When I pick up my teenage sons from junior-high, I’m always amazed to see what the kids are wearing today. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve driven through a time-portal and ended up back in my own era, circa 1991. Torn jeans — particularly at the knees; black band shirts, typically of Nirvana or Metallica; black leggings and flannel shirts; Converse and combat boots. With a few exceptions, you could drop a ‘cool’ kid from 2018 into my 1991 high school and no one would raise an eyebrow (not that kids ever paid each other much attention, anyway). In general, cool cycles back, and some things — torn fabric, especially — never quite go out of style. Or maybe it’s a sign of the decay of Western culture itself: we’ve run out of ideas, so we can only recycle the past in ever-tightening circles of cool.
Now imagine if twenty years from now, I wrote and directed a movie about junior high school in 2018. Naturally, I would get with a costume director and say, “I want them to look just like they looked when I picked up my sons — totally 90’s throw-back fashion.” And even if the costume director shared my vision, audiences and critics might be less willing to play along. Will people in 2038 remember what kids were wearing in 2018? Won’t the wannabe scholars in the audience cry, “wait a minute, Nirvana was popular in the early 90’s, not the ‘18’s! Those kids wouldn’t even know who Nirvana was! Where’s the research?” To a lot of people, this would look like a sloppy anachronism that doesn’t capture the period or remind people what it was “really like.” And yet, it really happened — that’s really what it looked like!
This begs the question of what matters more in the alchemy of art: accuracy or audience expectation? On the one hand, the audience has preconceived ideas as to how something looks or felt in the past. If you make a fantasy film about knights and the knights don’t wear plated armor because, well, in the Dark Ages most of them wouldn’t have, audiences cry foul. That’s all well and good for history, but that’s not what we think of when we think of knights. King Arthur should gleam from head to toe in shiny, pristine mail, as should Lancelot and Gawain and Percival. That may be why one of the more recent re-tellings of King Arthur, Fuqua’s 2004 film, bombed so badly at the box office: it was a gritty attempt to tell a more historically- accurate version of Arthur and his clan, which flew in the face of the chivalric ethos (and okay, it was otherwise something of a clunker).
In this case, is it acceptable to engage in creative anachronism for the sake of the story? Sure, King Arthur (if he ever lived) didn’t fasten plate armor to his long johns. But a movie — or a novel — isn’t history, it’s a form of entertainment and speculation. For most audiences, it’s more important to tell the story in the familiar setting then offer a history lesson. A more successful Arthurian adaptation is Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), which sets out to mash many of the famous stories together in a glittering, Wagnerian package that makes few concessions to history. Indeed, the soundtrack juxtaposes the primitivist, twentieth-century Carmina Burana side-by-side with the opulent orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The knights, too, look like they tumbled out of a Wagner opera, and everything has a fabled, story-book quality to it (despite the occasional grit). Boorman’s point is that King Arthur never truly existed outside of the imagination, so that’s precisely where we should stage it: in the nowhere-land of myth and fantasy. To do that, a lot of creative license — and anachronism — is necessary to make it feel like the land of our dreams.
If anything, Fuqua’s re-telling is too earthbound; it doesn’t inspire viewers with scenes of myth or majesty. King Arthur is just another bad-ass cop, or soldier of fortune, just transported backwards a few dozen centuries. Herein lies one of the great truths of storytelling: never be true to your source material. Shakespeare knew this best of all. Almost all of his plays borrow material from a historical source, often Hollingshed’s Chronicles, but also Boccaccio and other Italian prose-works. Never once did Shakespeare exhaustively research Italian customs or the realities of Scotland during the reign of Macbeth. Indeed, his plays all sound undeniably of his time — the age of Elizabeth, with the same slang, customs, and ideas.
