Oh, THAT'S what that prophecy meant!

In Macbeth, the three witches’ prophecies screw Macbeth over. He’s convinced he can’t be hurt, because “none of woman born” can harm him; he gets decapitated by Macduff, who was delivered by Cesarean section. He also loses Dunsinane because the witches told him it was safe until the forest came to it – and then the English army comes with shields cut from the forest in question.

What other literary examples are there of, “Oh, crap, THAT’S what the prophecy really means?”

Interesting. I can think of quite a few books where the prophecy is revealed to mean something entirely different than a surface reading would intuit but I’m having trouble thinking of one where it’s an “Oh, crap,” moment.

edit: Arthur Dent and Stavromula Beta? Is that close enough to a prophecy to count?

Obligatory mention of I AM NO MAN from Lord of the Rings here.

The one from the Star Wars prequels works, though I’m not sure even George Lucas realized it. Anakin was fated to bring balance to the Force, and he did. When he started, there were thousands of Jedi, and only two Sith. When he finished darthing out, there were two of each.

The “no man” invincibility prophecy is a trope unto itself. As that TVTropes page (WARNING) notes, “…when it is prophesied that no man can defeat me, I will keep in mind the increasing number of non-traditional gender roles. — Evil Overlord List #153

The defeat of the Witch-King is a classic example: he was told he would not fall by the hand of man…and was defeated by a woman and a hobbit. In one of Kerr’s Deverry novels, this is kind of lampshaded–a villain is defeated by a teenage girl, but the guy he was supposed to fight (IIRC) was a half-elf, and would also have made the cut, so to speak. It could also be argued that yet another character, whose name had been changed to something that essentially meant “no one” or “no man”, could have done it, completing the hat-trick for breaking this prophecy: a woman, a non-human male, and a man named “No man”.

The Prophecy Twist trope page has many more examples of other sorts of prophecy breakage, but not all of them are prophecies that don’t come true. One, for example, involves an absolutely true vision of the character’s death at the hands of another character…except that by the time it came true, the two characters had become friends, and the killer was acting at the request of the “victim”.

I can’t speak for the OP, but that works for me.

Tad Williams’ fantasy epic, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, has something like this.

Throughout the trilogy, the heroes are racing to collect three swords to complete an ancient prophecy about the return of a Great Evil. In the last book, too late, they realize that the prophecy was about how to help the Great Evil, not defeat it, and that by collecting the three swords, they’ve made it possible for the bad guys to win.

Oedipus had a complex prophecy that didn’t mean what he thought it did.

In what way? As I recall the prophecy was that he’d kill his father and marry his mother. The fact that he was confused about who his true parents were doesn’t make it a twisty prophecy in my opinion.

Them strangling each other, to be more precise. At least, I presume that’s the case I’m thinking of.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - first season. There’s a prophecy she’ll die facing “The Master.” The prophecy’s fulfilled, but she gets better. The Master gets an ‘oh crap’ moment.

Pokemon 2000 - the prophecy is that “the world will turn to ash.” Probably Team Rocket gets an “oh crap” moment[sup]1[/sup] when it becomes clear that the world turns to (that is, asks for help from) *Ash *Ketcham, world’s greatest Pokemon Trainer!

You wanted highbrow examples, right?

[sup]1[/sup]I don’t remember. Certainly they had a “Team Rocket’s blasting off again!” moment.

The ancient Greeks were absolutely nuts for the “misinterpreted prophecy trope”*. Herodotus alone must have half a dozen examples. Most famously Croseus consults the Delphic oracle asking what will happen if he goes to war against the Persians. The oracle tells him if he does, he’ll destroy a great empire. Thinking that means he’ll crush the Persians, he goes ahead with the invasion, only to find that the empire in question was his own.

*(I always wondered why. And given that the trope was so common, why the Greeks kept consulting the oracles, since basically half their mythology was built around the message “trusting oracles will bite you in the ass”).

Yes. I was being deliberately vague.

It wasn’t as shields, it was camouflage - the front ranks carried tree limbs to obscure how many marched behind.

Always thought that was kind of a weak “twist.” MacBeth was out of allies, and penned up in his castle by a much larger force. What advantage was there to hiding the size of the English army at that point?

There’s a recent anthology called Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die. The premise is there’s a machine that will tell you how you will die and it’s always 100% accurate. But like an oracle, its information is cryptic (usually only a single word) and not really understandable until after the death.

For example, one person is told he will die by “suicide”. So he figures he’s safe on a day-to-day basis because he’s not planning on killing himself and he knows nothing else can kill him - right up to the day when a terrorist walks into his office with a bunch of dynamite strapped to his chest and pulls the trigger.

Croesus is always described as misinterpreting the Oracle’s prophecy, but I honestly can’t imagine that situation without Croesus leaving the temple and immediately saying, “Well, that was a fucking waste of time and money,” and going ahead with the invasion anyway. I mean, how dumb do you have to be to hear that prophecy, and not realize that the Oracle didn’t give you an answer?

There’s an old traditional story; I forget what tradition, something Middle Eastern maybe? Anyway, it involves a man seeing Death in the street, and Death turns and points to him. So the man sells all his property, loads everything he has on a cart/camel/whatever, and drives it from Damascus to Cairo (or wherever). The day after moving to the new city, the man is accosted by robbers. As he lies bleeding on the road, he sees Death walk up to him, and he asks, “Why did you point at me in Damascus?” And Death replies, “I pointed because I was so surprised to see you there, when I had an appointment with you so shortly in Cairo.”

There is no actual prophecy, but in The Terminator an AI in the future named Skynet sends a robotic assassin into the past to kill the mother of the man that defeated it. Which ends up to actually leading to said man getting conceived in the first place.

Samarra. Death’ final line is, “I was surprised to see you Cairo yesterday, because I knew we had an appointment in Samarra today.”

Just about every single “prophecy” by Nostradamus that people claim has been fulfilled in modern times requires a twist (to say the least) to make it work.