'Many witches and wizards, talented though they are in the area of loud bangs and smells and sudden disappearings, are yet unable to penetrate the veiled mysteries of the future.'
The thoughts and opinions of Hogwarts students and faculty fall into two distinct camps when it comes to Divination. In one camp, skittish sherry enthusiast Professor Trelawney, and lovable-but-saccharine Lavender Brown, who firmly believe that your future lies at the bottom of a dirty teacup.
However, Professor Minerva McGonagall, with her stern analytical prowess, and ice-cool, intellectual Hermione Granger, consider it to be at best a silly distraction, and at worst an egregious and potentially dangerous waste of time and energy.
So who are we to believe? The usually assiduous, diligent Hermione saw fit to dismiss Divination as ‘woolly’ before flouncing out of the lesson, while the somewhat more diplomatic McGonagall referred to it, with subtle undertones of sass, as an ‘imprecise’ branch of magic. Tripe, Sybill?
Whatever your position, there’s something about Trelawney’s entreaty to ‘allow your eyes to see past the mundane’ that possesses an undeniable romantic appeal. For in a world of Whomping Willows, flying cars and chocolate frogs, who’s to say what’s sensible anyway?
There’s method to the madness
Part of what makes Divination so divisive is the fact that aptitude (if it exists at all) is in the blood. Sybill Trelawney’s great-great-grandmother Cassandra Trelawney was widely recognised as an authentic Seer. Indeed, Cassandra’s good name was part of the reason Albus Dumbledore agreed to meet with Sybill for the teaching position in the first place - out of 'common politeness'. Apart from a few anomalies, however, Sybill’s inner eye was perhaps somewhat short-sighted.
But even for those not blessed with the ‘Sight’, the rituals and practices associated with Divination have an arcane charm all of their own. The idea of reading the dregs of a teacup or referring to tarot cards will be familiar to anybody with an awareness of Muggle occultism. To be fair, if you gazed into the bottom of your teacup and saw a skull, it might, rightly, give you pause to gird yourself against the possibility of mortal peril. And if the vague shape of an acorn attunes you to the possibility of a potential windfall in gold then, hey, what’s the harm?
Visions are by nature obtuse, wishy-washy things. But a good solid crystal ball, if hard to read, proved itself invaluable in at least one instance – in knocking out bloodthirsty Fenrir Greyback.
It delivers… once in a while
Like a stopped clock, Divination is occasionally correct in spite of itself. When Professor Trelawney first clapped eyes on Neville Longbottom she was inclined to think he’d be the clumsy type, and sure enough he broke a cup. You needn’t be an epidemiologist to foresee a bout of flu in February (which Trelawney did that very same lesson). She was equally correct when she assured her class ‘the fates’ had tipped her off about what subjects would likely come up in a forthcoming exam. Though in fairness, as an incredulous Hermione pointed out, it was Trelawney herself that set the questions.
We need to talk about centaurs
The proud, forest-dwelling quadrupeds have an entirely separate discipline of Divination which makes fewer outlandish claims – and as such is on much firmer footing. (Or should that be hoofing.) When Firenze stepped in to relieve Sybill Trelawney as Divination teacher, he was critical of his predecessor, describing fortune-telling as human folly – ‘self-flattering nonsense’ – and ridiculing astrology as a daft myth, suggesting the affairs of mankind are of as much interest to the cosmos as that of scurrying ants.
That said, Firenze was just as prone to exaggerated, vague, unfounded claims. That the wizarding world was in a lull between wars was slightly obvious, and his rituals of fire and mallowsweet and sage seem every bit as ersatz as those of Trelawney. However, unlike Trelawney, Firenze did at least admit that no prophecy is foolproof.
‘He’s not very definite on anything, is he?’ said Ron in a low voice, as they put out their mallowsweet fire. ‘I mean, I could do with a few more details about this war we’re about to have, couldn’t you?’
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
It could equally be argued, though, that sceptics like McGonagall or Hermione, and (moreover) those who struggle with both mystic intuition and academic brilliance like Ron and Harry, simply lack the insight of the Inner Eye.
Either way, without that elusive prophecy, the Harry Potter books might’ve been a very different story.