Harry Potter and the Prophet of Doom
Is Harry really fated to kill or be killed? A closer look at the seer's dire prediction.
BY: James K.A. Smith
As Harry Potter fans crack openThe Half-Blood Prince
, one of the things we're eager to learn relates to a prophecy revealed in the closing pages of the previous book,The Order of the Phoenix
. But the very notion of prophecy--as the foretelling of future events--would seem to compromise free will. If Harry's future can be foretold, is he reduced to a kind of robot, doomed to play out a sequence of events controlled by someone or something else? This is a tension long experienced by believers in a number of different religious traditions. J.K. Rowling has hinted at these questions throughout the chronicles of Harry Potter, but they crystallized in the conclusion toThe Order of the Phoenix
The Haunting Prediction About Harry Potter
Deep in the Department of Mysteries, Harry and his crew find a dusty glass orb containing a prophecy revealed by Hogwarts' Divination teacher, Madame Trelawney, some sixteen years earlier. In the chaos of battle with the Death Eaters, the orb is shattered and the prophecy is released. But given all the commotion, no one can hear it, so only later does Dumbledore disclose the contents of the prophecy.
It announces that "the one with the power to Vanquish the Dark Lord approaches" and would be born "as the seventh month dies" sixteen years prior to this most recent disclosure--the year of Harry's birth. It further promises that "the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal...and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives."
The meaning of the prophecy seems quite clear. Even Dumbledore is convinced: the prophecy foretells a showdown between Voldemort and Harry. And Harry must be either murderer or victim.
But Harry's reaction is just what we would likely utter ourselves: Couldn't it be otherwise? Am I doomed to fate? How is that fair?
Prophecy: Magical vs. Biblical
With these questions, J.K. Rowling explores terrain common in many religious traditions. Prophecy, providence, and predestination are especially central in the biblical traditions that have emerged from the Hebrew scriptures: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But how does prophecy in the magical world of Harry Potter compare with prophecy in the biblical tradition, particularly from a Christian perspective? The fulfillment of prophecy was crucial for the early church's proclamation. The Gospel accounts (especially the Gospel according to Matthew) are punctuated by claims that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah.
Obviously, there are several key differences between biblical prophecy and "magical" prophecy of the kind we find in the Harry Potter books. But there are also similarities. Looking at Harry's dilemma through a religious lens can provide us with some resources to see Harry's future differently.
Consider the Source
Prophecy in the Bible is always surrounded by a good principle of journalism:consider the source
. A false prediction compromised the integrity of the prophet and thus tainted everything else the prophet had to say. If we apply this rule of discernment in the case of Harry Potter, we might wonder about the prophecy's validity. After all, the Seer who made the prediction about Harry's mortal duel was none other than Madame Trelawney, introduced to us inThe Prisoner of Azkaban
as Hogwarts' resident quack--something Hermione quickly discerned. Trelawney regularly makes wrong predictions (especially concerning the annual student death count). Given her miserable track record, it's hard to know why Dumbledore seems so convinced thatthis
prophecy (about Harry and Voldemort) is real. With the prophecies concerning Voldemort, her altered, trance-like voice seems convincing. But even then, we need to consider the source. What if Trelawney's prophecy is akin to Harry's dream: a trap set by Voldemort? If Dumbledore operated with the biblical criterion of source suspicion, Trelawney's prediction should be disregarded.
Why Hermione was right
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