Scribbler’s Saga #94 – Prophecy and Foreshadowing

Posted: August 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

From Rope, everything after is known…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

The King will return. Azor Ahai will appear to lead Westeros against the Others. A prediction uttered by a crazy professor of Augury leads to an ill-fated black bag job at the Ministry of Magic. Writers, especially fantasy writers just love using a prophecy as a narrative tool, but handled correctly I suppose any writer has this particular iron in their golf bag.

Prophecy comes to us from a similar Greek word that originally meant “the gift of interpreting the will of God.” Spell it with a C, it’s a noun. Spell it with an S and it’s the verb. Stories of gods, monsters and magic all trade on someone more divinely powerful than the protagonist imparting hints, riddles and sometimes outright directions to guide the results.

Sometimes this is to get through maybe three chapters ahead in the story. Other times, yep, the writer gave away cryptic hints about the ending because what happens is less important than how we get there. Prophecy as a tool should be thought of as a part of the larger field of providing foreshadowing to guide the reader/listener’s interest in the story.

Foreshadowing in its many forms services the toe dance all writers play with their audience. We want to know what’s coming next but not really. We try to predict the course of the story, but still want surprises.

The best theories on storytelling assume that we told the same stories around the same campfires. The same fella sitting under the cave bear painting heckled the story in the same way to gain more of an endorphin hit from hearing this new version of the tale. The writer/teller gets over his exasperation and feeds more excitement by giving them what they want.

One element so added to narrative was foreshadowing. Give clues to what happens next. Engage those ears for a few minutes longer. The practice takes many forms.

Anton Chekhov famously asserted – “a gun on the wall in the First Act will come down off the wall and be fired in the Third Act.” This kind of subtle foreshadowing trades on set dressing and a basic knowledge of human behavior. We’re douchebags; we shoot and stab each other at dinner.

One feature of drama is that editing happens to turn real life into digestible bits of narrative where something always happens. So gun on the wall must be fired means that because you’re seeing the play/movie or God forbid reading the actual book, the writer has edited out all the times Grandpa’s Winchester 70 just sat on the wall. It waits for the passions of the family to reach that fevered pitch dredging up every fight over Barbies or Matchbox cars. It waits for the truth about Uncle Steve or worse. It waits for this family to get robbed.

The writer assumes that the consumer fully understands the powerful symbol the gun on the wall represents and will insist on seeing it on the wall in the First Act as foreshadowing. Not seeing the weapon might leave the consumer confused – “What? They build up to this big old yelling match about Uncle Steve and, okay, the scumbag got shot, but where the hell did the gun that killed him come from?”

Of course, Gun on the Wall could mean anything established in the background. Grandpa’s ashes on the mantle and the almost union-mandated Use the Urn to Bash Somebody Over the Head scene (I’ll have to check, but I really hope Roger Ebert covered this in his list of clichés). You get the idea that for this type of foreshadowing everything relevant to the end of the story must be established in the space of the story at the beginning.

Alfred Hitchcock found another usage of foreshadowing in nearly all of his movies. Because he was after suspense instead of shock, he always wanted the audience to be well ahead of the characters. The two killers in Rope start by killing someone and then hiding the body in a box on the verge of a dinner party discussing what they did, why and that they’ll dispose of the body after the party. The audience knows from jump what’s what and each time Jimmy Stewart playing a detective clearly inspired by Crime and Punishment gets too close to the body or something the killers want hidden, we cringe.

Horror movies trade on both shock and suspense in the same fashion. We see Michael Myers in the house. We shout – “No, don’t go in there!” Is he in the kitchen? No. Is he in the master closet watching the dead teens walking have sex? Maybe. Is he waiting in the closet under the stairs for the teens to think it’s all over and put on their clothes? Eventually – BOO! The build up is suspense. The payoff is shock. Both are driven by the basic foreshadowing of letting us see Michael enter the house…or not.

Shakespeare driven largely by the needs of his medium typically just had the main character tell the audience in a soliloquy – “Now is the winter of our discontent…” – what would happen next. Iago told the back row about taking down Othello. A form of foreshadowing because everything pays off and we still went for the ride.

Another bit of foreshadowing that I really like…the equipping scene between James Bond and Q. In every movie, Major Boothroyd gives Bond exactly what he needs to survive the movie. A briefcase loaded with throwing knife, 50 gold sovereigns, 50 .25 caliber bullets (the chambering for the AR-7 survival rifle packed in the case) and a teargas canister, what happens? Everything needed to kill off a Bulgarian killer and, more importantly, Donald Grant.

How does Q know what Bond needs? Okay, the equipping scene usually takes place after the Bond Gets his Orders scene with M. We do have such things as intercoms and inter-office email where M has Moneypenny call down and tell Q where Bond might be going. So sending Bond to go meet an oil heiress in the Baku/Azerbaijan/Caspian Sea/Black Sea region, we can say that Q looked at the map and saw mountains with snow in them within driving distance. So the avalanche jacket could make a little sense.

