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Time Travel in Fantasy: More Common Than You’d Think

clock close up by ThomasWolterMany of us associate time travel with science fiction, picturing tinkering scientists, time machines, futuristic societies, wormholes, or space travel. This is in no small part due to the H. G. Wells 1895 classic The Time Machine, which greatly popularised the idea, but also to the development of scientific theories relating to space-time, time dilation and quantum mechanics, all of which no doubt helped inspire the countless sci-fi shows, films, and books that have since depicted characters zipping into ancient pasts or distant futures.

But what about time travel by more “magical” means? No doubt many of us could list a few fantasy stories that feature time-travellers (e.g. Harry Potter), but the association is not as strong. It is, however, more common than many of us assume, and has a long history in the genre. Fantasy stories play with time in all sorts of interesting ways, many of which we overlook simply because we narrow our understanding of what time travel looks like in fiction.

So I thought I’d examine at some different types of time travel in fantasy, and put the spotlight on a few that are perhaps less often considered.

“Time travel is the concept of movement between certain points in time […] either to an earlier time or to a later time, without the need for the time-traveling body to experience the intervening period in the usual sense.” (Abridged definition from Wikipedia)

INTER-WORLD TIME DIFFERENCES

Gates of Rothenburg ob der Tauber by Jacob SurlandWhile the notion of travelling backward in time may be a fairly modern one, only appearing in fiction toward the end of the 19th Century, the notion of jumping forward in time is much older. Myths and religious stories from around the world feature characters who travel to the heavens or other worlds only to return and find many years have passed. For example, a Japanese folk tale features a fisherman, Urashima Tar?, who visits a palace under the sea and returns to find himself transported 300 years into the future. In Hindu mythology King Kakudmi and his daughter travel to the home of the Creator to seek advice, only to learn that in the short time they have been there many ages have passed on earth.

Fantasy tales have long drawn on this idea, featuring travel between worlds or spaces were time flows at a different speed. The most famous example is perhaps The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, where four siblings live in Narnia until adulthood, only to return to the real world and find no time has passed and they are children once again. Perhaps this is not time travel in the strictest sense, since they have not changed their position in time, but other fantasies undeniably show a skipping-forward effect. In the Bitterbynde trilogy, for example, a few moments spent in a fantasy world can have tragic consequences, resulting in characters returning home to find those they love aged or long dead.

THE LONG SLEEP

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell RheamAnother kind of jump forward can come in the form of a long magical sleep or spell. Many myths and fairy tales tell of people who wake to find the world has changed around them, sometimes putting them in the surreal situation of meeting their future descendants. In the classic story Rip Van Winkle (1819) the character encounters wizard-like men in a cave, falls asleep, and wakes to find he has slept through the American Revolution. Even Perrault’s version of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty has the princess, and indeed everyone in the castle, sleeping for 100 years without ageing.

Fantasy novels and films draw on this idea as well, with characters locked in spells that allow them to leap forward beyond their normal lifespan (ancient villains often make a return this way). While this is reminiscent of hibernation or immortality, a character’s magical suspension and sudden awakening far in the future has all the hallmarks of time travel.

A MAGICAL SLIP

While science fiction might have characters building machines or sliding into worm holes, plenty of time travel stories are more fantasy-like in their workings.

time turner by lozikikiOften this magical time travel is accidental and mysterious. For example, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court predates Wells’ The Time Machine, and features a 19th Century protagonist magically sliding back in time and having Arthurian adventures. Novels like Kindred (1979) and Outlander (1991) also involve characters being thrown into past centuries and doing their best to cope. Admittedly these tales are often more realistic than your typical fantasy, with the main fantastical element being their use of time travel, but they can still just as easily be dubbed fantasy as science fiction.

Sometimes more traditional fantasy stories make deliberate use of time travel via amulets and spells. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the magical time turner device allows the characters to jump backward in time. In Dragonflight (admittedly more of a science fantasy novel), the ability of dragons to go ‘between’ allows them and their riders to journey hundreds of years into the past or the future. In another series (unnamed here due to spoilers), malevolent characters from another realm are not bound by linear time, so are able to travel to whichever period they like, the only restriction being they can never appear in a time they have already visited.

