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