Later in the series, they stopped using this scene to do anything with the watch. Bond just pulls out his timepiece and it has exactly what’s needed to get out. A wad of C-4 for the grating in the Moonraker launch base. A laser for the floor of the armored train in Goldeneye. A magnet and rope cutter in Live and Let Die. Presumably, the Q-Branch takes after action surveys as part of the job to refine what operatives need next.

Speaking from the writing/meta view of this scene, much of the trope of getting exactly what the story requires has much to do with that, again, writers edit out all gadgets that aren’t relevant. So he’s going to the mountains and needs the avalanche jacket, but what about the space in his luggage for the parachute jacket? Bond did get mugged on an airplane once. So even with the semi-plausible in-narrative reasons for Bond having exactly the gear he needs, it still feels like Q is a laser focused prophet.

A good segue back to the prophecy section of this treatise on the various forms of foreshadowing. The reader wants to know a few hints as to how it all going to come out, but not to have the full blueprints. Isildur’s heir has been promised to come back one day. Gondor will be alright…eventually.

I suspect that in addition to the usual reasons for prophecy as foreshadowing that in a literary sense the promise from the gods of this story (the writer in the meta sense) has a way of keeping the reader in the game. The black moments in some of these stories are really black and we might put the book down.

“Close the book, Da, I don’t want to read any more…” – so says Sam to Frodo during the single most suspenseful part of the story, two hobbits dressed as orcs marching around Mordor trying not to look like hobbits asking directions to Mt. Doom. It all looks lost. We don’t believe the Dress Like the Enemy to Infiltrate the Base trope whether delivered in the spy novel or The Lord of the Rings.

But, Tolkien is as tricksy-tricksy as Gollum. Throughout the preceding narrative he peppers in poetic references to the Sword Reforged coming from ancient sources that might have a phone line to the in-narrative higher powers of Middle Earth. The folks that sent the Wizards to do the dirty work of cleaning up Sauron, just the latest Great Evil to afflict the world of men. So if the reader puts down the book, he/she never gets to see how the foreshadowing pays off.

Because prophecy has the specific purpose of interpreting the will of God all prophecies, whether literary or theological, must payoff. We can think of Gun on the Wall as something that nearly always pays off because of a combination of writerly concision – “if we don’t need it, we don’t establish it” – and giving the reader the hooks to play our guessing games with the story. Prophecy is something that either comes true because gods/universe are never wrong or gets relegated to the realm of instructive metaphor.

Tolkien and his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, instinctively drew from many sources for prophecy. Most were stories once deemed theological in nature. The big one, the Christian Bible, still is. And the Greeks couldn’t tell a story without some form of divine prophecy.

Cassandra had the gift, no one believed her because the gods hated her. Instant tragedy. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for fair winds to Troy, a different part of the same instant tragedy. Odysseus travels all the way to Hades to ask blind Tiresias for the checklist needed to make nice with Poseidon (you can’t live on an island and have the Sea God as an enemy) and make it home. And if I had a dollar for every time Athena borrowed various Olympians’ toys to help a hero get through the movie (maybe she should have a job in Q-Branch?)…well we always want more money.

And now inevitably…the Bible. Depending on how atheist or pagan you feel, either God or the many writers of the book had 1,300 years to work out the story. The whole point is Jesus and the crappiness of how we treat each other that is why God made Flesh has to come back. We need Hope…the one thing Pandora held onto.

The Bible uses short term prophecy in the form of a prophet walking into a throne room and promising dire consequences unless certain demands are met. After the first deal between Moses and Ramses about setting the Hebrews free, this was mostly about God getting pissed at how far the Hebrews and later Jews strayed from the covenant and sending in his latest version of Gandalf. Typically, God makes everything promised happen within two weeks. Gods are never wrong.

The Bible also uses a much deeper highly integrated form of prophecy. Everything leads to Jesus coming the first time to set our redemption in motion. And then he comes back at the end to reward the righteous. Hope on a half shell.

Various books in the Old Testament promise a messiah. Books the Jews of the historical Jesus’ time knew all of this predictive Scripture. Jesus as written in the book certainly acted and spoke in such a way to make it clear that – “here I am.” Then as now, either you accept that God knows how to tell a story and keeps his promises or you go looking for the wires that made things happen. It’s not the purpose of this post to pick a side; I’m neither your pastor nor your secular logic counselor.

This is the tradition of prophecy in our literature that Tolkien, Lewis and everyone coming after, including G.R.R. Martin, tap into. Middle Earth, Narnia and Westeros exist as seemingly whole reflections of our own world. These imaginary places have the kind of history that includes cranks, lunatics and dreamers spouting off about all the things God said. When they finally come true the story ends…

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