Time in the Fantastic Novel

Gregory Souza '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

The wonder and excitement of exploring a new world draws many people to fantasy novels. Fantasy authors take ordinary concepts from the real world, twist them around, and create new fantastic settings for their stories. Time, one such concept, is a commonly used fantastic element. Time seems like such an ordinary idea to most people, so many authors find it interesting to play around with in their works. Many fantasy novels use time as a fantastic element, and it often plays a role in the techniques or themes of these novels.

A simple example of time in fantasy literature can be seen in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong, which tells the story of a young girl named Menolly and her adventures in the world of Pern. On Pern, people are able to ride dragons through between to other places as well as other times. Here, the ability to travel through time functions both as a fantastic element of the world and as a plot device.

C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Books

C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia presents another fairly simple example of the use of time in fantasy. The Narnia series tells the story of several children and their adventures in the magical world of Narnia. The children live in our world but find magical objects, such as rings and wardrobes, that allow them to enter Narnia and help the lion king Aslan and the Narnians battle against evil.

Time in the real world and time in Narnia are not the same. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the narrator explains:

Narnian time flows differently from ours. If you spent a hundred years in Narnia, you would still come back to our world at the very same hour of the very same day you left. And then, if you went back to Narnia after spending a week here, you might find that a thousand Narnian years had passed, or only a day, or no time at all. You never know till you get there. [429]

Lewis makes time work in such a way because of the flexibility it allows him in his storytelling. He can have the children reenter the world whenever he wants and in whatever situation he wants. It also allows him to chronicle the entire span of time in Narnia. The Magician's Nephew begins with the creation of the world, and The Last Battle finishes with the end of the world of Narnia. One other interesting use of time occurs when the world comes to an end in The Last Battle. As the children watch the world ending, they remember "they had seen a great giant asleep and been told that his name was Father Time, and that he would wake on the day the world ended" (749). Father Time blows a great horn that causes a stream of shooting stars, until the sky is empty and black. This personification of time, which adds another fantastic element to the world, makes the end of Narnia more ominously dramatic.

Lewis Carroll's Alice Books

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass take even greater liberties with the accepted notions of time. From the initial appearance of the white rabbit screaming "Oh dear! I shall be too late!" (19) the reader realizes that the books are strange and playful. These novels tell the story of a young girl and her strange journeys through Wonderland. There she encounters talking animals, live playing cards, a mad hatter, and many other fantastic and absurd situations. For example, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice meets the Mad Hatter and joins him for a tea party. She becomes frustrated by his strange comments and jokes, and she tells him he might find something better to do with his time than tell riddles without answers. This brings about a discussion in which the Hatter personifies time as if it were a close friend:

"If you knew Time as well as I do," said the Hatter, "you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him."

"I don't know what you mean," said Alice.

"Of course you don't!' the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never even spoke to Time!" [71]

The Hatter explains that if Alice were on Time's good side, "he'd do most anything [she] liked with the clock." For instance, Time could make it dinner time for her so she could skip school or make time stop for a while. The Hatter tells her that Time is mad at him and refuses to do anything he asks, so it is always six o'clock (tea time) for him. In this encounter, Carroll takes the concept of time and plays with it by personifying it. This playfulness fits in with the style and plot of the story, since Carroll mocks and plays with many accepted notions of society throughout the books.

Carroll continues to play with time in Through the Looking Glass. When Alice meets the two Queens, the Red Queen claims that they have days in sets in Wonderland. She says "Now here, we mostly have days and nights two or three at a time, and sometimes in the winter we take as many as five nights together -- for warmth, you know" (224). She also learns from the White Queen that time can run backwards in Wonderland. The White Queen tells Alice that her memory works both ways, and that "it's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards" (174). The Queen suddenly screams, and Alice finds out that she screams because the Queen is going to prick her finger a short time into the future. Once again, Carroll uses time as a basis to create an absurd and fantastic situation.

