A Matter of Interpretation

Madame Trelawney's predictions trade on ambiguity. In her class, dregs of tea could be either a lump of mud, a bowler hat, or the dreaded Grim. What "the signs" mean becomes a matter of interpretation, and it is just this ambiguity that feeds Hermione's empirical suspicions: "I think Divination seems very wooly," she remarks after their first class.

In biblical prophecy, there is also an element of ambiguity and interpretation. And here we have serious differences of interpretation. For instance, Christians read the prophecies of Isaiah 53 and see them fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Jews are yet awaiting the fulfillment of that prophecy. The ambiguity of prophecy--whether magical or biblical--seems to come with the territory.

A God's-Eye Point of View

One question not yet tackled in Rowling's magical world is just how seers arrive at their predictions. By what mechanism or power do seers foretell the future? Here we run up against the crucial difference between magical and biblical prophecy. In biblical prophecy, the ultimate source of predictions is the God who transcends time: the Lord of history for whom all of time is present as a simultaneous "moment." Unlike human diviners somehow trying to stretch their sight into the future, for God the future is always present. Thus the Scriptures make a distinction between "soothsayers and diviners," who are to be rejected, and true "prophets," whose words are to be received as the Word of the Lord (Deut. 18:14-15).

It is this sense of transcendence that marks the difference between the worlds of Harry Potter and Jeremiah. Because there seems to be no divine standpoint in the universe created by Rowling, all prophecy is only divination.

Character Is Destiny

These differences noted, we are still left with questions about human freedom: Doesn't the notion of the future being predicted lead to a sense that we are not free? Does prophecy entail some sense of fatalism? How can we resolve these tensions without giving up on prophecy and providence?

Instead of thinking about individual future acts, we should consider the future in terms of an inevitability of character. If I predict that tomorrow my wife will care for our children, I'm certainly not controlling her individual actions. Rather, I'm making a prediction based on the kind of person I know her to be: someone who loves our children. I'm counting on that, and I fully expect it to be fulfilled. But that doesn't compromise her "freedom." Predictions of this sort are rooted in the virtue or vice of the agents involved and takes seriously their "agency"--a far cry from the common worry that prophecy reduces us to puppets of someone else's will.

So even if the Potter prophecy is true...

Prophetic Counsel for Harry Potter

How might this help us to think about Harry's situation? Well, first, as suggested earlier, there might be good reason to reject Trelawney's prophecy as inauthentic. Harry and Dumbledore should carefully consider the source. Rejecting the prophecy would allow them the freedom to imagine the future otherwise. (Admittedly, this means that we, as readers, will have to reject the quasi-divinization of Dumbledore to which we're prone. But recall that Dumbledore confesses his certainty about this prophecy at the same time he recounts the many mistakes he's made about Harry's care. The wizard could be wrong. It remains to be seen in Half-Blood Prince whether Rowling agrees!)

But second, even if the prophecy is authentic, Harry need not feel as doomed as he does. If the prophecy foresees this battle of good vs. evil, this could be understood as an affirmation of Harry's character: that his confrontation with Voldemort is just what we would expect from someone with Harry's virtues. In that sense, Harry's agency is not threatened by predictions about his future actions. He is not a robot playing out someone else's will, but a virtuous agent whose commitments will inevitably lead to conflicts with the evil that threatens his world.

Of course, what really frightens Harry is the predicted result: that he will either kill or be killed. How are we to understand Harry's anguish about this? Does he despair about not being in control of his own future? Or does he despair at the thought of his own death? Is it the sense of inevitability that plunges Harry into despair? Or is this simply the fear of death--not just suffering death, but also causing death? As his closing attempts in Order of the Phoenix to make contact with his dead godfather indicate, he's now wrestling with questions of whether the dead live on--and what's "beyond the veil." Will Half-Blood Prince answer them?

In his sixth year, Harry will surely be haunted by death and its ghosts; but he will also remain haunted by the implications of Trelawney's prediction. I'm not convinced that he needs to be, but I'm sure it will be a splinter in his young mind. Perhaps if Harry hears the prediction as an affirmation of his virtue, he need not be plagued by any sense of doom or compromised freedom, but will choose to receive this future as a calling rather than a fate.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus