Friday, January 20, 2006

Time Keeps On Tricking

I've been thinking about time (no, not Chronos specifically) in relation to myths (and other "stories").

When I read War and Peace, I was amazed at Tolstoi's ability to move the "lens" from the very high level (politics, historical trends, truths of human existence, and large scale troop movements) to the very detailed (what the girls we wearing to the opera, initiation rituals, the fabulous costumed sleigh ride). Deftly moving between these two levels allowed him to inject the story into us in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

Mythological (and Fantasy) tales do the same thing with respect to time. The magnifying glass of the narrative moves down into everyday details of the protagonist's life (often birth or childhood conditions) then sweeps upward through some leap of time. The lens then refocuses on the details of the protagonist's life once again.

Lately, I've been reading one of Grimm's Fairy Tales each night (the brothers collected 210 of them, after all). I've noticed that the tales almost always make a significant time jump one-third or two-thirds of the way through the story (depending on the type of story). The jump always moves approximately a half generation or the time necessary to go from being a baby to a (mostly) grown person.

The time shift occurs one-third of the way if the character is active (i.e. must perform an heroic quest). The shift occurs two-thirds of the way through the story if the character is passive (i.e. something happens to the character such as a rescue or a transformation). Obviously this is not exact, but rather a rough observation.

Great fantasy novels always span a generation. Usually, we follow the son or daughter of a previous protagonist through their adventure.

The Greek myths always involve at least a mention of the character's parentage and, often, the character's children are involved.

It's surprising how few modern stories employ this device given its illustrious track record.

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