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which also plays with time by using it as a fantastic element, raises many questions about the nature of time. This fantasy chronicles the quest of the last unicorn to discover the fate of her species. The unicorn lives peacefully in her forest until she one day learns that the other unicorns have been slowly disappearing from the world. She sets out to find them and along the way meets a magician named Schmendrick. Together they travel to the castle of King Haggard, where they eventually find and rescue the other unicorns.

Time plays several roles in The Last Unicorn. At the very beginning of the book, the reader learns that unicorns are immortal creatures. However, the unicorn interacts mostly with mortal characters. Besides providing a fantastic element, this contrast allows the reader to explore varying perceptions of time. To the unicorn, time is of no importance. The unicorn "was very old, though she did not know it" (1), and one of her friends notes that "The sky spins and drags everyone along with it, princesses and magicians and poor Cully and all, but you stand still. You never see anything just once" (74). Time does not affect her, and thus she does not take it into account. The unicorn says of mortal men that they "can do nothing that makes any difference" (206). Because of her immortality, the unicorn cannot understand or appreciate anything that does not last forever. She does not understand how anything can have significance if it will eventually just pass away.

The butterfly she meets when she first sets out on her quest best exemplifies her lack of understanding. In contrast to the unicorn, the butterfly lives for only a few days. The unicorn has a hard time dealing with the butterfly because of its erratic and rambling speech. The unicorn thinks to herself that butterflies "mean well, but they can't keep things straight. And why should they? They die so soon" (9). She dismisses it as foolish and unimportant.

Halfway through the story, Schmendrick changes the unicorn into a human princess to save her from the Red Bull. Although she is still immortal, the unicorn catches a glimpse of mortality as the Lady Amalthea. At first, she says "I am myself still. This body is dying. I can feel it rotting all around me. How can anything that is going to die be real? How can it be truly beautiful?" (107). However, she slowly gains a better understanding of mortality. After she changes back to a unicorn she says "I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die" (207). She even falls in love with the Prince Lir, although she cannot stay with him. Her experience allows her to appreciate mortality. She realizes that mortality brings death, but it also brings a new perspective of the world and wonderful new emotions.

The Last Unicorn also presents the mortal characters' views of time. For instance, the magician Schmendrick, who is a mortal made temporarily immortal, often expresses his views about time. He tells the unicorn:

I was born mortal, and I have been mortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again; so I know something that a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful - more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world. [108]

Schmendrick has a much different view of time than the unicorn's initial view. When he loses his immortality he is relieved, and it drops from him "like a shroud" (185). Having known both immortality and mortality, he values mortality and sees mortality itself as a source of beauty.

The Last Unicorn affirms the value of mortality. The unicorn at first believes she is beautiful and above all other creatures because she lives forever. However, as the Lady Amalthea, she learns about the beauty and emotions that mortality brings, which she could never understand as an immortal. This issue of mortality nicely integrates a fantastic element of the world with an issue for readers to contemplate about their own lives.

Beagle makes the reader further question the nature of time with a talking skull that the Lady Amalthea and Schmendrick encounter on a wall of King Haggard's castle. The skull first mocks them for being in a rush, saying "I have time… it's really not so good to have time. Rush, scramble, desperation, this missed, that left behind. . . that's the way life was meant to be" (164). Schmendrick continues to insist that the skull help them find the way to the Red Bull through a clock. The skull then elaborates on his view of time:

I believed -- as you do -- that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said 'one o'clock' as though I could see it, and 'Monday' as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year's Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through walls. [169]

The skull goes on to tell them that the clock will never tell the right time and that it does not matter. He says "You can strike your own time, and start the count, anywhere." When they understand this, "any time will be the right time" for them. This speech presents another look on a different aspect of time. The skull suggests that people are too caught up by time and too rushed. He uses the metaphor of a "house bricked up with seconds" to suggest that people treat time like a concrete object and let it control their lives too much. The skull ends by suggesting that time is subjective and that people should take control of their time. Once again, this provides an opportunity for the reader question their view of time.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings uses time mostly in a very different way from The Last Unicorn. The Lord of the Rings tells the story of the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. It centers around the Hobbit Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the One Ring, as well as the quests of his companions to fight off the evil Lord Sauron and his forces at Mordor. Frodo eventually comes to Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged, and destroys it, bringing about the downfall of Sauron and his forces.

