Anachronisms in Fantasy, the Subtle and the not so Subtle

One could argue that fantasy can’t be anachronistic since (most of the time) it is in a world entirely apart from our own but here I use the term to mean more loosely, things that are out-of-place (and not just out of time). In a fantasy story, anachronisms can be quite jarring for the reader. At the least they can distract and break suspension-of-disbelief. At their worst, they can cause someone to stop reading.

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's T...The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.

This is from a description of firework’s at Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. (If you don’t believe me, it’s page 36 of the 1986 single volume collector’s edition.) I cringe every time I read this but it also reminds me that an author need not be perfect with anachronisms: some level of them will be tolerated by readers.

In fact, some level of anachronism is almost impossible to avoid. As I mentioned recently use of precise units of time and distance can cause issues but so can figures of speech, even certain words. While as a reader I dislike too many anachronisms in a fantasy story and as a writer I try to avoid them, there are many gray areas. Here are a few I’ve come across:

  • Rank: what to use for military ranks? Captain seems harmless enough having enough connotations beyond precise European military usage and deriving from a term (“head”) that would likely be a parent word in any language. But what about lieutenant? That’s very French with a clear historical origin (meaning essentially sub- or under-holder). It gives me pause yet lieutenant meaning subordinate, not a precise officer rank below captain, is a very useful word. I tend to avoid it as a military rank but still may use it in its more general meaning.
  • Currency: most authors will not fall into this trap, inventing their own crowns, thrones, stars, one-eyed-love-goddess, etc. And yet, here’s a place where a reference to a silver penny might be a little better than some made-up coin term since those are meaningless to the reader and hard to keep straight. The fact is that most historical coin names were colloquial and colloquialisms take a fair amount of familiarity to feel right to the ear. Sometimes it is better to go with the more generic coin terms (penny, half-penny, etc.,) than force something that might seem stilted onto the reader. Then again, it is a way to “show” the setting. I tend to stick with more generic terms where I can get away with it but when it comes to larger denominations a made-up name sounds better than “gold piece” to my ear so I do name those.English: A glass of port wine. Français : Un v...
  • Place-derived-names: how about port wine? It’s named for Porto, Portugal but it is a fortified red wine that any culture with both red wine and distillation might have. I tend to let this one slide but wouldn’t be surprised if some readers consider it a no-no.
  • Foreign terms: how about imported words, especially those that are clearly recent since they may retain accent marks. As example, consider façade. That’s a very useful word without a good English analog (as most imported words are: they are imported for the very reason that they fill a gap in the language.) For me, the cedilla is too discordant but fortunately this word works without the accent (facade is perfectly acceptable). No great answer here like but I try to avoid words that are too clearly linked to an Earth culture. Best to keep the reader from thinking about France in the middle of your other-world opus.
  • Words linked to technology: how about words tied to a particular technology, like derail. Railed mine-carts have been around for a very long time (possibly to Roman times?) but in common usage, I am pretty sure this harkens back to the age of railroads, i.e., the 1800s and therefore someone speaking of a conversation being derailed is using a term that someone in a world without railroads would not use. Still, it’s a nice word so what to do with it? This is an anachronism that would not offend me in a fantasy book but which I do try to avoid on principle, where I catch it. There are a lot of similar terms, purging them all might be quite a feat.
  • Religious terms: How about Cathedral, nun, priest? This one gets pretty fuzzy. Like pornography, it is easier to recognize and hard to define an anachronistic term. Priest seems quite harmless as there have been priests in all ages. Druids and nuns on the other hand are much more closely tied to specific earth religions and seem over the line. Monk is also a more generic term (so why not nun? It feels less appropriate as this seems less common in other cultures).
    Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson's The Lord of ...
    This scene of Moria from Lord of the Ring screams to me “Cathedral hall” but can you reference Cathedral in a fantasy world with no Cathedrals?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Cathedral is definitely out for me. That is a specific structure in Christian religion, specifically, it is the church that houses the cathedras, the bishop’s chair. (And in the true sense of Cathedral it doesn’t have to be a grand, gothic structure. Any church, however small and plain, is a Cathedral if it has a cathedras which illustrates a problem with anachronistic terms: they come with connotations that may vary among readers. Some see Cathedral and imagine Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, others think “place with bishop’s seat.”) This one is a matter of taste but I’d recommend being sparing of religious terms likely to connote a specific religion. So, as stirring as most Cathedrals are, best not to use that term in a fantasy world not set on Earth of the appriopriate period.

  • Dialogue tone: here’s one that is another “you’ll know it when you read it.” Does your 17-year-old hero sound like a modern teenager? Some folks may not mind but that is a big anachronism to me. A teenager of this era might be disrespectful to his parents, question authority, have quite evolved views on the role of god(s) but for more of human history (and therefore for most fantasy settings) this would be extremely out-of-place. For starters, the very concept of the teenage years being distinct from adulthood is probably anachronistic in most settings. On Earth it is a very recent concept. For most of our history sometime between 13 and 17 you were pretty much considered an adult and expected to act like one. (As an aside, Barbara Tuchman once observed that the reason medieval knights tended to act so foolishly was that the proportion of them that were younger than 20 was actually quite high: imagine your average high school sophomore leading a charge of a hundred knights.)
  • Figures of speech: these are mostly best avoided because they are both tied to a specific earth timeframe and are often clichés and yet some of the milder ones can be quite useful in dialogue and creating a whole world of figures of speech for your setting can be quite as discordant as trying to capture a heavy accent in dialogue. “Nuke’em” seems to be clearly a no-no in a fantasy setting but what about “saved by the bell?” Bells might be present in most fantasy settings but using a bell to mark passage of a time? Much less so although still possible- bells striking time have been common since the high middle ages and chimes marking time were present in the Roman Era (Su Song’s water-clock circa 1000 C.E. rang bells and some Ancient Greek ones may also have done so). Even so, while “saved by the bell” may have come about centuries ago, for most people it means “saved by the school bell” and that is quite anachronistic. So best to avoid it. That’s the trouble with a figure of speech: you might be able to construct an argument that it would be appropriate in your world but if it has the potential to jar the reader from your setting, why risk it?

