Notes on Literature: The Machinery of Prophetic Narrative

My current obsession with Greek Tragedy, Fantasy, and Greek tragedy as Fantasy has led me to ponder at length on the single most powerful fantastic element in both the tragic and epic traditions: Prophecy. Having already touched upon it here, this post is an attempt at articulating my understanding of its narrative machinery.

Freudian implications notwithstanding, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, the archetype of prophecy driven tragedies, is essentially a moral and logical puzzle. A moral puzzle because men, both ordinary and those gifted with foresight, the prophets and the oracles, unanimously condemn a man who inadvertently brings a terrible prophecy to fulfilment by having consciously taken measures at every capricious turn of his life to prevent it from coming true. This is a dubious verdict at best and one that smacks of moral ambiguity: If prophecies are destined to come true, irrespective of one’s preventive actions, is it fair to condemn someone for having fulfilled it? If not, then is it not infinitely more insidious to condemn someone who, having heard the prophecy, had taken all humanly possible measures to avoid its fulfilment? In the final analysis, everything seems to boil down to the question of belief: Did he, a mere man, believe that he could prevent the prophesy from coming true? Or equivalently, did he believe that he could beat fate by exerting his free-will? It is on this note that Oedipus seems to lose the moral high ground that is his by all rights. He does, or at some point in time did, believe that he could beat fate by exerting his free-will and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that it is for this that he seems to be punished. This is by no means any less unfair and Sophocles has Oedipus himself take up his case in the most complex and, in my opinion, effective play in the Oedipus cycle, Oedipus at Colonus, where the moral, and in some sense even legal, aspects of the Oedipus conundrum take centre stage. Oedipus at Colonus brings the tale to a hardly harmonious, if in its own way fulfilling, closure; the Gods themselves, for a brief moment, break their silence to bestow a sort of legendary status on the long-suffering hero.

Prophecy, as a narrative device in epics and tragedies, seems to derive its logical, moral, and emotional potency by playing out that most fundamental of conflicts, fate versus free-will, against the template of a tragic, or at least dark and dramatic, universe. And nowhere is it more devastatingly effective than in the “dark” Sophoclean world of the Oedipus cycle.

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