer and closer is agonizing, especially when it's coming for people we've grown to care about.

King Arthur and Merlin at the Lake, W. Otway Cannell
And that's exactly the point of including a prophet. It's a fantastic writer's tool for creating narrative tension. We want to assume that Camelot would always stand; once Merlin tells us that it will fall through the illicit passion of the Queen and her champion, we're on the lookout for every hint the story lets fall. Lancelot's arrival is doubly portentous because we already know what he brings to Camelot. The ten plagues would be completely anticlimactic without Pharaoh ignoring the prophet; Moses would never truly prove his strength as an individual rather than a mouthpiece for God, and God wouldn't be able to demonstrate his complete dominance over the gods and people of Egypt. (Not to mention that if the story ran on common sense rather than escalating tension, there'd probably be only one plague and no Red Sea miracle.) Cassandra's prophecies of doom add even more poignancy to the fact that most of the major characters in the Iliad are vividly aware of what will happen when they die. Hector's speech to Andromache about how he most fears her falling into enemy hands as a slave is extra heartbreaking because we know, even if he doesn't, that his worst fear will come horribly true.

No one listens to the prophet because he's not in the story for the characters. He's there for us. The prophet exists to make us nervous, to remind us that happiness is transitory, to let us know what to watch out for. A prophet can't teach his or her fellow characters anything; it's too late for them, their story's already set in stone. The people who can learn from a prophet are the readers for whom he or she is the surrogate within the story, the more detached observer who can tell how things will play out.


  1. I think this is a good point, but also that it's important to remember what happens even when characters *do* try to listen to prophecies. Macbeth, Oedipus, & Ahab all hear but fail to understand their fortunes until it's too late. Here you start dealing with issues of Fate and destiny, as well as riddles, but the fact is, if a character just heard and understood a prophecy right off, there would never be a story, and that would be cheating.

    1. I think it depends on the kind of story being told. When the point of the story is to warn against hubris, you absolutely can't have the hero listen to the prophet, or there'd be no moral. Someone like Merlin, whose advice is aimed more at guiding than preventing, is useful to keep around in-context as well as an audience surrogate. When a prophet can accomplish something in-story that's not foretelling doom, that's usually a pretty good sign that the prophet's also a character in his/her own right, and that the story itself is about more than rebuking pride.

      For the Greeks in particular, I wonder if the point of knowing your fate is so that you can accept it. If you ignore it (a la the Trojans), it blindsides you; if you try to fight it, like Oedipus, it'll bite you in the arse. Maybe the ideal situation, once you've been told your fate, is to face it with dignity when it comes, and find honor in acceptance - of destiny, of the divine plan, call it what you will. They do make quite a point of telling stories in which fate is inexorable no matter what you do, but the heroes that make out best are the ones like Odysseus and Perseus who hear what's told to them and prepare accordingly, without ever trying to escape fate.

    2. ooo that is GOOD. :D ur so smart. lol.

      with the Greeks it does certainly seem better not to resist Fate. Prophecies can manifest in a variety of ways, but when characters try to avoid Fate entirely, they end up wishing they'd never been born. Literally. What do you think about characters like Achilles, though, who are given a *choice* in their Fate, depending on which course they choose?

    3. Free will, maybe? There's not a lot of it in Greek mythology, by which I mean that no matter how you squirm against fate, it'll get you in the end. But the choice Achilles is given takes into account the possibility of two personalities, and lets him pick whichever one he prefers. (He also gets in on the facing-fate-with-dignity action - once he chooses his fate, only then does it become inevitable, and he owns it from the moment of choice on.)

      He might be the only person ever to get that kind of choice. The only other comparison I can think of is Zeus swallowing Metis to keep her from giving birth to a son who could defeat him, and that's hardly dignified. And he gets punished with the original migraine from Metis forging Athena's armor inside his head. So Zeus fails at dignity (big surprise), but Achilles wins. Maybe the choice - which is basically the suspension of the most powerful force in the mythverse - only gets offered to people who are morally and psychologically capable of sticking by their choice and not making fools of themselves (i.e., almost nobody in Greek mythology)?

      Also, you're pretty smart yourself. These conversations are SO MUCH FUN.