Top 10 novels and stories about prophets | Fiction

At the end of his prophetic journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, Dante has a vision of a book. Standing in the presence of God, he sees “bound up with love together in one volume, what through the universe in leaves is scattered”. Here is a basic taxonomy then: God is a novelist. Human beings are His characters. Prophets are the readers.

More often than not, the way that it works is that human beings come to despise prophets, just as you might come to despise someone who has read the story of your life and keeps trying to tell you about it while you’re in the middle of trying to live it.

Thus it is hard to be a prophet. Prophets are havers of visions and bad dreams; they are difficult to be around.

Like gods, writers sometimes introduce prophets into their invented universes. When they do, the prophet takes up a special position between reader and character. They are messengers from beyond the back of the book. Because they are so like us – the readers of the books – and so unlike us at the same time, prophets are uncanny and scary.

My book, The End of Nightwork, is about that most pointless and painful of things: the passage of time. In the book, the protagonist – Pol – is haunted by the influence of a 17th-century millenarian, called Bartholomew Playfere. Like all prophets, Playfere refuses to be part of his own time. Instead he becomes part of a future, a future that Pol coincidentally participates in.

From mystics and soothsayers to madmen and mountebanks, prophets people many of my very favourite books and stories. Here are some of them.

1. Tiresias in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Prophets often appear in tragedies as beacons of the saddest sadness of all: that we are all fated to do the things that we do. From the Weird Sisters to Willy Wonka, prophets are employed by writers as the bearers of this very bad news. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ blind prophet Tiresias is forced to tell tragic mother-effer Oedipus that he has no free will, and that “to his children he is both brother and father”. Like all prophets Tiresias is a lonely interloper in the world of normal time. “Alas,” he wails, “what misery to be wise.”

2. Jacob in The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
I have never seen a biblical prophet,” Bruno Schulz admits here. But when he sees his father, Jacob, the “inspired Heresiarch”, “stricken by God’s fire” while sitting on “an enormous china chamberpot”, he understands “the divine anger of saintly men”. Addled and glorious, the character of Jacob – a reimagining of the author’s own father – potters through the delirium of Schulz’s book, whose Polish title means Cinnamon Shops: communing with exotic birds, peering through keyholes, conceiving miraculous inventions, losing his keys, preaching heresies, chuckling enigmatically and inopportunely, dying, coming back to life, transforming himself and others into things and beasts. Parents are like prophets, Schulz is telling us. When we are little they seem to have access to a hidden universe of meaning. As we get older, we start to wonder if they might not in fact be quite mad sometimes.

3. The Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
At the climax of this story, a misanthropic and judgmental Tennessean grandmother pleads with an antinomian serial killer – the Misfit – for her life. She appeals to his sense of decency but the Misfit is concerned with a higher form of goodness than charity, and a lower form of evil than murder. With her last breath the grandmother blesses the Misfit unawares: “You’re one of my babies,” she says. “You’re one of my own children.” After the grandmother’s death, he muses that “she would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” O’Connor described the Misfit as a “prophet gone wrong”. For just one divine minute, through communion with the Misfit, the grandmother is transported out of her homespun hypocrisy and into a universe of grace.

4. Alison Hart in Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Mantel does something brilliant in this book: identifying the analogy between the prophetic experience – living outside time – and the experience of trauma. Alison Hart – a medium and survivor of childhood abuse – lives between worlds, between the past and the present, between the living and the dead, between the astral plane and Aldershot.

5. Melquiades in A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This is perhaps the most daring example of a writer allowing a reader to invade the novel in the guise of a prophet. The family of José Arcadio Buendía, living in the isolated town of Macondo, are visited by the mysterious Melquiades. Along with the various inventions that he brings to Macondo, Melquiades also delivers a series of prophecies, written on parchment in Sanskrit verse. Generation after generation of the Buendía tribe faces tragedy and tribulation. At the climax of the novel, José Arcadio Buendía’s great-great-great grandson decodes the prophecy, which predicts all of the many misfortunes which have befallen his family over the course of the novel.

Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC adaptation.
‘Spiritual eye’ … Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC adaptation. Photograph: Album/Alamy

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Brontë uses prophecy to play with the form of the novel. On the one hand, the novel is told from the all-seeing vantage-point of future-Jane. At the same time, past-Jane is both plagued and sustained throughout the novel by the gift of prophecy, by “presentiments” which she experiences through her “spiritual eye”. The effect is electrifying: future-Jane and past-Jane reaching out towards one another across space and time. I like to think future-Jane is beaming these warnings back to past-Jane rather as Bill and Ted visit their past selves in Excellent Adventure.

7. Elijah in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Elijah only appears quite briefly, on the dock in Nantucket as Ishmael and Queequeg are about to board the Pequod. When they tell Elijah they are carrying articles to join the crew, he asks if there is “anything down there about your souls?” At the toughest moments in the voyage, poor old Ishmael goes back and back to Elijah’s gnomic caution. “The ragged Elijah’s diabolical incoherences are uninvitedly recurring to me,” he says. Like all great prophecies, Elijah’s warning about the future seems to shape that future.

8. Isao Iinuma in Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima
An unsettling example of writer, prophet and protagonist collapsing into one character. Isao is a young nationalist militant. Obsessed with the historical account of a group of samurai who performed seppuku in the aftermath of a failed coup, Isao organises his own plot to assassinate a group of prominent capitalists. Arrested and imprisoned, Isao experiences a number of dream-visions in which he foresees his own death. In one he is killed by a venomous snake and at the same time has a realisation: “I was not meant to die like this. I was meant to die by cutting open my stomach.” At the novel’s conclusion, Isao assassinates the capitalist Kurahara and then performs seppuku. A year after the publication of Runaway Horses Mishima himself staged an ill-fated coup and followed suit.

9. Minnie Ransom in The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
This “legendary spinster of Claybourne, Georgia” is the timeless hero of Bambara’s 1980 classic. The boldest parts of this bold book see Minnie wandering through time in the company of her garrulous spirit guide – Old Wife. Events and images, worlds and people, are collaged to create a truly prophetic first-person. Past, present and future; radioactive mutants, baseball, the Harlem River and the four horses of the apocalypse jostle each other for room in her effortlessly baroque sentences.

10. Frank Owen in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
The prophet at the heart of Tressell’s masterpiece is Frank, a socialist agitator who spends most of the novel trying and failing to rouse the slumbering lions of labour. We and he can see what has gone wrong in the penury-stalked world of unfettered, early 20th-century capitalism. But his fellow characters – mainly – cannot. Owen leaves the scene at the end of the novel to seek more fertile ground for his message. It ends, however, with a remarkably eschatological epilogue: “Mankind … is at last looking upward to the light… that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism.”

The End of Nightwork by Aidan Cottrell-Boyce is published by Granta. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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