Prophecies, epic ballads, myths, riddles, and clues are all staples of the fantasy genre, and they often appear in poetic form. Over the next couple months, I’ll be writing about each of these topics and including some of my favourite examples so you can write awesome poems in your own works.
First up: prophecies.
All poems make use of rhythm, meter, images, and poetic devices to portray ideas and emotions. You don’t have to write your prophecy as a poem, but if you choose to go that route, here is some advice on how to get started.
What Makes a Good Prophecy?
Prophecies generally foretell future cataclysmic events or the coming of a “Chosen One.” They are a device writers can use to advance the plot, hint at events to come, or create an air of mystery around their characters.
When you write a prophecy, keep in mind:
1. Who is the prophecy about and where does it fall in the timeline of your story?
The prophecy about Voldemort and Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix was told just a few months before Harry’s birth, and, in fact, Harry’s name was only added to it after Voldemort tried to kill him. This is vastly different than, say, a prophecy that was told 1,000 years before the coming chosen one, during which time it could become distorted with each retelling.
2. Who is the originator of the prophecy?
Prophesying is an act of divination. As such, prophecies generally fall under the domain of divine characters: witches and wizards, seers, or astrologers. The type of character you choose to originate a prophecy can affect the way your characters react to it. The prophecy about Harry was told by Sybil Trelawney, who is the Divination professor at Hogwarts. She is portrayed as a bit “out of it,” and her students don’t take her seriously. The fact that she is the originator of the prophecy makes us ask questions: Should we not take it seriously or have we underestimated her? Does her prophetic heritage matter?
3. What purpose does the prophecy serve in your story?
Prophecies can either herald hope or signal doom and gloom. Tolkien’s “Riddle for Aragorn” is meant to bring hope in a time when all seems lost, but the prophecy about Buffy’s battle with the Master in Buffy the Vampire Slayer only seems to bring her misery.
4. Is it simple enough for readers to understand?
Some writers think that prophecies have to be convoluted so that readers won’t guess who or what it is about. But there’s a difference between good ambiguity and bad ambiguity. Good ambiguity leaves just enough mystery so that the full meaning isn’t completely obvious, but bad ambiguity leaves readers with too many questions. An effective prophecy will be clear and simple enough that readers can understand the message, while at the same time containing a hidden meaning to be sussed out later.
Prophecy in The Lord of the Rings
All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
This poem uses imagery extremely well. The images in the first stanza are being used to say: “good things aren’t always obvious” and “a strong foundation won’t crumble when hardships come.” And the images in the second stanza show something new and good coming out of the old and dark. Altogether, these images work to show how the coming of a new king will bring hope to the world.
The technical details: Tolkien wrote this poem using two quatrains (two stanzas of four lines each) and an ABAB rhyme scheme. The lines mostly follow antibacchius trimeter with an added spondee at the end (however, lines three, five, and seven deviate slightly).
^ ^ – ^ ^ – ^ ^
All that is / gold does not / glit ter.
Antibacchius = two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable. (All that is / gold does not)
Trimeter = three feet (one foot = two syllables, so six syllables in total)
Spondee = two stressed syllables together (glit ter)
Prophecy in Teen Titans
The gem was born of evil’s fire.
The gem shall be his portal.
He comes to claim, he comes to sire,
the end of all things mortal.
—Season Four, Episode Seven, “The Prophecy”
This poem uses symbolism. The prophecy is about Raven’s father, Trigon, coming to Earth and annihilating it. When the Teen Titans encounter the prophecy for the first time, they think that the gem is an actual gem, and set out to destroy it, until Raven confesses that she is actually the “gem” who will become the portal.
The technical details: This poem has one stanza with an ABAB rhyme scheme. Lines one and three follow iambic tetrameter, while lines two and four are iambic dimeter with an added bacchius at the end.
– ^ – ^ – ^ ^
The gem / shall be / his por tal.
Iamb = one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (The gem was born of ev il’s fire)
Dimeter = two feet (four syllables)
Bacchuis = one unstressed syllable followed by two stressed syllables (his por tal)
Prophecy in Final Fantasy
One born of a dragon,
bearing darkness and light,
shall rise up to the heavens
over the still land.
Bathing the moon in eternal
light, he brings a promise
to Mother Earth with bounty
—The Mysidian Legend, Final Fantasy IV
This poem uses the images of birth and light to foretell the coming of a “Chosen One,” who will rid the world of evil. It is written in free verse, meaning there isn’t a formal meter or rhyme scheme. I think the tone of this poem works really well; it’s calm, and it makes me think of flight and freedom.
A Prophecy of My Own Making
Our Lady Aquila,
goddess of the Sunless Seas,
we remember your woeful pleas,
the cruel injustice of your plight.
We remember how Tuathe,
your enemy, closed the Maelstrom –
your greatest creation now sundered
from this world, thundering waves
that cannot break through the doors of night
no matter how hard they beat against them.
Let his people bear your mark like scars
on their foreheads. Let them choke
on Tuathe’s impudence.
They are the Drowned
and they will bring misfortune
to all who come near them.
Our Lady of light and mischief,
hear our prayers and accept our praise.
One day the doors will open
and the waters will run,
like melt water into a flood.
Until that time, we beseech you
grant us your favour.
Until that time, we will remember
and work for your vengeance on this earth.
This is an example I wrote. A few years ago, Kyle Rudge, our Marketing Director, asked me to write a poem for his Dungeons & Dragons group. He gave me a few parameters and told me some of the history behind the game they were playing. The poem had to discuss a curse, include a clue about how to break the curse, and foretell the return of a goddess. It also had to be written in the voice of one of the goddess’ followers.
If you’d like to try your hand at writing your own poetic prophecy, here are some steps to get you started:
- Jot down the details listed earlier in this blog post.
- Select a tone: is this a happy prophecy or a sad one?
- Think of the general message and then brainstorm some images. Stick to things you can experience with your senses (see, touch, smell, taste). Tangible images always work better than abstract ones, as abstract images are hard to grasp. For example, when I was writing “Our Lady Aquila,” I decided to work with water images, since Aquila is the goddess of the Ocean, and the cursed people are literally called “The Drowned.”
- Figure out your rhythm. Confession time: I almost never write poetry in formal meter. If you want to try it, iambic meter is generally considered to be the simplest to work with because it’s closest to how we speak. But, the absence of formal meter does not mean that your poem won’t have rhythm. Each line will have its own rhythm, and you’ll be able to get a better sense of it as you write. Play around with the line breaks and see what works best for each line. I ended the second line of the third stanza on “Let them choke” because I liked the way it ended so abruptly; “choke” packs a punch.
- Experiment! Have fun!