On subverting prophecies and The Chosen One

I’m not saying I can’t enjoy a book with a prophecy, just that it seems a) rather overdone, and b) kinda predestination-ish, and I have trouble on both grounds. Also books with prophecies lean heavily toward The Chosen One trope, which is objectionable because really, the message that you can only achieve great things if you are Born Special is pretty limiting.

On that topic, remember when Cordelia told someone … Mark, maybe? … that since people aren’t perfect, it follows that all great deeds are accomplished by imperfect people, so not being flawless doesn’t excuse you from trying to achieve great things. Something like that. She was a lot more pithy and succinct, I’m sure. But that philosophy is about the opposite of The Chosen One, right?

So of course I was thinking about this because of The Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland and the way she drove a stake through the heart of the prophecy trope. And then I ran into this post over at By Singing Light: Not the Chosen One

At this point, the Chosen One trope has become both a huge cultural force and almost a parody of itself.

So true! Anyway, Maureen then highlights a handful of titles where the author is doing interesting things with The Chosen One trope. Of which I’ve read only, oh, call it one and a half (I loved NIMONA, but must admit I really didn’t get into Un Lun Dun).

But check out the post! I have several of these on my TBR pile, and all of them shuffled a bit closer to the top because I enjoy it when an author subverts The Chosen One idea.

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8 thoughts on “On subverting prophecies and The Chosen One”

  1. Dave Duncan did an interesting twist on prophecies in one of his series. Magic there was fueled by belief. People with great charisma could become gods if enough people followed them. (This mechanic is not widely known to the populace because, hey, the gods that be don’t want it to be. There is also a complication in that there were two worlds, with very little cross-traffic, and people from the other world are much better able to soak up the magic.) And someone with magic could declaim a prophecy, which was effectively a spell that would try to fulfill itself using the magic it has available. The neat twist is that if people believe in the prophecy, that gives it more power, so marketing matters. That also means that people acting of their own free will to fulfill parts of a prophecy can make the overall prophecy more likely to occur – the prophecy doesn’t need to burn as much magic, and people seeing how the prophecy is actually occurring will believe in it more, giving it more oomph. Note that this actually provides agency in fulfilling the letter of a prophecy but not its intent! The prophecy doesn’t care – it just wants to meet its terms to the letter. So getting behind a prophecy and pushing it in the way YOU want it to go is a very effective strategy.

  2. Nice twist on the idea of prophecies! I like it. It’s like getting to have prophecies without resorting to predestination. Also explains why prophecies should be couched in ornate poetic forms — good marketing.

  3. I know there’s at least one book out there – which didn’t interest me enough to finish, so I don’t recall title & author – wherein there was a Prophecy, the Destined Hero failed, and someone else had to pick up the pieces. I really wanted to like it, I liked the idea of failing a prophecy, but the writing did not engage. Anyone else remember such a thing?

  4. Elaine, it could have been Un Lun Dun, although I’m sure there are others. I liked that one, but I think Rachel bounced off of it.

  5. David Eddings also did some series about dueling prophecies with antagonists each trying to fulfill the prophecy they favored. I can’t remember the mechanics, but it must have opened up some agency.

  6. Thanks SarahZ. It wasn’t Mieville, it was older than that. Might have been by Laura Resnick, but the summaries of her fantasy I’ve found don’t ring any bells.

    I’d forgotten about Eddings, but yes, he did have dueling prophecies. I think – in YA/juvenile – Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising has dueling prophecies, too.

  7. My personal unfavorite thing about it is the frequency that you have a Chosen One who wasn’t, well, chosen.

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