I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to articulate these points. I hope it is effective.
Remember back at the beginning of the semester, when we had a rather long discussion about the nature of Prophecy in Oedipus? That discussion has been in the back of my mind ever since then, and the wheels have been churning trying to find the answer. Prophecy seems to be quite versatile in how it is used. To sift through some of its uses, and how they may apply to Oedipus, I will explore 3 different examples of prophecy, how and why they were fulfilled, and then examine what relations they may have to the prophecy concerning Oedipus and his parents. 2 of these prophecies come from the Harry Potter series, and the 3rd is from Star Wars (I know, how nerdy can one person get?).
First, from Harry Potter and The Prizoner of Azkaban
“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 he was. Tonight … before midnight … the servant … will set out … to rejoin … his master…”
-Professor Trelawney to Harry Potter
This particular prophecy seems to be a simple prediction. On that night, the servant would break free and rejoin his master, and would then help him rise again to be more terrible than he ever was. Everything else is just extraneous information designed to keep the reader off balance. Of course, throughout most of this installment of Harry Potter, the reader is led to believe that Sirius Black is the servant referred to in the prophecy, but it is eventually revealed that the one who has been “chained these twelve years” is Peter Pettigrew, who had been disguised as Ron’s pet rat. The events that occur leading up to the fulfillment of this prophecy are pretty straightforward (just not from the perspective of linear time). As Black and Lupin are about to commit the murder Black was convicted of years before, Harry has a moment of pity and spares Pettigrew’s life, thereby giving him a chance to affect his escape when people become distracted by Lupin’s transformation into his wolf form. The question here is this; did Harry remember Trelawney’s prophecy throughout the course of that night? My reading of this is no. Based on many of his actions later on in the series, Harry seems to believe in prophecy (from the time he hears about the next prophecy we will discuss, he seems resigned to the fact that it foretells his fate, merely because he believes it to be true divination), so once he realized who and what Pettigrew truly was, he would have been sure to take every measure to prevent his escape had he remembered Trelawney’s words. In fact, there is textual evidence (see page 426 of the US Paperback edition of Prisoner of Azakaban, or ask to borrow it from me if you really want to check this) that he only remembers the prophecy when he and Dumbledore are having their requisite Dynamic Protagonist to Mentor learning session (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for more on these character archetypes. They will probably become very important in all of my blog posts down the line.).
So, how does this prophecy relate to Oedipus? Well, let us create our first reading of the role of the Prophecy in Oedipus’ story. This is what I like to call the “Forewarning” reading. If you take this reading to be correct, then you would believe that everything that happens in the story would have happened exactly as it did with or without the prophecy. The prophecy in this reading is simply a way of forewarning the reader and the characters of what is to come, and to create some serious dramatic irony. A major hole with this reading is that the actual events themselves are not predicted, only an outcome. I tend to disagree with particular reading of Oedipus, not only because of the more practical reason I just mentioned, but also because it just seems so unlikely, to the point of near impossibility, that Laius and Jocasta would have left Oedipus to die on the mountainside if they had never heard the prophecy. For these reasons, I think that it is safe to put this particular reading away.
Second, the Star Wars prophecy.
In the Star Wars prequels (yuck, I can’t believe I am writing about that garbage. I could write a novel about why they are so bad), a prophecy is mentioned. The viewer never actually hears this prophecy first-hand, but it is mentioned several times. We learn that it has been predicted that there will be someone who will “bring balance to the force,” and later it is added to this that he will “destroy the sith.” When we meet Anakin Skywalker, events are already in motion. Palpatine is already making his move to overthrow the Republic and exterminate the Jedi. When Qui-Gon-Jinn meets Anakin, he is struck by how strong he is in the force, and asks for a midichlorian count (forever ruining Star Wars), and based on the results, speculates that he may be the one that the prophecy refers to. Anakin is trained as a Jedi despite Yoda’s better judgment. Had the prophecy never been made, it is doubtful they would have taken him on because of his relatively advanced age. In fact, before they consent to his training, it appears as if the Jedi Council is almost unanimously opposed to take him on solely because of his age. The only argument that is heard in favor of the boy being trained is that he MIGHT be the one the prophecy refers to. Years pass by, and the Dark Side seduces Anakin. He helps Palpatine murder all of the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire. Eventually, however, Anakin fulfills the prophecy by throwing The Emperor down a long reactor shaft. Right away, based on my earlier statement about his age, I am highly skeptical that the prophecy had to refer to Anakin. Remember that if Anakin were not present, Mace Windu would have killed Palpatine, thereby fulfilling the prophecy. I won’t speculate about what different possible outcomes may have been possible, but I do submit that this particular prophecy could have been fulfilled in any number of ways, and the choices that were made along the way resulted in the outcome we got.
