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The Machinations of Prophecies

I found it cynically satisying that the Prophecy ultimately meant nothing.  Prophecies have struck me, ever since I was out of middle school, as a very amateurish thing to have in a story unless the entire purpose of one is to make fools out of all the characters who take it seriously.  Because if you don’t have your prophecy working in that way, you’ve just given away the ending of the story and destroyed any suspense.  And all in the name of making your characters seem superhuman, selected by the gods themselves, usually.

Another issue with prophecies is that there must be some explanation given for where they come from, or else it must be so self-evident that there cannot be any other explanation.  In mythology, prophecies are given by the gods.  In the Star Wars universe, it is very clear that true prophecies come from the Force.  There is no other source that could generate them.  But where do they come from in the Potterverse?  We really only have three possibilities.

One is that a divine power, God if you will, gives them to certain Seers.  I am not inclined to believe that this is the case, though such an entity clearly operates in her story.  She may not mention it overtly (and I'm not sure I can complain about that), but it's there. Rowling herself is a Christian, and the mere fact that her story contains references to immortal souls and has the main character having a profound near-death experience with verifiable knowledge received within it pretty well demonstrates that a divine power is not just present, but active, in her universe.  However, I don’t think that it is giving out the prophecies.  These things are not benevolent in the slightest.  They are not well-intentioned heads-ups about inevitable future events.  Dumbledore himself says as much:  “Do you think that every prophecy has come true?”  No, prophecies—as he should know full well by that time—are traps and snares, malicious little things intended to make people act when they would have done much better to ignore them.

When Albus let Trelawney’s first prophecy loose, and when Voldemort chose to act on it, they ended up creating a mess.  And contrary to what the prophecy claimed, that mess was not necessary to get rid of the Dark Lord.  “The one with the power to defeat the Dark Lord”?  Harry was hardly the only one who could have done it; in fact, he himself acknowledges as much:  “He wondered who would [kill Voldemort].”

“Mark him as his equal”?  All right, while the presence of the unintended Horcrux did provide a nice little shortcut for finding out information, it was also a nasty, risky complication for security reasons.  And until Voldemort used his blood to create a new body, Harry was sentenced to death or worse.  (Oh yes, there was another escape route for him—it would have meant creating his own Horcrux and allowing Voldemort to cast a Killing Curse that would then not kill him but would get his own soul fragment—though the chances of Rowling ever going there were exactly zilch.  Though, in effect, there actually was a kind of “Horcrux” for Harry:  Voldemort’s body.)

“The power that the Dark Lord knows not”?  What part, pray tell, did love play in killing Voldemort?  Love saved Harry from certain death twice in his life, and it worked the second time only because of Voldemort’s actions in stealing his blood.  But once we have accepted that Harry did not have to be alive for Voldemort to be killed, this love had nothing to do with defeating Voldemort.  The prophecy itself didn’t even name love, after all; that was Dumbledore’s interpretation (assuming he wasn’t lying to Harry, which, after Deathly Hallows, I unfortunately don’t think we can assume).  Voldemort views love with contempt.  I doubt he even considered that as the “power” spoken of.  Frankly, I don’t think the Prophecy itself was talking about love at all.  I don’t think it meant any actual power.  The prophecy phrased itself in a deliberately ambiguous way that ensured that Voldemort would act on it.  “The power that the Dark Lord knows not,” indeed—that guarantees that someone as paranoid as Riddle would jump the gun.  Someone more powerful than I?  Oh no!

Even Trelawney’s second prophecy was intended to tempt Harry into unwise action, and I am convinced that it too was worded in a way to tug right at Harry’s little Gryffindor heartstrings.  Betrayal of friends!  A heart rotted with murder!  Innocent blood spilt!  No way was that kind of melodramatic prose not meant to goad him into trying to prevent the prophecy from coming true.  But if he had attempted to stop Pettigrew from escaping the second time around, he would have gotten himself discovered, expelled, turned into a werewolf, or worse.  Probably worse, in fact; he very likely would have kept himself from casting the Patronus and saving his soul.  As the entity responsible for prophecies probably intended.  That prophecy could have unraveled the space-time continuum, since Rowling doesn’t seem to accept the “parallel universes” solution to paradoxes and causality violations.

We are talking about something much more akin to the legend of Oedipus than the hope of four humans sitting on Cair Paravel, and the Greek gods were malicious and petty in contrast with the deity that C. S. Lewis came to believe in.  The Ministry has the right idea, for once in its wretched existence, about dealing with them:  Get them out of the way so that the fewest people possible can even touch them.  I would wager that they also Obliviated the person to whom a prophecy was made whenever they could.  I’ve always thought (Lovegood-style conspiracy theorizing aside) that the people working in the Department of Mysteries were not your typical blinded, foolish, corrupt-to-the-bone Ministry bureaucrats, but actually had a great deal of respect for magic as well as that rarer-than-gold trait in wizards, common sense, because of the magnitude of the forces that they studied.  They knew all about what kind of hell that prophecies would unleash if let be, and so they took over management of them and implemented a policy to keep them suppressed.  These things are not coming from a kindly, benevolent power, and the Unspeakables knew it.