Tolkien creates a large and detailed world with a complex history in which to set The Lord of the Rings. He tries to make the world as detailed and realistic as possible, including things such as maps, family trees, famous poems and songs of the world, a timeline of Middle-Earth's history, notes on many people and races, and a guide to the languages to achieve this goal. The large span of time he simulates throughout the books is essential to this sense of realism. Tolkien creates an intricate history to establish the sense that an enormous span of time has passed in the world of Middle-Earth. The history of Middle-Earth is so detailed that Tolkien wrote an entire book about it, The Silmarillion, which was published posthumously. However, the The Lord of the Rings itself gives the reader much insight into the vast history of Middle-Earth. The reader learns that the story takes places at the end of the Third Age of Middle-Earth and that each age has lasted thousands of years.

Tolkien employs many different techniques to achieve this long sense of time. For example, he uses the telling of stories, songs, and poems of the history of the world as one way to create such a long sense of time. While on their quest, the Hobbits hear tales of the land of Numenor, ancient races, legendary heroes such as Beren and Gil-Galad, etc. For instance, Gimli sings the Fellowship of the Ring a song about the dwarf Durin and the ancient Dwarven city Moria:

The world was fair, the mountains tall.
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away;
The world was fair in Durin's Day. [308]

Tolkien intersperses stories like this one throughout the book, and each one brings the reader deeper into the long history of Middle-earth. Here, the reader gets a sense that the city of Moria has existed for a very long time, since the "Elder Days before the fall," and that it has a deep history.

Tolkien also uses long-living and immortal characters to sustain this sense of the age of the world. For instance, early on in their journey, the Fellowship meets Tom Bombadil, an ancient being of the forest, who tells them:

I am old. Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. . . . Tom was here already. [129]

He further insists that he existed before "the Kings," "Barrow-wights," "the Elves," and "before the Dark Lord came from Outside." Tom is a strange, easy-going character, but the reader learns that he is one of the oldest beings in the world and has great power. Early on in the books, Tom provides an initial indication of the great age of the world. Treebeard, an Ent, also has lived for "a very, very long time" (454). Time does not hold much importance for him and lives by the motto "Do not be hasty" (452). Gandalf reveals that Treebeard "is the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth" (488). Other examples of ancient beings include the Wizards, the evil Shelob, and the Wild Men.

The immortal race of elves are essential to the history of Middle-Earth and also bring up questions about time similar to The Last Unicorn. In the their city Rivendell, "Time doesn't seem to pass. . . it just is" (225). Frodo comments that the elf Galadriel seems "present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time" (364). Legolas, an elven member of the Fellowship, explains how time works for his people:

For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. [379]

He tells them "The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream" to the elves but that "beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last." The elves are considered to be the most beautiful and wonderful creatures by the rest of Middle-earth. They are immortal, graceful, and strong. However, Legolas reveals that immortality comes with a price, for the elves often grow weary of their existence. He also reveals that if they wish to remain immortal, they must eventually leave Middle-earth, which many of them have grown to love and accept as a home.

To the elves, living forever may be a wonderful thing, yet it may also be a burden. Aragorn tells a story the mortal man Beren and his love Luthien Tinuviel, an elf. Luthien "chose mortality, and to die from the world, so that she might follow him. . . Luthien Tinuviel alone of the Elf-kindred has died indeed and left the world" (189). Aragorn later finds himself in a similar situation with the elf Arwen. She decides to accept the "bitter. . . gift of the One to Men," mortality, because, as she says, "we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory" (1038). She is confident she will be with Aragon again after her death, whereas she would never see him again if she retained her immortality. The elves bring up questions about the nature of mortality and immortality and present the idea that there exists a beauty in mortality. They also suggest the idea that immortal beings were perhaps not made for the world, since the elves eventually pass out of the world into the west.

