Fulfilling the Prophecy
By Torey Swink
The final installment of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling promises to be a thrilling adventure where a multitude of loose ends will be tied up. One seemingly slack thread that is certain to be tied up with great care regards a prophecy, which was given before Harry’s birth and seems to entangle most, if not all, of the other plot threads in the series. While Harry does not learn about the existence of the prophecy about him and Lord Voldemort until the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, its influence is felt in each of the books. The prophecy is part of the elaborate background in Harry’s heroic tapestry. When Harry finally hears the prophecy, he discovers the reason why Voldemort desired to kill him as a baby, why his parents are dead, why he grew up with Muggles, and why he must face Voldemort at least one more time.
The prophecy forms a dark yet colorful framework that hints at what events must happen at the conclusion of Harry’s story. With the prophecy plot thread, J.K. Rowling is weaving together a theme of self-determinism and anti-fatalism—of making choices in the face of fate. By understanding the prophecy the careful reader may reasonably predict certain outcomes in the yet-unpublished seventh and final book.
Prophets and Seers
Whether they are the quatrains of Nostradamus or the Revelations of St. John, prophecies are often ambiguous and open to numerous interpretations. Great mystery surrounds the ability to predict the future, and the seers and prophets themselves are often as enigmatic as their predictions and revelations. The existence of seers and prophecies in the Harry Potter series suggests that some higher magic or greater power is interested in events in Harry’s world.
Before Harry learns about the prophecy regarding him and Voldemort, the boy wizard is introduced to Professor Trelawney and the subject of Divination. Instead of coming across as a powerful seer, Trelawney is first seen as an eccentric fortuneteller. Her dubious and prolific predictions suggest the Divination teacher might be a fraud. Later Harry hears a real prediction from her, which sets the stage for Dumbledore’s revelation that Trelawney made another, earlier prophecy about Harry and the Dark Lord. Ironically, Trelawney gives her real prophecies in a trance-like state and is unaware of what she has said or of what impact her words will have.
Prophecies traditionally give hope to the good and instill fear in the hearts of the wicked. Hope comes with the prospect of changing circumstances and the promise of salvation from present worries. Fear comes from a threat of loss and an assurance of judgment. The fact that there is a prophecy about vanquishing Voldemort denotes that something is cosmically wrong with Voldemort’s coming to power and that a balance between good and evil must be restored.
The Prophecy Revealed
When Lord Voldemort was first taking power and before Harry Potter was ever born, Sybill Trelawney unexpectedly gave a prophecy to Albus Dumbledore. The prophecy revealed:
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….1
The prophecy is partly about the “Dark Lord,” but mostly about the coming of a “Chosen One” who can bring down and “vanquish” a great dark wizard and tyrant. The prophecy was not fulfilled with the mere birth of the “Chosen One” but is slowly being realized by events spanning all seven books.
First and foremost Trelawney prophesies the birth of a savior for the wizarding world. Then she foretells how the “Chosen One” can be identified and how he will be able to fulfill a difficult destiny. Finally, Trelawney reveals that death is an inevitable outcome for at least one of the parties before she repeats when the “Chosen One” will be born. Indeed the prophecy seems to span much of Harry’s life from his timely birth to his possible death.
Hearing the prophecy must have originally given Dumbledore hope that the tide would turn in the fight with Voldemort, but it would also have given the silver-haired wizard reason to worry that the war would not soon end. Since Trelawney foretells the birth of a boy, Dumbledore must have originally concluded that any baby would have to grow up before he could fulfill his destiny and “vanquish the Dark Lord.” To nearly everyone’s surprise, the baby Harry survived an attack by Voldemort. Surely Dumbledore suspected this was not the prophesied vanquishing. While the wizarding world celebrated the Dark Lord’s downfall, Dumbledore had assurance from the prophecy that Voldemort would return.
