In this article I present the term active time, something I formulated with the works of Patricia A. McKillip specifically in mind but which might prove useful in other fantasy contexts as well.
I will be taking my examples of active time specifically from two works of McKillip, The Tower at Stony Wood (2000) and The Bards of Bone Plain (2011). Both are “classic” immersive fantasies (in Farah Mendlesohn’s rubric). This means there is no debate about where they sit; they are clearly fantasy, clearly not science fiction, and thus, like most fantasy, not usually discussed in terms of the mechanics of time.
Active time is a splinter concept taken from “healing fiction,” a term postulated by Marek Oziewicz to describe the act of reading and writing science fiction where the outcome of World War II is different from our primary world’s history. Oziewicz argues in “Healing Fiction?” that Marcin Ciszewski’s Major trilogy is a “healing fiction,” that is, books that, “offer ... restorative journeys from history ‘done’ to history ‘envisioned’” (46). Rather than the traditional concept of allowing time to heal wounds—the assumption that time can alleviate, lessen, or even do away with wounds—the writer and reader (as well as the characters within the book) distort time. While this concept is fairly specific, it can be usefully broadened to engage a wider variety of ideas, including the use of what I’ve called active time to describe when time (sometimes aided by magic) is used to actively heal rifts or issues within a story. While Oziewicz focuses on the reader’s healing in our primary world, I will shift the focus to the healing experienced by the characters in the secondary world. In McKillip, this tends to be with a reworking of the past in some way with the end lesson that perhaps the past is more mutable than it seems. McKillip thus can use time in an active way to heal conflicts or psychic wounds within her books.
When one considers the active use of time to heal, alternate histories are the primary outlet that comes to mind. Alternate histories allow for a different ending than what has “really” happened. A discussion of alternative histories is important because they are where active time can be most easily distinguished. According to Oziewicz, alternate histories serve as “compensation for traumatic events, escape from history, and ensouling of events for the sake of insight” (47). The third function, ensouling of events, Oziewicz borrows with modification from the psychologist James Hillman and is perhaps most readily apparent in McKillip’s Tower at Stony Wood, where insight into a problem can come only when it is relived. Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke have a similar argument for alternate histories, saying, “Authors have used the alternate history tale to express nostalgia for favored periods in the past; as expression of an emotional compensation with an imagined victory for a cause hopelessly lost; or as the means to project a utopian dream” (4). I would argue that active time chiefly concerns that middle use of alternate histories, emotional compensation, but that this doesn’t have to be restricted to primary world historical revisions. Karen Hellekson in The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time posits some slightly different definitions of alternate histories that work well within the broader framework of secondary worlds and fantasy. Hellekson argues that alternative histories are “histories that approach their subject from a nonstandard position” (3). Thus the change of past within a secondary world and even the change of history within a secondary world (taken here to mean the interpretation of the past) can be included within Hellekson’s definition of alternate history.
Fantasy, however, can usefully be explored in terms of alternate history, even if not through our primary world histories or in the same terminology as science fiction. Alternate histories are often presented in a science-fictional context, and much of the criticism on alternate history focuses on them as a type of science fiction. Alternate histories, according to Chapman and Yoke, “may be recognized as a story, or perhaps a scenario, where the cultural history of our earth is accepted and assumed to be true, until a particular event has occurred which produces a different result from the history we know” (5). This definition focuses on primary world history changing and thus precludes books like McKillip’s that are generally immersive fantasies set completely in worlds not our own. Active time is a type of alternate history but one that does not necessarily have the marked splits characteristic of alternate history proper and which can therefore be used to examine a broader range of texts. Alternate history requires a distinct branching more commonly found in science fiction. For example, in Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953) history is changed when the South wins the American Civil War thanks to a different outcome at the key Battle of Gettysburg. In the main character Hodge Backmaker’s first timeline, the South has won. In the end, Hodge is transported to our timeline where the North won, thus showing that it has been a true branching in time (with two very different outcomes). In active time, what we (or the characters) know as the present is altered, and there is a moment of difference where the story is changed, but it can be done without an overt difference in the past, perhaps with just an alteration of memory. This allows for books without typical alternate-history characteristics to be examined in some of the same ways as an alternate history proper.
