2017-07-12
As Harry Potter fans crack open The 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 to The 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 in The 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 that this 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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    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...
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    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.

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