In short, people in Verona talk like people in London; peasants in ancient Greece talk like shepherds in Shropshire. This would be intolerably anachronistic except for one important detail: it works. By translating the ancient stories and characters into modern molds, he’s telling us that the stories, not the histories, are what matter, and we should identify first with the people, never mind when and where they lived. This is why, in The Winter’s Tale, he gives Bohemia a shoreline. It was important for the story, so nothing simpler, it gained a coast; consult a map for a more accurate representation!
This lesson is even more important for writers of fantasy and science fiction today. Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote that,
“all fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life…the future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”
The future is a metaphor because it never comes; it’s always a few steps away from us, and when we get there, it’s the “present.” What the future represents is a metaphor — and idea of looking at the present through a distorted lens. Anachronism is an essential part of making this happen. Otherwise, the world — whether in the past or the future — would look too much like the one around us. We need to be tricked into seeing the world differently (since we can only really write about ourselves) so that we make the connection later, after we’ve identified with the characters and the story. So while world building is important and essential, I think it can go too far: if you write a treatise on how this or that works in your world, you risk dispelling the ‘myth’ of writing to your reader, and telling them that “imagination doesn’t work here — just be quiet and listen!” After all, how many people today really know how a cell phone works? Could you explain what happens with precise detail when you flush your toilet beyond the basics? A world should be observed for your readers, but not explained — at least, not exhaustively. It should be like driving in the passenger’s seat and watching the landscape roll by; you see what you see, and you get your impression of it, but without the time to catalog every sight and wonder.
J.R.R. Tolkein is a case in point, as he exemplifies the anachronistic approach in his writing. In The Hobbit and most of The Lord of the Rings, we get a world simmering in anachronism. For example, Bilbo Baggins, for all his Hobbit heritage, is an out-and-out twentieth-century Englishman (and an officious one, as that). When haranguing with the dwarves about their coming quest, Bilbo makes the following demands:
“All the same, I should like it all plain and clear,” said he deliberately, putting on his business manner…and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional and live up to Gandalf’s recommendation. “Also I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration and so forth” — by which he meant: “What am I going to get out of it? and am I going to come back alive?”
It is of course gloriously and hilariously anachronistic to use the word “professional” in a fantasy epic. So, too, with “a business manner” or “out-of-pocket expenses.” Here Bilbo evokes the lingo and attitude of a bourgeois businessman, willing to undertake a dangerous voyage only if he comes out ahead financially. While any worthwhile thief might think the same, the language places him in a different dimension — and quite frankly, in our own.
Hobbits also smoke pipes (tobacco wasn’t even around in Shakespeare’s time), drink tea (not until the colonization of India), and keep meticulous accounts (a very Victorian trait). If a beginning writer made these ‘blunders,’ he or she would be decried as sloppy or a greenhorn. We overlook it in Tolkein for the same reason we do in Shakespeare: it works, and because we can’t imagine Hobbits any other way. It feels right, even if it necessarily contradicts the idea that the Hobbits and Middle Earth exist in the fabled Third Age — well before pipes and cups of tea. T.H. White, who dabbled in his own brand of creative anachronism for The Once and Future King, explained this by telling his readers, “It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440…Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.”
The feel. We only know what we know, and while a book can teach you about another world, it can only do so by using what you already know. Which is the very definition of a metaphor: comparing one thing in terms of another. After all, you can’t describe the experience of flying in an airplane to someone who has never flown without comparing it to something they do know. Not Metheglyn, but port. Or wine. Or fill-in-the-blank.
Of course, the metaphorical approach has its limits, and as a writer, you have to determine when familiarity is called for, and when it can detract from a fictional landscape. If your characters all speak with 21st century slang for no apparent reason, or even sprinkle “okay” in every sentence, that could have the opposite effect. However, if you want to help the reader see a self-aggrandizing, monomaniacal leader, and you happen to describe him as — well — Trump, you’re merely thinking as a writer. Writers bridge the gap between the here and the never-was, and metaphors and anachronism are our stock-in-trade. So use it boldly, wisely, and creatively. Make the make-believe feel lived-in and familiar, so that our own world, when we finally come back to it, looks like nothing we’ve ever seen.