Tell No Tales Progress and a View on Prophecies

First round of edits, I’m through 125 pages of what’s currently 140 pages of Tell No Tales. Currently looking to have this edit round done by the end of the month, after which I’ll get a clean draft printed and start really tearing into it for “need new scenes/details/foreshadow here”.

Now, since I really didn’t expect one throwaway comment in a Monstrous Compendium post to create an ongoing thread of debate… my personal take on prophecies, fictional or otherwise.

Long story short, they are inherently subject to abuse.

I’m not talking about law of averages, or “based on X starting conditions we can expect Y result given past experience.” Every cop and criminal prosecutor can tell you “the best prediction of future behavior is past behavior”. I’m talking about things that have absolutely no scientific, evidence-based basis.

Here’s one example for you: “People who’ve been abused become abusers themselves.”

This is a prophecy. This is a statement flung out by just about anyone in authority who finds out that hey, they have a Messy Situation in their laps they never asked for and they’ve been trying to ignore.

And it is inherently false.  Statistically, about 3/4 of abuse victims never abuse anyone.

But, you see, the Prophecy means people who should have stopped the abuse can wash their hands of the situation and claim none of it’s their fault. After all, you wouldn’t expect them to help someone who’s just going to turn around and abuse others, right? That would be Evil.

I don’t care where you get your prophecy from, eventually it has to get filtered through a person. And people… people are inherently flawed, and tend to do what costs them the least effort and upsetting of their worldview.

Do what you like with prophecies, but I intend to handle any tossed my way with ten-foot tongs.

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17 thoughts on “Tell No Tales Progress and a View on Prophecies

  1. Oh, I definitely agree on using those ten-foot tongs to handle them. I also agree that they are dangerous (tho I disagree about them being inherently bad). Fire is dangerous too, after all, but that doesn’t make it _inherently_ bad. But I’m all for treating it with the respect due the danger and potential for abuse, even while arguing the technicality.

    Also, while I don’t know about the specific example of abusers that you’re bringing up, I have seen other areas where, to borrow from your explanation of threat vs risk (with the example of the proposed military base on a somewhat-dormant volcano), some things are cases of “it’s unlikely that something of X category is going to cause problems of Y type, but almost all problems of Y type are caused by something of X category.” Or as with your military base example, “there’s a 10% risk chance that the volcano may cease to be dormant (ie: 90% chance it won’t), but if it does happen to blow up, there’s a 100% threat chance of ‘no more base now’.” So while I agree that the saying about abusers is itself subject to abuse (and expect it is a case of “this is just wrong”), I’d still argue for looking into the second factor here, about what percentage of abusers were _not_ themselves abused.

    As I said before, prophecy of any type is dangerous, but you can’t just dismiss it on the first question.

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  2. The question I’ve never seen addressed in stories with prophecies is “Why make a prophecy?”
    Assuming some entity is able to perceive a set future, then why bother transmitting it to some oracle? Why spend the effort? Why take their time bothering them with something they can’t change?

    Here are some potential motives:

    1) The future is set, the prophecy is for others information. If you say “it will rain tomorrow” then the prophecy is ABOUT the weather, but it is directed AT the people being rained on.
    *Hilariously, this seems to apply to Harry Potter. Dumbledore and Snape act on the prophecy, Harry and Voldemort don’t really benefit from hearing it.

    2) The future is not set, but you want to avoid it. If a teacher says “it will rain tomorrow, your homework might get wet” it’s a warning, leading to a self-defeating prophecy.

    3) The future is not set, you want to direct it one way. If a teacher says “homework in protective covers will be more successful” it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy by not only avoiding rain, but directing them at one specific result. I could imagine a sliding scale from 2 to 3 depending on the manipulative abilities of the predictor.

    4) Taking 3 to the logical conclusion, there’s no reason you need true foretelling at all. If you can manipulate people with a “prophecy” then why bother looking into the future at all? If you have an entity that can make plans centuries in the future, it would be trivial for them to make a Book of Prophecy that has 99 true and 1 false. Or the people writing it. Or the people transcribing it.

    Way too many stories get caught up in the philosophy of free will and completely overlook the reliability of the sources.

    Plot Bunny: The Prophecy:

    The people are oppressed by the conquerors, but they still have hope for one day the Destined Hero will arrive to shatter the chains of their oppression and lead them to freedom!

    A young farmboy finds himself swept up in events beyond his control as he fulfills the prophecy of the chosen one.
    He is not overly enthusiastic about this, he never personally had a huge problem with the ruling class, but due to their efforts to remove him he discovers the motivation and justice of the cause.
    Going to the elder sage to learn the next steps to complete the prophecy, he learns something horrifying.
    The prophecy is fake.

    There might be other prophecies that are real, but this one was deliberately falsified.
    The original sage looked at the situation and realized it was hopeless to fight the conquerors and created a fake prophecy to encourage people to surrender “awaiting the destined time.”

    Now the chosen one is in the odd position of trying to either win an unwinnable war and making the prophecy true, or trying to defuse a rebellion that is already starting.