My first example is from McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain which contains two stories, that of Nairn, a former bard, cursed to immortality, and that of his son, Phelan. Chapters alternate between Phelan, who is writing a research paper about Nairn (whom he knows as Jonah), and Nairn’s actual story. Nairn was cursed to immortality as punishment for losing a bardic competition, and he pushes the unknowing Phelan to become a bard, presumably in a bid to relive what he has lost. Phelan and Nairn have a very troubled relationship: what Phelan sees as Nairn’s unreasonable fits and starts are made understandable or at least logical with the knowledge of Nairn’s immortality. Nairn, for example, moves from one archeological dig to another in a search for his own lost past; all Phelan sees, however, is his father digging holes at random. The first scene in the book is a confrontation between an ill-kempt Nairn and his son who has been sent to bring him home from his alcohol-fueled wanderings. Phelan demands of Nairn, “Tell me what you are. Tell me how I can understand why you are here ...” (3). Immortality is not a gift in Bards, and Nairn’s search for the reversal of his immortality structures much of his life. Thus here are a broken father/son relationship, Nairn’s cursed immortality, and the threat of the curse’s progenitor returning to cause havoc again, but these are all healed by the end of the book through the active use of time.
Time on its own has made no difference to Nairn and his plight. All he has had is time, and in the millennia he has been alive he has come no closer to finding the enemy who caused his curse or to reversing his immortality. Caught up in the same competition that cursed his father, Phelan thinks; “If his father had any good advice ... he would have given it to himself all those centuries before” (319). The ending of Bards involves Phelan taking part in the same competition that cursed his father. Only when Phelan actively uses time by entering the same semimythical competition (though by accident) does the curse unravel. The editors of History Revisited: The Great Battles: Eminent Historians Take on the Great Works of Alternate History argue that “to study history is to travel backward in time, though without benefit of H.G. Wells’s time machine” (1). Phelan, in studying his father’s history for a school project, begins to unravel it. Phelan must reenact the time of his father’s cursing in order to undo it. This time, Nairn steps in to save his son and in doing so is able to break his own curse.
Bard’s ending can usefully be looked at in the frame of Mircea Eliade’s theory of sacred time in The Sacred and The Profane. If we treat the incident of the curse’s casting and its reversal as sacred time, that is, time that Eliade says “has a wholly different structure and origin” (71), then its repetition can be seen as something which is not fixed. Eliade also argues that “by its very nature sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present” (68; emphasis original). Thus in Bards the time of cursing can be reenacted and used to heal in a time separate from but part of the present. Nairn attempts to keep his son from reenacting it because, “If [he] is who I think he is, you could be in grave danger, that’s the point. He destroyed my music. I won’t let him take you from me as well. That would destroy me all over again” (299). But this repetition is necessary, and the reenactment of that moment of time enables it to have a different outcome. Another character tells Phelan, “I didn’t do anything. You did.... He’s been trapped in this tower since he tried to kill me with his music. That time, he only brought down that old watchtower. This time he found a better way to deal with me” (321). Thus the active repetition of the event is what allows Nairn to escape his immortality at last.
My second example, from The Tower at Stony Wood, works slightly differently. Once again, the adage that time heals all wounds is not true. Time’s passing has not been enough to heal. The psychic wounds left by a war where one country subjugated a smaller one still fester. One of the characters from the conquered country exclaims, “The King wants the first bite we put into our mouths. He wants the pearl in every oyster. He wants us to bend our heads so low he never has to look into our eyes” (173). The King has had to fight a country he assumed to be his, and the people of that land have been crushed to the point of rebellion. There is misunderstanding on both sides. Years after the battle, even the look in a man’s eyes marks him as victor or defeated: “He had no shield; the torn emblem on his surcoat was undecipherable; nothing told who he was. But he was not an islander, with hardship and desperation beaten into his eyes. The Knight’s eyes were clear, cold, and merciless, trained that way ...” (168). Even though several years have passed since the actual conflict, tensions and anger run high on both sides.
At the very beginning of Tower, it is noted of the main character, the honorable knight Cyan Dag, that “it was the second longest night of Cyan’s life” (12). This backshadowing to an event the reader does not know about but which lies in Cyan Dag’s past is small but crucial. The night referred to is one in which Cyan Dag remembers having sat with his wounded king all night after a battle has left them injured and separated from their comrades. In the course of the book, Cyan Dag’s memories of the night shift to include his rescue of a young member of the opposing army. Chapman and Yoke argue that alternate history “attempts to portray the sense of contingency which governs history, and to depict the ‘indeterminacy’ and social construction of meaning and reality, not to mention problematizing “the entire notion of historical knowledge” (16). In McKillip’s Tower these aims are met. Somehow Cyan Dag has blocked this incident, perhaps because the honorable Cyan Dag is and was torn between his loyalty to his King and his honor as a person. History is not what it seems; the past shifts as memory is regained and questioned.