Another possibility for their origin is that they come from some type of magical creature that is not properly an animal, such as the myriad Dark creatures that are more correctly defined as embodiments of Dark magic.  This sounds plausible except that prophecy generation is not a known characteristic of any Dark creature in Fantastic Beasts, and furthermore, it is not necessary for there to be an intermediary creature when we have the last possibility.

That is the possibility that prophecies come from magic itself—specifically, chaotic/Dark magic.  They are a manifestation of this kind of magic just as the Dark creatures are.  It seems reasonable, really, that magic would build up in the environment and spontaneously erupt/manifest/crystallize into something that humans (or wizards, at least) could recognize and partially understand.  Prophecies are, in effect, lightning strikes of Dark magic.  I would hazard a guess, too, that the majority of prophecies are about Dark wizards in some way; such people would naturally attract such manifestations of magic because they stir it up so much.  They’re effectively standing in an open field under a thundercloud, and flying a key-bearing kite into the storm for good measure.  Severus’s description of Dark magic in the sixth book tells us a great deal.  He is suggesting, through the lines, that it is almost sentient itself.  Dark magic doesn’t like to be conquered or used; it is treacherous and will turn on those who play with it too much.  I think that most prophecies are probably Dark magic trying to take down those who arrogantly come to believe that they have mastered it.

That actually sounds a great deal like the Elder Wand.  It attracts trouble; it turns on those who believe they have mastered it and in the process manage to ensnare someone else.  Yep—that wand has Dark magic crystallized inside it, probably from the inception, definitely amplified after centuries of being handled by Dark wizards.

Rowling may not have intended it—in fact, she probably didn’t, since she said that her story was supposed to be about facing death—but she’s actually given us a nice little fable about messing with things that are too big for one to handle.  Voldemort wasn’t done in by love.  He was done in by Dark magic—doubly so, in fact, between the Prophecy and the Elder Wand.  When he said to Dumbledore that he saw nothing to suggest that love was more powerful than “his kind of magic,” then as far as it concerned his own life and death, he was right.

This is a bit of a diversion from the main theme of this essay, but I don’t think it’s significant enough to warrant an essay unto itself, so this essay is the best place I have to stick it.  This essay is titled “The Machinations of Prophecies.”  What about the machinations of the individuals whom Prophecies concern?

I am actually referring to one particular individual, and that is not Tom Riddle.  It is Albus Dumbledore.

Certainly, the Prophecy was not about him.  However, it was made to him.  Prophecies in the Potter universe are not always—in fact, usually aren’t—made to the same people that they are about.  That Prophecy ensnared Albus Dumbledore as it ensnared Tom Riddle, and the reason for that is that Albus allowed it to concern him.  He chose to let it escape.  He had the unmitigated hubris to believe, in what was probably an act of desperation at that point, that he could use a Prophecy—a bit of Dark magic—to bring down an enemy.  To return to my lightning analogy, he thought that he could drag Tom Riddle under the lightning bolt to be struck and yet escape himself.

Dark magic, if I am correct in postulating that it is a quasi-sentient force, has no concept of morality.  It would not have identified Albus as the “Good Guy” and gone along with his intention to bring down the “Bad Guy,” even if it already had set its sights on Tom Riddle for Riddle’s own hubris.  It would have simply dragged Albus along as another person to show who/what was really boss.

What, you say?  Albus chose to let the Prophecy get into Voldemort’s hands?  Well, of course he did!  Just because Harry was too daft to ever figure that out does not mean that it didn’t happen.  He and Aberforth had Snape in their power.  Albus could have cast Obliviate on him—and he certainly did not prevent Kingsley from Obliviating part of Marietta Edgecombe’s memory to protect Harry—but he didn’t do it.  Even if he didn’t know at that point that Snape was a Death Eater (though I think he did), he still would have seen it as an unacceptable security risk to let an outsider out of that pub unObliviated... if his intention had been to suppress the Prophecy.  He had no such intention.  I think that, as soon as he realized that Trelawney was giving a bona fide Prophecy about Voldemort, he had the “brilliant idea” of using it as a weapon.  (How ironic it is that the Order of the Phoenix dubbed it as weapon for Voldemort when their very own leader had already deployed it as such.)  Albus would know that when the persons whom Prophecies address attempt to evade their predicted fates, their actions only make those fates inevitable.  (He did not seem to know that messing with them also turns the Prophecy magics against you too, or else he pridefully thought he could avoid that.)  He probably would have found a way to get the Prophecy out there even if Snape hadn’t been lurking outside the door.  But Snape was there, of course, and Albus let him go without doing anything.

