The Power of Belief: Prophecy in ‘Harry Potter’

Sam,

Twenty years ago, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published to the delight of an ever-growing fanbase. The world of Harry Potter expanded, more of Harry’s past was unveiled to us, and we saw him at the height of his magical prowess (read here for why I think so). There’s so much I could talk about regarding this book. Though, the subject that weighs heaviest on my mind concerns the introduction to Divination and prophecy.

photo via Pottermore

By the end of Prisoner, J. K. Rowling leaves us in no uncertain terms that we should treat Professor Trelawney and her subject with a grain of salt. Throughout the novel her “predictions” are shown to be nothing more than coincidences, particularly in the eyes of Hermione. Nevertheless, prophecy – or the Prophecy – become the fulcrum of character movement after Order of the Phoenix.

In Phoenix, we first learn about the prophecy Trelawney made regarding the demise of the Dark Lord. Dumbledore puts it as “[Voldemort] set out to kill you when you were still a baby believing he was fulfilling the terms of the prophecy” (Phoenix 839). The key word is believe. After spending so many years hearing people compare Harry’s “chosen-ness” to the likes of Percy Jackson, I have to say here that is not the case.

When Harry procures the memory from Slughorn about Horcruxes in Half-Blood Prince, we continue the discussion of the relationship Harry has with Voldemort and the prophecy. It is this dialogue between Harry and Dumbledore that champions the Potter series as a rejection of classical “chosen one” stories. For we learn there’s nothing really all that inherently special about Harry.

‘[. . .] never forget that what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so. I told you this at the end of last year. Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him — and in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him!’ (Prince 509)

Harry doesn’t seem to get it. Neither it seems do many readers. They forget what Dumbledore tells him next:

‘You are setting too much store by the prophecy! [. . .] If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled? [. . .] 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 leapt into action, with the result that he not only handpicked the man most likely to finish him, he handed him uniquely deadly weapons!’ (510-511)

Harry understands he has to kill Voldemort because he has the best advantage against him. He is “the chosen one” because Voldemort – in his hubris – inadvertently chose him. Harry knows his weaknesses. Dumbledore agrees.

‘Of course you’ve got too! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried! Imagine, please just for a moment, that you never heard that prophecy! How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!’
‘I’d want him finished,’ said Harry quietly. ‘And I’d want to do it.’
‘Of course you would! You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal. . . . In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy‘ (511-512).

For whatever reason, people forget this last bit of Dumbledore. The bold lines emphasize how much the power of belief informs Voldemort’s decisions to create his own worst enemy. Readers instead peg Harry as the one to defeat him because of his skill or special gift from the gods. It’s just not so! Harry really isn’t that extraordinary of a wizard, save his capacity to love.

In his desperation and fear of death, Voldemort clings to this prophecy, thereby making it come true. My favorite quote of the series shows its application quite eloquently here as a rejection of Harry being “chosen” because of the prophecy itself rather than the consequences of character’s actions: “it’s our choices that show us who we really are far more than our abilities” (Chamber 333).

Dumbledore says that not every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy is fulfilled. This lends credence to the hypothesis that prophecies are created by people who are adept at guessing possible future outcomes. It’s the character’s actions or non-actions upon those guesses that determine whether or not they are fulfilled. If Voldemort hadn’t done so, had ignored what was said about him, is it likely he never would have been defeated and Harry would have grown up with a mother and father?

Cheers.

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feature photo credit: Traceform Psychology [https://www.tranceformpsychology.com/thinking-errors/fortune-telling-predicting-future.html]

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