This particular reading of Oedipus can be called the “You’re Doomed” reading. Basically it says that Oedipus’ fate is iron-clad, and nothing he or his parents do can change the fact that he going to kill Laius and marry Jocasta, just as it says that someone at some point will kill Palpatine. Many of you will agree with this reading, but there is something very important that is being overlooked (this point will be encountered head on in my third and final reading of the prophecy. It involves Jocasta’s relationship to Oedipus). Here, it is not a certainty that the prophecy will be fulfilled in any and all circumstances that may exist. All we know is that Oedipus was abandoned because his parents feared him. Oedipus feared the prophecy, which drove him away from his adopted home, and led him to his encounter with Laius, and his marriage to Jocasta. What we can determine at this point is that all three characters’ ends were brought on by attempting to avoid fulfilling the prophecy, not because of some pre-determined fate. As I will explain in creating my final reading of the prophecy, circumstance and belief in the nature of prophecy are truly responsible for the outcome of the story.
Third, from Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix
“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…”
– Professor Trelawney to Albus Dumbledore
With this prophecy, things begin to become more complicated. To paraphrase Dumbledore’s explanation of the events that followed the telling of this prophecy; Voldemort heard part of the prophecy, and set out to find the child it referred to. The prophecy could have applied to 2 children, both born at the end of July to parents who had defied him three times, but he chose Harry because he was a half-blood like himself, and therefore saw more of himself in Harry. By making this choice, Voldemort “marked” Harry as his equal by merely believing that he had the power to vanquish him. He failed to kill Harry because of the love protection Lily Potter provided by dying to protect Harry, and this love manifested itself in Harry as the “power The Dark Lord knows not”. This ability to love and the strength of character it provided him saved Harry’s life a grand total (not counting the first murder attempt while he was a baby. I’ll list these in a comment on this post.) of 6 times. The final part of the prophecy about one of them killing the other eventually comes true at the conclusion of the series. This prophecy raises interesting questions about the nature of fate and of prophecy itself. Would events have ensued if the prophecy had never been made? I say no, because Voldemort specifically set out to destroy the only threat to his power, which he believed to be Harry, not to murder any random baby. By doing so, he created his own arch-nemesis. Harry would have been a normal wizarding child had Voldemort never shown up on that fateful Halloween night. Dumbledore even explains to Harry in the 6th book (chapter 28, entitled Horcruxes) that he needn’t set in store by the prophecy if he didn’t want to, but to:
“imagine, please, just for a moment that you had never heard that prophecy? How would you feel about Voldemort now?”
Harry thinks about his parents, Sirius Black, and all of Voldemorts other evil deeds
“I’d want him finished, and I’d want to do it myself” said Harry.
See, it is not the prophecy that created Harry’s fate; it was Voldemort’s actions upon hearing the contents of the prophecy that set the story in motion. Without the prophecy, Harry’s parents would not have been murdered as they were, (they were fighting a war, afterall. I can’t grant them immunity from death altogether) which would have denied Lily the opportunity to provide Harry the protection he needed to survive so many times (the argument that the opportunity would have presented itself is faulty. Would you bring a child with you onto the battlefield?). But by believing in the prophecy, Voldemort handpicked his own death-bringer, marked him as his equal, gave him amazing powers and insight into his mind, and instilled in him a desire for revenge. Yet, despite all of this, Voldemort was still the one who:
“continues to set store by the Prophecy. He will continue to hunt you…which makes it certain, really, that —
-““That one of us is going to end up killing the other,” Harry finishes at the end of Dumbledore’s explanation.
Harry was not required in any way to kill Voldemort. In fact, without the prophecy, Harry would have no violent, passionate desire for revenge, and Voldemort would not be mercilessly hunting him. Their paths would not have been so amazingly intertwined that the inevitability of their final confrontation would not have existed. This is the incredible power of prophecy. The ability to create mindsets among people that drive them, and push them towards an end. Not the ability to predict, but the ability to create.
To apply this logic to the prophecy in Oedipus gives us the “Creation” reading of prophecy. The prophecy itself creates the events of the story. If the prophecy is never made, then Oedipus is never left to die on the mountainside; therefore he never kills his father at a crossroads, and never marries/lays with his mother. Like it was with Voldemort, it can be easily argued that the only reason that the prophecy was fulfilled was because of the characters’ belief in the prophecy. Belief leads Laius and Jocasta to abandon Oedipus, and the same belief leads Oedipus to abandon his adopted home, which leads him back to Thebes. By trying to avoid the prophecy, they ended up creating the perfect circumstance for its fulfillment. These circumstances had to exist in order for Oedipus to fulfill the prophecy. Oedipus had to both kill his father, and not know who his mother was. The second part of that is the key. If Oedipus had known his mother, he would never have married her and fathered her children. This outcome would have been avoided if Laius and Jocasta had never heard or ignored the prophecy. The argument has been made that Oedipus would have ended up filling the prophecy in another manner, but because of the reasons I have outlined, I am highly skeptical of this. As with Harry Potter, there seems to be a single action that comes after the prophecy is given that ensures that one day it will come to pass. In the former case, it is the Halloween attack, and in the latter, it is abandoning Oedipus. In both cases, it is belief in Prophecy and rash action, not a pre-destined fate, that creates the downfall of the characters.
Ok, lets wrap this whole thing up. In Oedipus, I believe that without the prophecy, there would have been no story. Without the prophecy, Laius and Jocasta would never have left Oedipus to die, and therefore, even if he had somehow managed to kill his father, would never have been able to marry his mother. It can be concluded that this particular prophecy functions to create the events of the story, not as an iron-clad truth that must be obeyed.