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    1. That plot bunny reminds me of a pair of books I read a long time ago – from the kid’s section of the library – Giftwish and Catchfire by Graham Martin. country lad is informed he fulfils the prophecy, gets dragged in to a very bad situation, finds helpful wizard, who refuses to opine on whether the prophecy is true (worth worrying about), but things need to be done and maybe the lad can do them. There was even a conversation that went into maybe the guy who made it up/had foresight/whatever could see that they’d pick our boy – for their own nefarious reasons to control the outcome – and that the wizard may have given them just the info they needed to make the boy who would (by chance) do the right things in spite of them.

      It was interesting and clearly stuck well in my head.

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  3. Re: warning prophecies, the usual way to describe these is “conditional prophecy.”

    For example, it is a principle of Bible interpretation that almost all negative prophecies are conditional. If Jonah shows up on your doorstep warning of your imminent demise, you are supposed to.stop.whatever you are doing wrong and repent. If you do, the warning will either be removed entirely because you have averted it, or the punishments will be softened. (Hitting the next king. Usually because he will be an evil idiot who thought you paid too much attention to prophecy.)

    (If you have even social or historical interest in Old Testament prophecy, btw, Fr. Mitch Pacwa did a college-level course called Old Testament Prophets for EWTN, and an audio version is available free on their website’s Audio Library. Very long and interesting.)

    Delphi is interesting too, and the various Greek oracle sites. A lot of the priestesses and priests would go into an ecstatic state, but the interpretation of the oracles they provided was done by non-ecstatic priests. It was very expensive for a city to get a Delphic oracle, because you brought gifts ahead of time and made thank gifts after a successful outcome.. OTOH, Delphi was a great place to meet people from all corners of the Greco-Roman world and gain intel. Not going there made your city look unpious, and maybe the priests would help your enemy. Etc.

    The Sibylline Books were owned by Rome, kept a state secret, and solemnly consulted only on occasions of danger to the state. They were interpreted by a committee of geezer senators (who were generally also.guys with priest experience). Of course this meant that bootleg Sibylline Books were always kicking around, full of recently composed verses that supported your own political view. Since the Sibyls were believed to have been reliable prophets a la Balaam, there were also Jewish and Christian collections of historically released and/or recently composed Sibylline verses supporting monotheism, Messianic prophecy, triumph for Israel, etc.

    Political mockery or argument disguised loosely as prophetic verse is also a thing, because the authorities might be less zealous about investigating the newest predictions by Merlin or Mother Shipton or St.Malachy, than the newest treatise on how the government stinks.

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  4. Oh, and filidh prophecy. There was the pagan oracular version, where the poet wrapped himself in a bullhide, put a stone on his chest, and composed verses based on visions. There was also “prophecy in the finger ends” (fingertip prophecy) where the filidh poet saw a person and spontaneously was struck with prophetic extemporaneous verse, and which was judged theologically safe for Christians.

    There is a very good book about how the filidh calling not only survived but grew stronger when Christianity came to Ireland, because charismatic prophecy was Biblical. Cannot remember the name.

    Anyway, we think of prophecies as disruptive, but the ancient world thought of them as more socially supportive. Whether you had wandering ecstatic poets, inspired writers, stationary oracles for pilgrimage, or fixed prophetic books and divination systems anyone could learn, they expected to find prophetic rebukes for falling short, or explanations for bad happenings and bad omens.

    If you consulted a filidh, he was either going to remind you of the laws and obligations that you already knew, or the valid complaints of the people that you had been ignoring. He would do this in conversation and it would be polite, or ecstasy would strike him and his worries would be repeated with supernatural support. That was a poet’s job — to be a voice for the order of the world.

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    1. So there are times when the moral of a prophecy interpretation story is something about oracles and gods being fickle, or about bards and gods being lawyers to avoid lying and being foresworn. But in context, usually the hidden moral is about hubris and lack of piety or hospitality, or neglect of other basic virtues. At that point, false prophets may be become something used by the gods to set up your downfall.

      But there are also prophecies of comfort in time of trouble, or in praise of specific persons (although sometimes that is an implied rebuke to other people). Again, usually this stuff is social glue.

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  5. Frankly, after reading through that long previous discussion, I’m just glad I missed it.

    There were several things said that hit me particularly wrongly, and I had to wrestle down the impulse to throw my phone at the wall more than once.

    I wouldn’t’ve had the energy to keep myself composed, and then I wouldn’t have had the energy to continue arguing, and I would’ve just finished up angry and bitter, so I’m glad I didn’t.

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  6. I know I’m kinda late to the game here, but… I usually don’t like prophecy-based stories either, if only because they’re just so. Painfully. Arbitrary. Like plot MacGuffins for writers or something. But there is one prophecy-based series I did very much enjoy, and that was David Eddings’ Belgariad. In it there are two competing prophecies from the same (well known to have been insane) scholar, and both run into problems of interpretation due to language and the various cultures that know about the prophecies. Plus people just deciding to ignore one or the other prophecy because “we don’t like what it says and there’s this other one anyway so of course it’s not important”.

    (BTW, Ms. Chancey, if you haven’t read his books before you might enjoy Eddings. He was a troper extraordinaire who wrote his material by collecting a bunch of tropes, especially ones considered to be overused, and going “Ehehehe, what glorious chaos can I make from these?”)

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