Destiny and Prophecy in YA Written by Grant Goodman, 12/2/2014
A recurring feature element in fantasy literature is the prophecy. You know how it goes. Some soothsayer foretold a terrible fate or a cataclysmic event and then the heroes set out to prove that prophecy isn’t guaranteed.
Rick Riodan’s series all rely on prophecy to fuel them. In Riordan’s defense, the Greeks and Romans actually relied on prophecies. They had their oracles who communicated mysterious messages from the gods. They also had augurs to read the signs of nature. (This is evident in Homer’s Odyssey, when a pair of eagles swoop out of the sky to attack a crowd of people. A resident interprets their actions as a sign of Zeus’ displeasure.)
One of my favorites, Cirque du Freak, involves several characters who can see through time and a series of prophecies about the fall of the vampires. The main character, Darren, is always pursued by the nagging possibility of “what if” and the consequences of failure.
Even Harry Potter contains a prophecy that surfaces (in full) in The Order of the Phoenix. It is the driving force behind Voldemort’s obsessive hunting of Harry.
So why does this happen so often? What appeal does this plot trope have to a YA audience?
I think it has something to do with offering young readers an idea that is slowly dying in their realities: that there is a set, stable, predictable future. Or, the opposite: that despite the path you’re set on, you can fight to change it.
Just think: you’re 14 years old. The world is brimming with possibility, but you’re also realizing its horrible, horrible flaws. All of the values you were spoon-fed as a child are beginning to unravel: there is not always justice, the greedy often triumph over the selfless, war is never-ending, there was never a Santa Claus or a tooth fairy or anything magic.
In the midst of this turmoil, you can turn to a story in which the future is not a roiling mass of chaos. There are rails. There is an order to things. If you follow steps A through C, you can succeed and save the world.
The opposite is just as powerful: you may feel like you have been set upon the rails. But there are stories out there that constantly hammer upon the idea that the future is malleable. You can change course if you fight. You aren’t doomed to the fate of your parents.
The prophecy trope is going to be around for a long time. It’s a classic story element and its appeal has lasted thousands of years.
What are some of the other prophecy novels you’ve read? List ‘em in the comments section and let’s discuss!