Sunday, October 7, 2012
16796-Conundrums of Prophecy
Stop me if you've heard this one:
Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. Laius was given a prophecy that he wished to thwart. It said that his child would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Sure, it sounds crazy, but "Why take the chance?" he figures. Thus, Laius fastened the infant's feet together with a large pin and left him to die on a mountainside. Killing the baby would open a whole other can of worms and I guess he didn't have any towers or dungeons available. Naturally, the baby was found by shepherds and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope in the city of Corinth. Growing up with privilege in spite of being abandoned to the wilds, Oedipus eventually consulted the oracle at Delphi and learned the same thing that Laius had, but believed it meant he was fated to slay Polybus and marry Merope. Like any good Greek of the time, he also respected the warning and left Corinth. Heading to Thebes, Oedipus met an older man in a chariot coming the other way on a narrow road. The two quarreled over who should give way, which resulted in Oedipus killing the stranger and continuing on to Thebes. He found that the king of the city (Laius) had been recently killed and that the city was at the mercy of the deadly Sphinx, frontrunner in what would become a long tradition of Earth's supervillains. Even in self-imposed exile, he was still a prince so Oedipus rose to the challenge and answered the monster's riddle correctly. Apparently more mentally unstable than anyone knew, having its riddle solved drove the Sphinx to leap from a cliff to its death. Supervillains, huh? Anyway, ridding Corinth of the threat won Oedipus the throne of the dead king and the hand in marriage of the king's widow, Jocasta.
Sure, there was more tragic bloodshed yet to come, but the point was made: individuals were powerless in the face of destiny. You can't run from it, hide from it or stand your ground and shoot it. Still, the oracle was a popular concept in times past and receiving knowledge of the future remains something for which people hunger. The traditional prophecy is no mere tea-leaf reading or the voice of a departed spirit in a candle-lit room, though. Prophecy is a non-negotiable message from the gods. Maybe they're being generous enough to share with you the shape of things to come. Maybe they're just messing with you to see what you'll do. Maybe they feel it's amusing, tormenting their characters the same way writers do. What do we know?
Well, we know they're gods and a divine prophecy is going to happen whether we sit on our hands or strand ourselves on Gilligan's Island. Something will happen to set the confluence of events in motion to make sure the punchline plays out accordingly. The funniest ones are when the fearful individual's own attempts to thwart the future bring it all into being like a self-fulfilling time-travel paradox.
I say all this, of course, to remind us storytellers to remain aware of the differences, assuming we're going to respect the traditions of the foreshadowing hammer. A probable future is not the same as an inevitable one. If you want to chum the water of your story with red herrings, make sure they're just clues that don't set anything in stone. If you do, rest assured that some sharp-eyed reader is going to call you on it.