We often wonder what our purpose is in being here. We are aware that we exist in the blink of an eye--a billion, billionth of a blink of an eye in fact in terms of the existence of the earth. That somehow lends us an urge to create, to leave something of ourselves behind. And when we do this, paint a picture or write a book, and a hundred--or a thousand--years in the future, someone reads it, is that not telepathy, or time travel?
In his book On Writing (which is the best book ever about writing, if you haven't read it), Stephen King says that writing is, "Telepathy, of course... I'm writing the first draft of this part at my desk...on a snowy morning in December of 1997... You are somewhere downstream on the timeline from me... We'll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well...And here we go, actual telepathy in action."
I like that thought--that although I'm writing this at 9.43 on Saturday morning, you're reading it in the future (or in the past if you're in the northern hemisphere and it's still Friday, but let's not even go there.) Time is like a river flowing from one point to the next, and I can stick a message in a bottle and throw it in the river, and you can pick it up later along the way, and it will be as fresh as the day I wrote it. Will it still mean the same? I suppose that depends on my skill as a writer, whether I can create a clear enough picture to convey to you. But it does tell me that we are not writing in a vacuum. We have to be aware of what's gone before as well as how our work may be interpreted in the future. It's a heavy burden.
But this is why it's important when world building in fantasy to create a feeling that the land has existed through time--not just been created overnight. Characters have to be aware of the passage of time the same as we are, because this gives them a sense of importance about their journey or quest--that they are playing a part in the giant puzzle, that they are important.
Two pieces of writing illustrate this for me. One is C S Lewis's Prince Caspian. In this story, the four children from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have returned to Narnia to help the Prince. They enter a mound which contains the broken altar where Aslan the lion was sacrificed. When they were last in Narnia, the altar was out in the open air, but over thousands of years it has become buried in an ancient tumulus. In chapter twelve, as they walk into the mound, Edmund says, "I say, Peter... Look at those carvings on the walls. Don't they look old? And yet we're older than that. When we were last here, they hadn't been made." And Peter replies, "Yes... That makes one think." As a child this small passage gave me goose bumps. In only a few lines Lewis had layered on the years and sent us shooting through time.
Another passage I love is from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. In chapter seven, "In the house of Tom Bombadil", Tom is telling the Hobbits stories of the woods and downs. Tom himself gives me the shiver the way Tolkien portrays him as the veritable green man, almost an elemental, a piece of nature itself. But this passage is superb: "They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in the flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens: and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight."
Again, in one passage Tolkien has painted thousands of years. The landscape isn't newly created, it's built upon centuries of civilisations rising and falling, and out of all this history, all that's left are mounds in the grass and the occasional gold rings poking through the earth.
As an archaeologist, this sense of layering, of connecting with the past, is very meaningful for me. Archaeology is history made real, made physical. We can hold the pots thrown by a man (or woman, Reg) thousands of years ago, or even stand in cathedrals or temples or henges that connect us with the gods these people worshipped, connecting us with their ideas, their dreams. If that doesn't send a shiver down your spine, I don't know what will.
As I'm in an archaeological mood, I thought I'd leave you with a poem of mine. It won Writing Magazine's Open Poetry Competition a few years ago. But maybe it'll help with that idea of reaching out and touching the past in our stories.
My Prehistoric Man
For millennia he has slept below
the earth. Now he pushes through, his sleep done,
like a seedling trying to reach the sun.
Life has faded to a stagnant shadow,
blood and skin have dissolved into the clay.
An x-ray is all that time has bequeathed:
fragments of cranium and several teeth,
a femur, three rib bones, two vertebrae,
stained terracotta red with the tarnish
of twenty thousand years in Devon dust.
I remove the centuries-old earth crust
as if picking at flaking nail varnish.
With great care I lay him on the table,
bone by bone. He lies scattered, naked, cold,
and I feel a stab of guilt as I hold
the fragments of his hand. Loathe to label
and plastic bag him, instead I lean close,
stroke his forehead as if brushing back hair,
graze the eye socket and caress the bare,
jagged cavity of his once-wide nose.
His skull is cool beneath my warm fingers.
How poetic, how personal, to touch
another in this way. This is so much
more intimate than sex. A tear lingers
on my cheek at the thought of his brave death,
in the dark of the cave. But at least now
he’s not alone. I gently kiss his brow.
Perhaps we will meet after my last breath.