Time and Fantasy: Musing on a Conference

On the 9th of February I not only had the pleasure of attending a conference that I had been excited about for month, but  the opportunity to present a paper of which I was quite proud.  To my joy this was A Conference of Ice and Fire, the first, and hopefully not last, conference organized by the English Student Society on my campus focused on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

The previous term the University had offered the first, and to my knowledge only, A Song of Ice and Fire focused class in Canada. Being a graduate student in History I was not allowed to take the course for academic credit, but that did not dissuade me. Despite the trepidation from my own department that I would be far too busy to handle my work load, excel in my courses, and audit another course, let alone do the assignments required, I forged ahead. To put it mildly, I had an absolute blast every Tuesday and Thursday from September to December getting ‘geek out’ with others like me.  To the amazement of a few unnamed individuals, it did not make any negative impact on the progress I was making with my own thesis.

As with most conferences ours had a guest of honour, a speaker of repute; this was Dr. Janice Bogstad from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. Editor of sci-fi, Tolkien/LoTR collections,  she is a fascinating woman, and her experience within the sci-fi and fantasy, and comparative fields in literary studies is astounding. After a rousing morning of excellent papers, amazing conversation, and thought-provoking questions, Dr. Bogstad present us with a series of rather remarkable ideas regarding the concept of time in fantasy and in particular in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and the notions of sibling-hood.

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When she spoke of time in fantasy writing she brought up the works of David Eddings, one of the authors whose work I devoured as a teenager. I could not help but begin to think about how time works in his novels, especially pertaining to the Belgariad sage, and the joining books Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress.

In The Belgariad it would seem that time very rarely comes into focus from a flowing river of eternity. It is punctuated and measured only in prophecy and tragedy. This is especially true for Polgara, Belgarath, and the Gods.

The Gods very rarely seem to keep track of time in any nature, unless they are directly affected by tragedy or prophecy. Issa, the god of the Nyissans, does not note the passage of time, and is only brought reeling back into the flow when he comes to find out that the name of his beloved high priestess, Salmissra, had passed from one woman to another more times than a snake can shed its skin. For Mara, god of the Marags, time is a perpetual march of sadness, loneliness and misery after his ‘children’ were murdered by the Tolnedrans. The driving force behind the concept of in The Belgariad time is also rooted in the suffering of Torak  who sleeps endlessly, as if caught in a single long night until the prophecy wakes him.

For gods the idea of ceaseless and undocumented time is common place. For the continual existence of such figures time cannot flow as it does for mortals. But this way of measuring time can be juxtaposed onto Belgarath and his daughter Polgara. This notion is put forward in their respective off-shoots stories, where the two most timeless mortals within the mortal world condense their exceedingly long lives into manageable collections. Once again, time begins to slip away from the measurements that we have become accustomed to in our own world and in literature.

bigbelgBelgarath has refrained from writing out his history because it goes back beyond knowns records of the world. Belgarath is the first mortal to enter into the Vale of Aldur, and as a Disciple of Aldur and a user of the Will, the longest living one. He is, as his daughter Polgara calls him, the Old Wolf. When he enters the Vale seems time stop for him, held in a vacuum and unable to touch him. He spends years working at menial tasks without knowing that time has passed, isolated from the march of time. This is long before the War with Torak over the Orb of Aldur, the establishment of the Rivan king, and the splitting of Arendia. Belgarath only notes that time begins to move again in moments of tragedy; finding that the village of elderly people who helped him on his initial journey to the Vale has vanished, the death of his wife Poledra, and the death of his daughter Beldaran. Does Belgarath avoid time as much as possible outside of prophecy because it simply hurts too much to exist within it? As the Eternal Man, how does time make sense to him outside of prophecy and tragedy?

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The same if true for Polgara. However, as a woman who thrives on order and control, she does record the dates of major events, such as the death of her sister Beldaran, and the extinction of the Wacite Arend line. She, unlike Belgarath, has a direct connection to the flow of time, thought she does not always exist within those constrants. She too must watch those she grows to love, age and die, while not losing sight of her own will and passion. She must form those close connections within the span of the prophecy, or be the knife on which the world impales itself when the prophecy comes to fruition.

Prophecy, that tricky master or mistress, always has seems to have a plan waiting in the wings, and surfaces when a major split in time is on the verge of occurring. It surfaces and draws all of these figures back into the flow of mortal time; Mara learns that he is not alone, and that he does still has a child; Issa changes Salmissra into a snake, elongating her life and ensuring that he will be able to tell one high priestess from the next should he be called upon. Belgarath and Polgara journey with Barak, Silk, and Garion, all guided and measured by prophecy, who could only exist in the proper span of mortal time (arguably), with the right set of predetermined events unfolding.

The insight that we get from Belgarath and Polgara’s accounts help to explain some of the elements which Eddings incorporated in The Belgariad; we discover why Polgara is met with such awe and reverence whenever she presents herself, and why she must always appear in a certain fashion. They also explains why Belgarath has the need to run free and escape from the world; it has become difficult to form attachments when one knows they are eternal while others are merely ephemeral. However, Garion is their link to the mortal world, and he gives new meaning and flow to time.

Sibling relationships within these books are also interesting. The gods are brothers, raised and watched by father Ul and mother Universe, and yet they have their differences; the rifts and tragedies they experience give them a sense of time and yet do not bind them to exist within the constraints of the concept. Belgarath forges brotherhoods with those who come to the Vale of Aldur and become, like him, initiates of the Will and disciples of Aldur. Polgara must sacrifice her sister in order to set the prophecy of the orb in motion, and to ensure that Garion will one day meet his destiny, despite the fact that it will be centuries before he is born.

In contrast, Martin ensures that we have a grasp on the flow of time within his world, even if it is biased when it comes to key events. We know exactly when the War of the Ninepenny Kings occurred, the successions of knights who held the title of  Commander of the Kings Guards, and that Dunk the Tall rode as a hedge knight 89 years prior to the events in A Game of Thrones. Martin firmly cements his readers in a carefully constructed time-line with defined dates and orders, and yet those events that he leaves out are the more important.

These fantasy novels present one of the key problems that occurs in the study of history. What occurred directly before and directly after the most important events which we have recorded? What has been left out, and why? Is it absent because no one survived to speak of it, because no one had the heart to record it, or because it did not seem to be that important when it occurred? It is always a difficult question to navigate when looking into cause and effect in history, as often the small aspects are disregarded in favour of the larger picture.

Interested in the Books?

Belgariad Vol. 1

Belgariad Vol. 2

Polgara the Sorceress

Belgarath the Sorcerer

1 Comment

Filed under Musing/Thoughts, Uncategorized

One response to “Time and Fantasy: Musing on a Conference

  1. I am reading the Belgariad (and probably the Mallorean aswell) again after last reading it years ago and it is nice to have another persons view ont eh time aspect, as I always wonder what the author would add if he or she could document each and every moment. Authors seem to each have their own ways of making time work, some note the time meticulously like GRRM and others like Eddings has Belgarath get sidetracked discovering the use of mountains for a few thousand years, Robert Jordan also intrigued me with his wheel of time series and the system of ages, “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.” ― Robert Jordan
    I loved the thought of that and the detail he put into explaining the ages and the people who used to inhabit them. Oh well now I need to re read the wheel of time again, bye bye year.

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