...Or did he?

Some things have occurred to me since I first wrote this, spurred by a rereading of the entire series, and I have come to the conclusion that (unless Rowling is a phenomenally sloppy writer) Albus’s behavior regarding this matter was even more cynical and manipulative than the above would indicate.

Albus claimed to Harry that Snape only reported the first part of the Prophecy to Voldemort, and indeed, Voldemort’s obsession with getting the Prophecy all through the fifth book indicates that he did not have the entire thing.  Sybil Trelawney, however, reported in the sixth book that Snape was found outside the door after she had finished making the Prophecy and had come back to herself.  Between the sixth and seventh books, a fan theory sprang up, which I subscribed to, saying that this was a clue that Snape did hear the whole prophecy and that on Dumbledore’s orders he had only told Voldemort half of it—in other words, that he was a good guy.  Well, he turned out to be a good guy, but the theory itself was apparently wrong.  The only way to make sense out of this is to postulate that part of the Prophecy was drowned out by the sounds of Aberforth stomping up the stairs to get him.

If that were the case, and it certainly seems to be, then I ask you:  How the devil can Albus be so sure what Snape did or didn’t hear?  Even if he heard his brother’s footsteps, he wouldn’t have assumed either that the thumping would have made the sounds inside that room unintelligible to anyone outside the door or that there even was anyone outside the door.  Also, he was presumably entranced with listening to the Prophecy itself, while the wheels in his manipulative mind were turning.  There is just no way for him to be sure what someone outside the door heard.  “Because I said so” is not an explanation for this, no matter what Rowling may say.

(Leaving aside the fundamental stupidity of not casting a spell over the door in a known Death Eater hangout to make conversations inside it impossible for anyone outside it to hear.  I ask you.  Even we Muggles can soundproof.)

We are left with two choices:  Either he let Snape go unObliviated because he thought it acceptable for Voldemort to hear even the entire Prophecy if that were what Snape had heard, or he read Snape’s memory immediately afterwards so that he could see what Voldemort would be told.  For all we know, Snape may have heard the whole thing originally, but Dumbledore Obliviated the latter part of it and then let him go.

However, I am inclined to say that Albus just didn’t care how much Snape may have heard, because when Snape appeared in front of Albus later to plead for Lily’s life and enter his service, Albus asked Snape how much he had repeated to Voldemort.  Later, of course, Albus must have found out what the actual phrasing was that Snape had heard.

Let me repeat this for emphasis:  Albus Dumbledore deliberately let a Death Eater inform Voldemort of, for all he knew at the time, the entire Prophecy, endangering the lives of persons unknown.  If he didn’t do this, then he looked into that Death Eater’s memory to determine whether what he had heard was an “acceptable risk” (which is really convenient for Albus, as the persons targeted would not include himself) and then deliberately let him go.

By doing this—by using a Prophecy as a weapon against an enemy—he entrapped himself as well.  Using that Prophecy as a weapon ultimately paid off, but at the cost of a great deal of Albus’s humanity.  After deciding to use six people (the Potters and the Longbottoms) as bait for Voldemort, he lost two of them to death, lost two others to insanity, and almost lost his “hero.”  He became more and more manipulative through those last years of his life, keeping Harry and Snape both in the dark about key points and not even attempting to get them on better terms.  (He even attempted that for Sirius and Snape, for heaven’s sake.)  For all that he was a vocal champion of Love, he thought it safer to keep his two “baskets of secrets” separate from each other.  I am not entirely endorsing this idea, but I consider it within the realm of possibility that Albus even let the events of Harry’s fourth year play out in the hope that Voldemort would do something stupid to give Harry a way to survive.

Unlike Voldemort, Dumbledore may not have been personally brought to his death by hubris in believing himself master of Dark magic.  (I’ll assume for now that the Resurrection Stone was not a Dark object.)  But he was brought low, morally, by his determination to control all the people around him for his own ends.  And arguably this is what did him in, and that attempting to control the dead as well as the living was just one step too far.  And then the old codger, when handed a death sentence with a date of execution listed on it, decided that he would even use his own death for his chosen ends!  By doing this, he let others’ lives be put in jeopardy, including Katie Bell, Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Horace Slughorn, and who knows who else.  He ran the risk of letting a werewolf who had cannibalistic inclinations, and who was probably a pedophile, into a school, and in the memories that Snape provided, mentioned this possibility only as how it might affect his last moments.  (Envision a high school principal speaking casually of a pedophilic cannibalistic serial killer getting into the school, and only in the context of the pain that he might suffer as a target.  Just think about that.)  His very last corporeal act was to use Snape, ultimately costing Snape his life by falsely associating him with the Elder Wand.  The actions of that last year can’t have sat well with the forces that punish hubris and manipulation.