In Tower Cyan Dag is sent on a quest, supposedly to rescue a woman locked in a tower. But what he actually accomplishes is peace between the nations and in many of the people whose paths he crosses. A witch in the story notes, “What you need ... is not always what you are looking for” (99). And this is the key to Cyan Dag’s quest. He is sent on one odyssey, but in reality his aim is to help people heal. Cyan Dag’s remembering is the key to a revisionist view of history within Tower. This revision in turn allows for a peaceful resolution for all.
The chapter with the re-remembered past is interesting in that McKillip places no markers around it. The reader goes from one character’s thoughts in the “present” of the novel to Cyan Dag living again the past that he had blocked out. There is no differentiation, no warning that time has shifted. Cyan Dag is again on the raining plain, hiding with the king beneath some shrubs. The memory is told as the rest of the book is. The chapter begins, “On a hillside in the northernmost part of Yves, Cyan knelt within a thick line of vine and bramble and brush growing along a ditch between fields” (117). Thus the reader is introduced to the memory as a lived event just as Cyan Dag experiences it. It is not a passive memory, therefore, nor a passive use of time: it is active. William Hardesty III in “Toward a Theory of Alternate History: Four Versions of Alternative Nazis,” argues, “In sum, an alternate history uses its art—by forcing the reader to seize a nonexistent past—to problematize the received truth about the past” (81). Time has to be played with in the form of remembrance for a peaceful resolution to be accomplished. Cyan Dag at one point thinks, “I did nothing ... in memory. There is nothing I can do. I cannot change memory” (124). And yet he does. History, as the characters in the novel understand it at the beginning of the book, has left a scar that time alone has not been able to heal. Only active re-visioning allows for healing.
The repetition of something traumatic is often considered a negative; however, it can be positive within the framework of active time. Catherine Silverstone posits repetition solely as a negative in her introduction to Shakespeare, Trauma, and Contemporary Performance. She cites both flashbacks and nightmares (13) as examples of repetition in trauma. In McKillip the repetitions can take the form of flashbacks as in Tower and often have a nightmarish quality to them as in Bards, but they are healing, and they enable the characters to move forward. Repetition is not produced for its own sake; the characters are not stuck in the repetition; once the healing has begun they are able to move forward. Thus the characters move actively out of the repetition that is necessary for healing.
In all of the above examples time is used and manipulated to bring about healing. Time is used actively rather than simply passing by. Hellekson, in The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, argues, “then the text becomes an alternate history: it has challenged the events in question by changing them” (29). McKillip demonstrates in these works the tools fantasy can use to revise history and allow healing to begin.
Audrey Taylor lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Chapman, Edgar L. and Carl B. Yoke, editors. Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.
Eliade, Mircea. Sacred and the Profane: Nature of Religion. Edited by W. R. Trask. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1959.
Hardesty, William. “Toward a Theory of Alternate History: Four Versions of Alternative Nazis.” In Chapman and Yoke, Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction.
Hellekson, Karen. The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time. Kent, Ohio, and London: Kent State University Press, 2001.
Jones, Diana Wynne. The Lives of Christopher Chant. New edition. London: HarperCollins Children’s, 2008.
Markham, David J. and Michael D. Resnick, editors. History Revisited: The Great Battles: Eminent Historians Take on the Great Works of Alternative History. Dallas, Texas: BenBella; Turnaround distributor, 2008.
Marek, M. C. “Healing Fiction: Marcin Ciszewski’s Major Trilogy as a Compensational Journey from History to HISTORY.” In the Mirror of the Past: Of Fantasy and History. B. Trocha, A. Rzyman, and T. Ratajczak, editors. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
McKillip, Patricia A. The Bards of Bone Plain. New York: Ace, 2010.
——. The Tower at Stony Wood. New York: Ace, 2001.
Silverstone, Catherine. Shakespeare, Trauma, and Contemporary Performance. Routledge Studies in Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 2011.