By adding appendices, Tolkien even further expands the timeframe of Middle-earth. First, he adds comprehensive timelines of the earlier ages of Middle-earth, as well as descriptions of ancient lands and people, extending the past of Middle-earth. He also extends the story into the future by adding timeline entries after the end of the story. He suggests to the reader that the story has not truly ended, but will continue on. This strengthens the sense of the immense amount of time spanned by Middle-earth.

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun Series

Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator take an even stranger approach to the subject of time. The books overall are very unusual, blending fantasy with science fiction and taking place many years in the future, which creates a dark, strange, and mysterious world. These books tell the story of Severian, a member of the Torturer's Guild, and his eventual rise to the position of Autarch. The novels are set on Urth (Earth) millions of years in the future, when the sun is dying. This setting allows for new and interesting ideas about time to be explored during the course of the series.

In Wolfe's world, time is not a constant force of the world that people cannot affect. A witch explains to Severian how time works: "All time exists. . . . If the future did not exist now, how could we journey toward it? If the past does not exist still, how could we leave it behind us?" (406). He must learn to perceive "all of time as an eternal instant." These novels present another view of time, this time by taking a futuristic, science-fiction approach.

The reader is first introduced to this idea when Severian tells a story he heard of Father Inire's mirrors. He has an octagonal enclosure of mirrors that allows people to travel to other places and times. Severian continues to encounter different people and things that are able to manipulate time. While on the way to the city Thrax, he meets a gigantic undine creature who asks him "Do you think that we, who swim in so many waters -- even between the stars -- are confined to a single instant?" (388). Severian hears stories of "the Cumaean -- the woman that knows the future and the past and everything else" (145). He also meets the green man, a man from the future who was trapped in Severian's time. He tells Severian of the future and how men have taken "pond scum. . . altered it until it can live in our blood. . . . our bodies feed from them and their dead and require no nourishment" (230). Encounters such as these create an entirely new idea of time, making the world that much more fantastic.

A central theme of the novels related to time is a yearning for the past. A group of rebels led by a man named Vodalus try to resurrect Urth's past and former glory. The Urth has gone through a long period of evolution and technological advancement, followed by a period of degeneration and de-evolution. The rebels are able to absorb the memories of the dead by eating part of their corpses. They are able to endure such a horrible act because of their ideals. One of the rebels tells Severian "As it was then, so shall it be again. Men of Urth, sailing between the stars, leaping from galaxy to galaxy, the masters of the daughters of the sun" (269).

In a world where time works so differently from our own, Wolfe gives the reader many chances to reflect on ideas about time through Severian and his musings about the world. At the very beginning of the book, he fears that "at some non-distant time, time itself would stop. . . the colored days that had so long been drawn forth like a chain of conjuror's scarves come to an end" (17). When he finds himself in a rush, he thinks to himself that "the pressure of time [is] perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind" (48). He makes a strange observation that "it is the peculiar quality of time to conserve fact, and that is does so by rendering our past falsehoods true" (84). Severian's thoughts, such as these, give the reader yet another outlook on time.

Time often plays an important role in fantasy literature. Time is something people usually just accept and take for granted, so it is a natural thing for fantasy authors to use and manipulate, since any change they make to their world's time will be fantastic. A few ways authors may play with time in their works include: changing the flow of time, allowing time travel, including immortal characters, or creating a large historical span of time. These changes to time achieve many different effects, such as adding a fantastic element to world, raising questions about time to the reader, or making the world deeper and more realistic. Although not every fantasy author chooses to alter time, many use it as an interesting and effective fantastic element of their world.


Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Roc/New American Library, 1991.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. New York: Signet Classic/New American Library, 2000.

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York: Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Wolfe, Gene. Shadow and Claw (The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator). New York: Orb, 2000.

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Last modified 18 May 2004