I would like to make note of the fact that, when Harry’s soul passed to “King’s Cross,” Dumbledore was there, and he had been there for close to a year.  He had not “boarded a train.”  Why is this?  It has been assumed by some that Dumbledore chose to stay there until Harry made his expected appearance.  I assumed this at first too.  But I’m now more inclined to support an alternative suggestion.  For nearly nineteen years, beginning with the time that he chose to endanger Lord only knew whom by using a manifestation of Dark magic as a weapon, he had been coldly using his own friends and allies “for the Greater Good.”  Even in the year leading up to his death, even in the very act of dying, he didn’t learn his lesson any more than Tom Riddle learned his lesson.  I think that for Albus, King’s Cross was Purgatory.

Update 6/2015: More Thoughts on Albus in Purgatory

I'm even more convinced of that now, actually. Something that has bothered me about that chapter ever since the book came out is that the spirit form of Albus discouraged Harry (repeatedly) from trying to offer comfort to the mangled, mutilated thing that was Voldemort. There is an echo of this in Half-Blood Prince, during one of the lessons, when Harry makes a statement about how Merope Riddle wouldn't even stay alive for her son, and Albus questioned if he was "feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort" in a disapproving way. Later, after he has learned about the Horcruxes and asks about the prophecy, Albus asserts that Harry's determination to kill Voldemort is somehow indicative of his power to love. Now, I'm not saying this didn't have to be done. It did. Harry's motives were probably a combination of revenge for the deaths of his parents and friends, a desire for justice upon Voldemort for his crimes, and very likely something like the desperate necessity of putting down a dangerous animal. Voldemort had to go, and all of those motives are understandable and defensible, but none of them have a thing to do with the kind of spiritual love that Albus (and Rowling) claim Harry is so gifted with, above and beyond others.

However, feeling sorry for his enemy, telling him in the final standoff to "try for some remorse," and feeling the urge to provide comfort to his flayed soul, do suggest a higher degree of willingness to forgive than average. And Albus discourages it, both in life and in death. Hold that thought.

Rowling may be a professed Christian, but her depiction of the first stages of the afterlife is rather more inspired by Spiritualist or even vaguely New Agey influences. There is no hell, even for the likes of Voldemort, just a permanent state of limbo or purgatory for him because he "can't" heal himself. But I should note here that in both of the aforementioned modern-ish religions, any soul can and will heal, though it will take some a very long time. Hold that thought too.

It can be fairly said that Harry's experience in "King's Cross Station" was a true near-death experience. In real life, experiencers who encounter deceased people they knew pretty much always see those individuals in the "prime of life," even if they only knew the person as an elderly individual. They don't have any trouble identifying who it is, either; they report a sort of instinctive spiritual knowledge of the person's identity that isn't based on their appearance. The only real exception is if someone has a negative experience and encounters "dark" souls who are full of malice, and they are just distorted and bestial. At King's Cross, however, Harry sees Dumbledore as an old man. For a near-death experience, that's actually quite odd. It is even odder when you consider that Harry would have recognized a younger Albus perfectly well, having seen him with his red hair and beard in numerous Pensieve memories (and Tom Riddle's diary).

As a disclaimer, I do not think Rowling intended the conclusion that I'm about to draw. I don't think she thought it through enough for that, and I also have an unpleasant hunch that she agrees with Dumbledore more than Harry about sympathy for Voldemort. But in the kind of spiritual paradigm that she has established with her King's Cross sequence (and, I should note, in very traditional Christianity itself), forgiving and trying to save the enemy is the pinnacle of spiritual goodness.

In that place, one's spiritual state generates one's visual appearance, rather than the ravages of time and nature upon a mortal body. There is a reason why Voldemort appeared as a flayed, bloody, undeveloped thing, curled into himself. Harry appeared at his current age, since he was in young adulthood (the early prime of life) and was a good person. And Dumbledore appeared as a white-bearded, wrinkled old man. His nose was even still broken.

As I said, I don't think Rowling meant this, but sometimes people will write something that has significance that they don't immediately (or ever) see. I think the elderly appearance of Dumbledore is an example of this, and I think it is directly related to his own spiritual state, which clearly hadn't developed much farther. He doesn't appear to have discovered the truth about what happened to Ariana, sought out Ariana/his parents/Grindelwald out and talked it all over, met Severus Snape, or, apparently, even met Death, since he doesn't know which origin of the Hallows is true. Meanwhile, Harry was willing to help Voldemort, even after all that Voldemort had done to him in life. Albus was too hardened and "old" to care to try, pawning Harry off with the assertion that there was nothing anyone could do and so therefore he shouldn't take time away from Albus's Q & A session by bothering with it.

Oh yes, Albus will be in Purgatory for quite a while.