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Temporal Anomalies: Timekeeping in Fantasy

Timefall by Linum7Humans are OCD about time. We obsess over birthdays and anniversaries and are ruled by the work week. We live for the weekend and look forward to holidays with either joy or dread, depending on which relatives are coming over. We count the seconds until midnight on New Year’s, and we count the billions of years since the Big Bang.

Natural cycles define some units of time. A day is one rotation of Earth on its axis. A year is one revolution of Earth around the sun. In the temperate zones and poles, seasons are counted according to the changing patterns in daylight hours, and solstices and equinoxes mark the passage from one season to the next. At the equator, semi-annual shifts between wet and dry periods define the seasons.

Other units of time—seconds, minutes, hours—are arbitrary and determined by custom, not natural cycles. As detailed in Scientific American, the 24-hour day derives from the first sundials created by the Egyptians, and the 60-second minute and 60-minute hour derive from a base-60 system developed by the Sumerians and refined by the Greeks.

World's oldest sundial from Wikipedia

Today, our method of timekeeping is basically universal. People speak different languages, use different currencies, and follow widely different customs, but everyone counts seconds, minutes, and hours the same way. Some societies still maintain lunar calendars to track holidays and other recurring events, but the Gregorian calendar serves as the Earth’s universal date system for counting days, months, years, and centuries.

But how is time measured in different fantasy worlds? I started thinking about this question in May when I saw Infinity War. At one point in the film, Thor mentions that he’s over a thousand years old, and I thought, in Asgardian or Earth years? There seems to be a general practice among fantasy authors to make the years on their secondary worlds about the same length as Earth years. When they’re different, readers then have to do the math to translate character ages and timelines into familiar terms, but there are other ways to play with timekeeping when you’re worldbuilding, and I took a look at how it’s been done in five popular fantasies.

The Silmarillion (and other works), J.R.R. Tolkien

Laurelin & Telperion by madprofThe Silmarillion opens with a series of Bible-like creation passages before it gets down to the troubles surrounding the book’s MacGuffin: a trio of magic jewels called the Silmarils. In the beginning, the only light in the world came from the blossoms on a pair of giant trees called Telperion the Silver and Laurelin the Gold, which grew in Valinor, city of the Valar (a group of high angels or gods who created everything in Middle Earth). During the Years of the Trees, days were divided into 12 hours (each equivalent to 7 Earth hours) and were tracked according to the cyclical blooming of the trees. Years and ages were composed of an even number of days: 1000 Valian days to a Valian year and 100 Valian years to a Valian age. A Valian day equals 3.5 Earth days; a year is 3500 Earth days, or about 9 and three quarter years; and a Valian age is 958 of our years. All the inhabitants of Valinor are immortal, so these huge time scales doubtless passed in an eye blink for them.

After Melkor (aka Morgoth, Sauron’s mentor in evil) teamed up with a giant spider named Ungoliath and destroyed the trees, the Valar coaxed a last blossom from each tree, which became the sun and moon. The Valar set these luminous bodies in orbit around Middle Earth, and then they decided that a year should be 1/10 a fraction of a Valian year, which worked out to be 365.25 days, or the same as an Earth year. The Elves, being immortal, decided a single year was too short for their timekeeping purposes, so they came up with a yen, or Great Year, which is 144 years.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Gypsy Firefly by Aimee StewartAccording to the Calendar page of the Wheel of Time Wiki, WOT is set on Earth in a different age. In the Westlands’ temperate climate, the calendar consists of a 365-day year, divided into 13 months of 28 days each, plus Sunday—the summer solstice—which doesn’t belong to any month and marks the start of the New Year. Just as we do, every 4 years they throw in an extra day, called the Feast of Thanksgiving, which is celebrated every fourth autumn equinox.

Weeks are counted as 7 or 10 days in different places in the books (possibly by different characters from different cultures). A 7-day week makes more sense if months are 28 days. However, most regular folk in the Westlands pay no attention to official calendar dates and rather track time by the seasons and the feast days that occur within those seasons.

A Song of Ice and Fire, G.R.R. Martin

I couldn’t find a definition of a Westerosi year relative to an Earth year, but it’s probably safe to assume it’s the same as ours. It’s the weird seasons that are unique about Westeros. On our Earth, the simplest dividing unit for a year is a season, whether it be the dry and wet seasons at the equator, the dark and light seasons at the poles, or the four seasons that characterize the temperate zones. The completion of one cycle signals the close of one year and the beginning of the next.

Winter is Coming by KlausPillon

Yet in Westeros, seasons hang around for years or even decades. I’m still not sure how the flora and fauna north of the Wall survives decades of winter. I’m also not sure how Westerosi maesters even measure a “year” when the length of days vary with seasons—perhaps it’s by the cycling of constellations, although as discussed on Tor.com, that cycling wouldn’t be stable, as the planet is wobbling on its axis. G.R.R. Martin has said there’s a magical explanation for the bizarre seasons, which will be revealed before the close of the books (perhaps in the HBO series too).

Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Stormlight Archive is set in a different universe than our own, in the solar system of Greater Roshar. The primary planet in the system is Roshar, which has a year evenly divided into 500 days of 20 hours each, so 1 Rosharian year equals 1.1 Earth years. So here’s a case where readers have to do some calculations to grok character ages, especially with older people. There’s not much difference between a 20- and a 22-year-old in looks and behavior, but there might be a fairly large difference between a 70- and a 77-year-old in terms of health and frailty (everything being relative to the specific individual, of course).

The shattered plains by erictylerdavis

The central figure in Rosharian creation mythology is an entity named Adonalsium, who created Roshar’s sole supercontinent based on a type of fractal called a Julia set. This mathematically oriented deity also created the time spans that are evenly divisible by 5. Not only is the year 500 days long, but weeks are 5 days long, and there are 10 months (which must be 50 days each, with 10 weeks to a month). The absolute length of a Rosharian hour must be the same as an Earth hour, for us to know that one of their 500-day years is equivalent to 1.1 of our years.

Discworld, Terry Pratchett

Discworld is another secondary world with mathematically precise timekeeping. In this case, the mythology is chock full of wry winks at Earth belief systems and science. Discworld is a flat disc, borne by four elephants who stand on the back of a giant space turtle. A sun and moon orbit the disc (and are sometimes hampered in their revolutions by the elephants’ legs), demarcating days and months, respectively. The disc itself turns, and a complete revolution takes 800 days. A full astronomical year consists of 100 8-day weeks.

Discworld by nicolsche

However, each 100-day season (the usual: summer, fall, winter, spring) occurs over half a year; this 400-day span is known as a common year. Common years begin on the winter solstice with the celebration of Hogswatch. There are 13 months in a common year, all of which have 32 days except the month of Ick, which has 16 days.

Doubtless dozens more fantasies have unique systems for keeping time. What are your favorites?

Title image by Linum7.

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3 Comments

  1. […] length of days, weeks, and years is similar to how we track time here on earth. I wrote a post for Fantasy Faction about how some well-known authors (Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, Sanderson, and Pratchett) have managed […]

  2. JC Kang says:

    I love unique timekeeping systems! Underground cultures that base time on fungus life cycles. planets with multiple moons. There’s so much to take into consideration!

    • AM Justice says:

      Oooh, fungus life cycles–yes, really cool idea.

      Yeah, I think the lunar calendar on planets with multiple moons would be quite complex but probably fodder for lots of holidays. If it was a coastal or seafaring culture, tracking the tides would keep the scholars busy.

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