Time in Fantasy Novels

Here’s a post by Marie Brennan at Book View Cafe: The Cultural Weight of Time

Lots of posts about time recently, plus complications with months and day/night and so on if you’re in an unusual setting. Here’s how Marie Brennan starts this post:

There’s another dimension [to time], though, which is vital in its own way: the significance we attach to our construction of time.

Probably the best-known example of this is the zodiac. Astronomically speaking, the zodiac is the region of sky through which the Moon and the planets we can see with the naked eye move; astrologically speaking, this has been divided into twelve zones dominated by a particular constellation. Its origins lie in Babylonian culture, but it ultimately spread both west to Greece, Rome, and Europe as a whole, and east to India. This contrasts with the Chinese zodiac, which — although likewise divided into twelve signs — has a different astronomical basis and devotes a full year to each sign, rather than roughly a month.

Still, the two systems share in common the idea that the sign in play influences the world below and the people in it. From this you might derive anything from marriages (your horoscopes should harmoniously match), to the notion of certain days being lucky or unlucky for certain activities, to the directional taboos of Japanese onmyōdō in the Heian Period, which proscribed travel in certain directions on certain days. Adhering to that kind of thing was an elite pastime, of course; you needed someone educated enough to calculate the auspices for a given day, and farmers couldn’t afford to neglect their fields just because heading southeast was temporarily a bad idea. (On the other hand, in fiction you can spin out interesting scenarios from this: a society where the government takes responsibility for disseminating this vital information to the populace, and villages have arrangements where they tend each other’s fields to accommodate the directional taboos.)

This is a wonderfully different and important way to think about time. I had trouble not just copying the whole post and pasting it in here. By all means click through and read the whole thing.

In Tasmakat, we’ve just met Selili, who is, among other things, an astrologer. I now need to figure out what that actually means and how astrology is different from astronomy and what that means in this world. And you know what I may go for? Something like Marie describes here:

The Mesoamerican calendar commonly referred to by the Mayan name of tzolk’in in no way corresponds to the astronomical year; its cycle is 260 days long. Furthermore, it has no actual beginning or endpoint. It consists of twenty day names and thirteen day numbers, continually cycling like two intermeshed gears. 

I’m going to print her post and think about this some more.

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4 thoughts on “Time in Fantasy Novels”

  1. I did wonder about astrologers, especially as Suelen linked it both to natural philosophy and to more creative pursuits like architecture and writing (novels, even! I’m now super curious what Lau novels are like—I’m imagining Dream of the Red Chamber-type works with the very busy internal world of women contrasted with an enforced isolation from the external world of men, only I wonder if there’s similarly a social divide in who is properly allowed to read them!

  2. From what I remember from history courses on The Great Courses, I think there’s a theory about the Mayan calendar length being related to the average human gestation period, it takes roughly that amount of time from conception to birth.

  3. This topic reminds me of a lecture I listened to recently. It’s about the origin of standardized year dating during the Seleucid empire, how this affected society in general, and how it’s related to the beginning of apocalyptic literature. I found the lecture fascinating, some of you may like it too.


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