Dumbledore’s own role in the fight would also have been influenced by Trelawney’s words. The prophecy reveals that no one else, including Dumbledore, would have the power necessary to vanquish Voldemort. Nonetheless, Dumbledore was resolved to do whatever he could and that which was necessary to prepare the “Chosen One” for his calling. He took an interest in assisting the Potters and then acted as Harry’s protector when the boy’s parents were killed. Dumbledore’s burden was the knowledge of the prophecy and the decision he made to ensure Harry was prepared for the inevitable future confrontation with Voldemort. Dumbledore may also have been burdened by the knowledge that Trelawney’s words were overheard and relayed to Voldemort.
What is important about the prophecy is that Lord Voldemort’s servant only overheard part of it. Without the complete wording, the Dark Lord knows only that his enemy will be born at the end of July to parents who have escaped him and/or thwarted his efforts three times. Knowledge of the existence of the prophecy is what causes Voldemort to act; incomplete knowledge of the wording is what makes the events that followed so interesting.
One important aspect of the situation is who did the overhearing. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry learns that it was Severus Snape who informed Voldemort that a prophecy had been given:
Professor Snape made a terrible mistake. He was still in Lord Voldemort’s employ on the night he heard the first half of Professor Trelawney’s prophecy. Naturally, he hastened to tell his master what he had heard, for it concerned his master most deeply. But he did not know—he had no possible way of knowing—which boy Voldemort would hunt from then onward, or that the parents he would destroy in his murderous quest were people that Professor Snape knew…2
At the very least, this information means that Snape knew about the prophecy for as long as Dumbledore. Circumstances related to the prophecy also appear to be the reason why Dumbledore trusted the greasy-haired Potions Master enough to offer him a post at Hogwarts. Dumbledore kept the information about why he trusted Snape from Harry and from others in the Order of the Phoenix—why? There are still many unanswered questions about Snape’s part in these and subsequent events. Thus, one would expect Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to hold the answers.
With only the incomplete information he received from Snape, Voldemort sets out to kill his would-be enemy before the boy can grow to be an adult. Ignorant of the full contents, Voldemort actually fulfills part of the prophecy by trying to circumvent it. J.K. Rowling has said that the prophecy “becomes the catalyst for a situation that would never have occurred if it had not been made.”3 This idea is underscored by Dumbledore’s assessment:
Voldemort made a grave error, and acted on Professor Trelawney’s words! If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he have imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not! If he had not forced your mother to die for you, would he have given you a magical protection he could not penetrate? Of course not, Harry! Don’t you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! […] He heard the prophecy and he leapt into action, with the result that he not only handpicked the man most likely to finish him, he handed him uniquely deadly weapons!4
When asked whether Voldemort would ever know the full contents of the prophecy, J.K. Rowling would not answer, saying, “That is one of those very good questions that I don’t think I can answer […] but the most penetrating questions generally I cannot answer because they could give a lot away, so […] I am not going to answer that.”5 One suspects that Voldemort will hear the full prophecy in the seventh book. It would be fitting irony for Voldemort to learn the full contents of the prophecy at the very end when he cannot do anything to stop its fulfillment.
Along the same lines of whether Voldemort will ever hear the full prophecy is a question regarding the seer’s safety. Is Professor Trelawney really in danger as Dumbledore believed? How will her character be affected in the final book? It is likely that Snape knows who gave the original prophecy and therefore Trelawney could become a target if Voldemort still desires to hear the exact wording of the prophecy. Since Dumbledore is dead and the future of Hogwarts is uncertain, Trelawney may no longer have any protection. She might not even know she needs any protection since she does not appear to know anything about being the mouthpiece for the prophecy.
The words and phrases of the prophecy are important and not just to Dumbledore and Voldemort. In responding to questions about the wording of the prophecy, Rowling has responded: “Both Madam Trelawney and I worded the prophecy extremely carefully and that is all I have to say on the subject!”6 However, regarding the interpretation of the prophecy Rowling has said:
As for the prophecy itself, it remains ambiguous, not only to readers, but to my characters. Prophecies (think of Nostradamus!) are usually open to many different interpretations. That is both their strength and their weakness.7
While the wording is ambiguous, it can give some clues to final events in the series. The prophecy hints that Harry’s scar marks him as Voldemort’s “equal.” It also reveals that Harry “will have power the Dark Lord knows not.” Finally, it hints that there will be death in the phrase: “and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.”