2018-12-22

Fantasy Novels And An Elongated Sense Of Time


A feature - I cannot exactly call it a shortcoming - of fantasy stories is their elongated sense of time.

That is, the "ancient ones" in a fantasy story have about the same level of technological development as the story's main characters. If anything, the "ancient ones" may actually possess greater knowledge in some areas than the main characters, but that knowledge was lost to the ages in some way. But in terms of civilization's fundamentals, the ancient ones lived no differently than the modern ones. The ancient ones had about the same level of metallurgy, of architecture, of textile-making and leather goods, the same level of agricultural production and mining, and so on.

When you stop to consider that the lost ages in the average fantasy novel often occurred thousands of years prior to the story's main plot, you begin to see how unlike the real world this sense of time really is. In the real world, the development of civilization has occurred far more rapidly, and the time periods we would be most inclined to associate with the setting of a fantasy novel - medieval times, or perhaps Classical Antiquity - were but a blink of the historical eye.

Consider the well-publicized fact that two of US President John Tyler's grandchildren are still alive. That means that merely two generations from the present day brings us back 230 years. Let's round this up to 250 years and call it a historical timespan of "one John Tyler."

Extrapolating from this means that 1,000 years of human history is only about 8 or 10 generations. The Middle Ages, then, happened "four John Tylers ago." Just four. This was a period of spreading Christianity across Europe, which means that the pagans who inspired fantasies about "the ancient ones" were already well on the decline - again, just four John Tylers ago.

Classical Antiquity - the Greeks and Romans with their fantastical gods, the impenetrable Egyptian empire, the great Druids, the brilliant architects of the Mesoamerican pyramids, and the authors of the great Hindi legends - ended just six John Tylers ago. Six!

Four John Tylers before the Roman Empire, we have the Bronze Age, and the Bronze Age lasted a relatively long time: eight whole John Tylers. And prior to that was the Neolithic age, when many societies were wearing loin cloths and had no written historical record beyond hieroglyphics.

In Robert Jordan's The Great Hunt, the antagonist tells the protagonist that they have done battle throughout the ages. "A thousand times," he says. "A thousand times a thousand." That's a million times they've done battle, and each of their battles constitues an "Age," which again constitutes a thousand years or more. So, the time horizon of Jordan's "Wheel of Time Series" stretches across some billion years. By comparison, human beings on planet Earth appeared about 70,000 years ago. Multicellular organisms may have appeared on Earth less than a billion years ago.

So human history in the "Wheel of Time" series stretches across the same amount of time as all multi-cellular life on Earth, and the novels seem to imply that metallurgy and stone masonry and agriculture have been roughly the same throughout all of those years. This is what I mean when I say that fantasy novels have an elongated sense of time. (I don't mean to pick on Jordan, of course. His aren't the only fantasy novels structured this way, they just happen to be the ones with which I am most recently acquainted, so I can easily draw from them as an example.)

Whether this elongated sense of time is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. It certainly lends an "eternal" nature to the stories, and that can be a very good thing. On the down-side, a society that lasts for a billion years and never has an industrial revolution of any kind is a little odd. Perhaps living in the 20th and 21st Centuries has spoiled me. I am so used to technological advancement that it seems incomprehensible that humans could exist for thousands upon thousands of years without ever progressing beyond the middle ages.