Three Oracles

by Henry Farrell on December 4, 2003

I’m reading Michael Wood’s “The Road To Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles”: now; there’s a lot of meat to it. The book considers the fascination that oracles exert, and traces some of it back to their mixture of infallibility and ambiguity; they tell us the truth, but not necessarily in a form that we can recognize or use.

bq. Oracle-stories characteristically not only center on equivocation as part of their plot, the way they make the oracle come out right. They are _about_ equivocation. They need the oracle to be both right and wrong; they need more than one outcome to lurk from the start in the oracle’s utterance.

I imagine that this is not only fertile matter for literary criticism (Wood is professor of English at Princeton), but for philosophy too. However, my skills aren’t well-suited to these debates, so I’ll confine myself to recommending the book, admiring the catholicism of Wood’s choice of examples, and suggesting a few of my own. Wood draws on a remarkably broad selection of sources; not only Sophocles and Shakespeare, but Philip K. Dick’s _The Man in the High Castle_. Still, there are many literary oracles that receive no mention; here are three of my favorites.

(1) The Green Man, in Gene Wolfe’s _Book of the New Sun_. Fettered and enslaved, he is exhibited in a tent at a public fair; he prophesizes so as to drive customers away. When the Green Man tells the fortune of the narrator, Severian, he tells him that he is destined to grow weaker with time, and to breed sons who will be his enemies. These predictions seem empty insofar as they are the fate of every man, yet they are soon fulfilled in a quite concrete and specific fashion. Wolfe’s tetralogy also casts the Cumaean Sibyl as a minor character. She does not act as an oracle, although she has the aspect of a serpent, a sly philological joke on Wolfe’s part (the technical term for a female oracle is ‘pythoness’).

(2) The monastic mountain-settlers of Karhide in Ursula Le Guin’s _The Left Hand of Darkness_. These engage in frenzied rituals that allow them accurately to foretell the future. Their purpose in so doing: to demonstrate by example the uselessness of knowledge and the desirability of ignorance. Knowledge of the future does not necessarily guide our actions very well.

(3) The augur in Jack Vance’s _The Dying Earth_, who sets out a precise schedule of charges for his services. I use this text for my email signature.

bq. ‘What are your fees?’ inquired Guyal cautiously. ‘I respond to three questions,’ stated the augur. ‘For the twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I will speak a parable, which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.’



dipnut 12.05.03 at 1:28 am

I’m waiting to hear from Chun.


Arthur Wouk 12.05.03 at 2:17 am

Henry, you should write a review at Amazon, because currently the user rating is one star (based on one comment). And I, for one, always look at Amazon reader reviews.

(This book does sound fascinating, though.)


Henry 12.05.03 at 3:06 am

Arthur – I saw that and plan to do an Amazon review as soon as I’ve finished the book. Which would be my first one ever – but the current one is clearly by someone who’s either intellectually or temperamentally unsuited to enjoy this kind of book. In the meantime, you might like to take a look at this “review”: by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, which is what put me on to Wood in the first place. IMO Dirda is very nearly infallible; a hero among reviewers.


chun the unavoidable 12.05.03 at 5:19 am

Nam sibyllam meis ocus quondam What’s up with you, I want to die ampulla


Doug 12.05.03 at 1:16 pm

Is Grandfather Trout in Little, Big insufficiently oracular? Or insufficiently favored?


Henry 12.05.03 at 3:41 pm

Insufficiently oracular; he consoles without revealing very much.


fyreflye 12.05.03 at 3:58 pm

I was also going to recommend that Henry post a review on The one-star reviewer already there shows signs of illiteracy. However, though I too always scan reader reviews on Amazon I never take them too seriouly unless the book is a scholarly work and the reviewer a scholar in the field. The reader reviews of items like electronic equipment I do take seriously.


Jeremy Osner 12.05.03 at 4:40 pm

It’s fine to pay attention to reviews on Amazon; but do so by reading the reviews, not by just looking at the average star rating…. If you read the 1-star review you will immediately perceive that it is not worth paying attention to.

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