As you can see, Anachronisms can be much more subtle and insidious than a reference to an express train in a fantasy novel. They cannot be entirely eliminated since one reader’s anachronism may not be another’s but it never hurts to keep an eye out for them and look for ways to avoid even a hint of one, where possible.

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13 thoughts on “Anachronisms in Fantasy, the Subtle and the not so Subtle

  1. You know, I used to worry about this a lot. Now, I just write and then wait for my beta-readers to point out the more obvious of these. Otherwise, it is just too hard to leave ALL my culture behind when writing. It just gonna come out. For the first draft, I think it is all right that they surface. But you are right, too much and it throws me off.

    Now, do you put expletives (like f**k) in the same category? I do. And I like it when authors come up with inventive swear words. If done right, it can have just as much of an impact.

  2. This is a great cautionary blog for writers in historical and YA categories as well. I would also add anachronistic ideas and attitudes to your list. By this I mean beliefs we hold now and assign to characters in the past, when those ideas had not yet been thought of or were not widely accepted.

    The most common offender in this category is young women who protest when their parents tell them who to marry. In the Middle Ages, everyone (men and women alike) were told who to marry by their parents. This would not shock a young person of that era. A smiliar example is players advocating the end of slavery in Medieval times. Wholesale abolition simply would not have been thought of in that era.

    I guess it’s human nature to think that our way is best, and/or that societies mature over time. But if your story is set in a real place and time, you owe it to your readers to depict the reality as it was then, and not puff yourself up over how much smarter people are now.

    1. Excellent point on attitudes. People are creatures of their time and place. It’s not much different than judging someone from a thousand years ago by current mores.

  3. Good thoughts. It’s important to avoid glaring anachronisms in one’s writing style. At the same time, you can’t take it too far or the very fact that you’re writing in modern English becomes an anachronism. Even if I’m writing historical fiction about, say, ancient Greece, I’m writing in modern English, and thus I have to use modern English expressions to tell the story. Then it becomes a matter of narrative voice. If the narrator becomes enough of a character that he’s chatting with the reader (as, for example, C.S. Lewis will often do), you have more leeway to use anachronistic phrases. Or you can go what I call the Rosemary Sutcliff route and find a way to let your prose gently drop any obvious modern references and sink into the background so that it seems timeless. Have you read Rosemary Sutcliff? She’s my favorite non-Tolkien, non-Lewis author. Mostly historical fiction. Absolutely brilliant. She even perfected the art of writing timeless dialogue for her Roman, Celtic, and other ancient characters, finding certain cadences and dictions that just sounded right.

    1. I’ll have to give Rosemary Sutcliff a look again. I think I read some of her older works and we have one of her children’s books. THere’s certainly a very large gray area here and you can take it to ridiculous lengths. In the end, it’s in the end eye of the reader… although I still don’t care for express train-like fireworks in LOTR 🙂

      1. Nevermind- Amazon confused me with their more recent dates for the re-publications. I have read her and liked her. In fact, there was an Arthurian book I was trying to place so I could read it again and I’m pretty sure it was Sword at Sunset. Thanks for the reminder!

      2. Glad I could help! +) Yup, Sword at Sunset is her premier Arthur story, although it’s technically a sequel to The Lantern Bearers, my personal favorite of her stories. I think she also did a short trilogy about Arthur aimed more for children that took a more traditional romance route than Sunset‘s strict historical fiction. Haven’t read those yet, though.

  4. Erica

    Well, to be fair to the dragon passing Bywater like an express train, Tolkien was writing in Omniscient voice, and was using the style of omniscient where he is essentially telling the story to the reader (as if the old gent was sitting in a chair next to your bed telling you a story, the way he would his own kids) in the here and now about something that happened in another time and place that he just happens to know about. I do agree, though, that with most modern fantasy novels being told in limited (and often very close limited) third person or in first person, even, such an expression would be a violation of character voice and very anachronistic.

    1. Thanks for dropping by!

      While I agree with the fact that he was in Omniscient voice, it still strikes me as quite discordant and he doesn’t do anything like that elsewhere in the book. It has always struck me as a little bit of the tone of the hobbit sneaking into the LOTR.

  5. These are good points. I seem to have a very similar palate on this one to you. Anachronism is definitely on my mind when I redraft (and also when I’m searching for a metaphor in any draft). Getting the metaphors and terminology right helps me get inside a story’s place and world.

  6. Erdinc Ciftci

    Describing characters’ feelings is prone to this, too. For example, a soldier in a medieval setting would not think that he should not let paranoia control him. Paranoia? He should think in much simpler terms. That example is from the much acclaimed The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. This kind of descriptions distract me as much as a one dimensional character. Hence, I am almost always disappointed by fantasy although my favorite books are from this genre.

    1. Thanks for the comment and good point- the nature of feelings can be anachronistic. A classic case in historical fiction is a character with ‘modern’ sensibilities on slavery, gender or the like. But an interesting take on fear itself expressed in anachronistic ways.

      I started reading Lord of the Rings again on the plane tonight (something I do every few years- now made easier that you can get the single volume version on Kindle Unlimited, complete with all the various notes) and was once again tweaked by the fireworks rushing by “like an express train”. Seems so out of place to me.

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