Plenty of romantic comedies, like Les Visiteurs, 13 Going on 30, and About Time also have premises based on magical or unexplained time jumps. Even if these are not traditional fantasies, they definitely work with fantasy elements.

TIME BEHAVING STRANGELY

Chariot wheel of Konark templeSome fantasy series also play with the passing of time itself, having it flow in an unusual manner depending on the place, the world or the magical influences. This doesn’t always express itself as straight-forward time travel (i.e. a jump from date A to date B) but does affect the temporal experience of the characters and can make them move unnaturally through time.

In the Wheel of Time series, for example, time is cyclical in nature (inspired by the perception of time in Hinduism and Buddhism) so that the distant future is also the distant past, and the prophetic abilities and powers of characters are bound up with this notion of time and destiny. In The Dark Tower series time also flows strangely in some places, with mentions of the sun rising in the west and setting in the east, and characters living for impossibly long periods. In Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids, the building of a giant pyramid warps space-time with many disastrous (and amusing) consequences, including mass resurrection. In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever the passing of time and ‘wild magic’ are fundamentally linked, so that without magic there would be no change. Even films like Groundhog Day, Premonition, and Run Lola Run, while not traditional fantasies, show characters stuck in mysterious time loops they have to break free of, or experiencing time in a non-chronological way.

VISIONS OF PAST & FUTURE

crystal ball by Michael ChenSome fantasies have characters visiting their past or future and learning from what they see, but not being able to extensively interact with or change it. It is often not entirely clear whether these are true trips through time or simply dreams, delusions, prophecies, or magical visions… but they are often depicted with enough sense of physical reality and transportation to appear real, and sometimes involve characters communicating with long-dead ancestors.

The classic example of this is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), where the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come show Ebenezer Scrooge the error of his ways. The Harry Potter novels feature characters revisiting past events both through a magical diary and the Pensieve memory storage device. While those might all be dismissed as purely psychological experiences, other fantasies depict expeditions into the past that are more corporeal, with characters even bearing physical marks after these journeys.

LETTERS THROUGH TIME

music in a bottle by Nodar ChernishevOccasionally fantasy characters from different time periods communicate through the exchange of letters or messages. Admittedly this isn’t traditional corporeal time travel, as it is only the objects or messages that are transported, but it can have similarly history-altering consequences. For example, the characters in the children’s fantasy book Ghost Letters send messages in bottles between centuries to right past wrongs, and romantic films like The Lake House and The Love Letter play with the idea of lovers communicating across time through magical post boxes or desks.

A COMPARISON

If you tallied up the instances of time travel in science fiction and in fantasy, science fiction would very likely still dominate. It is definitely a firmly-rooted staple of that genre, and it seems fictional time travel more often occurs with the aid of machines or scientifically-explained phenomena than by magic.

clock in the woods by Paula R. FEITO

Some people would argue that all fiction featuring time travel is fantasy because it is a scientific impossibility. Others would argue that any book that doesn’t adequately and plausibly explain the scientific workings of its time travel is a fantasy. I’m not going to get into those arguments, because I don’t think they would end up being useful in reflecting what most people generally believe science fiction and fantasy stories to be.

Ultimately, fantasy stories play with time far more than we give them credit for. They free us to think creatively about what time is, how it might behave differently, and how strange movements through it might affect characters and worlds in ways that science fiction might not. So, whether you’re a reader looking for a good time travel story, or a fantasy writer thinking about using time creatively in your writing, it pays to remember that there are many kinds of time travel, and not all of them require a time machine.

Title image by Paula R. FEITO.

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One Comment

  1. JC Kang says:

    One of my favorite time travel stories is the Dragonlance Legends. We get to experience some of the major past events mentioned in the Chronicles (like the Cataclysm).

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