The language of prophecy, part 2
Able was I ere I writ iambs
Last time, we looked at a prophecy from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books:
The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches.
Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies.
And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not.
And either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.
Today, we examine the meaning in more detail.
Why does it matter when the prophecy could apply to Harry or Neville? (For context, in the book Harry was born on July 31, 1980). In early 1980 when the prophecy is made, the identity of “the one” is fairly vague; certainly there are a limited number of pregnant witches in England, but it is vague. After the end of July, there are two candidates, Harry and Neville (born the day before on July 30, 1980). After the Dark Lord marks Harry with the lightning-bolt in his failed attempt to kill him, the prophecy is specific in that it refers to Harry.
What we have here is a statement fixed in time (for that is what a prophecy is) having a meaning that differs over time. Initially, there are many possible outcomes that can fulfill the prophecy, as time passes those options become few.
And, while “quantum mechanics applied to consciousness” isn’t a thing, if you do apply that you will get an answer: the probabilities of future events may not behave classically when there is entanglement. And when you have prophecy, you have entanglement. Because there are no such things as perfect oracles. More on that later.
Is the “power to vanquish the Dark Lord” the same as the “power the Dark Lord knows not”? Possibly. The book is clear that the “power the Dark Lord knows not” is the power of love. The first time Harry “vanquishes” the Dark Lord, it is through the protection spell cast by his mother, which is arguably the power of love. The second time he vanquishes the Dark Lord, it is through his control of the Elder Wand, which is very much not the power of love.
In general, attempts at “word-for-word” translation are almost always a mistake. And here, we have the same word used twice, but there is no reference between them. Just because the same word is used twice does not mean that the word has the same meaning both times.
Translation is always difficult; words have subtle meanings that may not be expressible simply in other languages. If the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, they may not all translate into Arabic. And we noted in part 1 how we may add or remove meaning in translation based on the nature of gendered pronouns in those languages.
An editorial note: we expect going forward to rely heavily on the Bible in discussion of translation, arguably more than would be desirable. This is not because the Bible may be the word of השם, but because that work has by far the largest corpus of discussion regarding its translation. It also leads into discussion of translations of the tetragrammaton, which are useful for discussions of secrecy.
Why is “thrice” a word anyway? Because poetry. It is one syllable, while “three times” is two syllables.
The word is noted in dictionaries as archaic. Properly speaking, “thrice” should probably be considered a Middle English word, not an English word. So, in a sense, “thrice” actually isn’t a word.
In Poetic English, you can often use Middle English or other languages when necessary to make the rhyme, meter, or theme work. TS Eliot uses French, German, Italian, and Sanskrit in The Wasteland.
What is Poetic English? It is a different register of the language. More on that later, too.
Next week, we get a timemachine (but only one, for now). It is, roughly, Ted Chiang’s Predictor. It can only send bits of information back in time, at a very low baud rate, and only backwards one second, which does not seem to be earth-shattering. Of course, one second can be either a short period of time or a long period of time, depending on your perspective.