I’ve never been that fond of fortune tellers in fantasy tales – joyless, smug creeps the lot of ‘em. But recently I’ve been pondering on their eternal popularity with writers.
Lately there have been a lot a lot of seers in Dr Who. We had the Ood telling the Doctor that his song was ending (Planet of the Ood) and then the lady bus passenger saying ‘he will knock four times’ (Planet of the Dead), likewise predicting the end of the tenth doctor .
This was followed by Dalek Caan foretelling the future (The Stolen Earth): onto this a major storyline was hung. Now, in the latest tale, (The End of Time) even the Time Lords were relying on the ramblings of a wibbling semi-articulate hag.
You’ve seen it coming: I think this fortune-teller gag can be overdone. In Planet of the Dead it seemed the psychic was used to add phony suspense to a story that mainly involved a 20-minute bus delay in a desert. In The End of Time, the mad soothsayer was there to lead us blindfold through some of the larger holes in the plot.
Why are soothsayers always mad? Aha – because if they were sane they could give us boringly clear answers about exactly what is going to happen. No – the gifted seer must give a riddle, a glimpse, something vague enough to drive the plot, without spoilering it.
Prophecies are irresistible to fantasy authors, and barely a trilogy goes by without one.
Much of Phillip Pullman’s classic ‘His Dark Materials’ hangs on the prediction device. It is foretold that the heroine Lyra’s actions will change the universe, so this leads the forces of good and evil to zero in on her. In fact, without the heroine having to do anything to earn their attention (yet), she can be visited by a panoply of weird beings, lining themselves up for and against her.
It’s a bit like getting married. Without doing anything to deserve it, you – the hero – are suddenly caught up in the eye of ancient enmities that defy comprehension. In fact I would bet the whole of His Dark Materials was based on one wedding reception Philip Pullman attended.
Sometimes it does work beautifully. The great CBBC serial ‘Shoebox Zoo’ had heroine Marnie becoming the ‘Chosen One’ (yes, I know, but it sounds good when you watch it, honest), and so immediately she is on the visiting list of the local forces of good and evil. This formula is a great time-saver. It rushes us straight into a deep-seeming plot without any tortuous build-up. In the right hands it is magical. In the wrong hands it is a lazy mish-mash of phony motives and hollow, high-sounding bilge.
Getting back to that overdone phrase: ‘The One, or ‘The Chosen one’. It’s an effective method of hyping up the importance of your hero (without them actually having done anything, remember). Also, it works for the reader, since many of us secretly feel that we are ‘the one’, so we can devour the book, thinking it’s about us.
I think my favourite prediction malarkey comes in Asterix and the Soothsayer. Here Goscinny and Uderzo give this ragged tribe the nose-tweaking they deserve – if you have never seen it, I’m sure it will put a smile on your face. In fact, (portentous look, starts scribbling symbols on his own face in biro) I… KNOW IT!
But back on the Time Lord planet , Ithoughtithadbeenburntalready, here comes the Great Seeing One.
Time Lord: Tell us, oh mad one, what actually IS happening in this diabolical storyline we are caught up in?’
Great Seeing One: “I see a man in a blue box, fighting another man… wait, it’s… it’s his ENEMY! And they are on a planet – wait – one word approacheth my gaze… one word – rhymes with “mirth”! Starts with ‘ear’ – oh come on, surely even you non-seers can guess it now…! “
Happy new year