To begin, a short tale…
The sonorous tolling of the Telriand Bell echoed over the city, rolling down the cobbled streets to tremble in every darkened doorway and mist-shrouded alley. To those few wakeful souls who heard it, the sound signified one thing: Halfnight had fallen over Toval. For Laeress, though, it had another meaning. The Cloaked Hour, as it was known among the Reavers, had finally begun. It was time to move.
She alighted from her perch in the fig tree and dropped to the damp grass of the villa’s garden. In the shadow of the estate’s wall she indulged in a cat-like stretch, then a less graceful (yet equally satisfying) massage of her backside. Two watches spent on a rough branch was enough to numb anyone’s ass, she thought, especially hers, which had far less padding than that of the prelate whose demesne she had just infiltrated. For a moment she envisioned fat Consul Leosano roosting half the night as she had. It was not a far stretch, he being the preening, overstuffed capon he was. She snorted, though hardly loud enough for even herself to hear. This job promised to yield more rewards than mere gold.
Though mists shrouded the city, still Laeress glanced skyward. The fog lay dense near the ground, but was in fact as thin and damp as a beggar’s blanket, and so did little to conceal the stars. Overhead, the pared sliver of moon had reached the Sign of the Ship. Two fingers to the west lay the Icefang Star. When the moon touched that, the Consul would make his appearance.
No doubt Consul Leosano thought his affairs to be entirely private, here behind the high walls of his private residence. Laeress knew better. Her Reaver informants had been patiently observing the prelate for a year now, on her instructions. A mysterious visitor, they had discovered, had attended upon him every Slivered Moon the last six cycles running, predictable as the chimes in the Temple of Smoke. But Laeress knew one thing the Reavers didn’t. She alone knew the visitor’s name.
She assessed the sky one last time. There wasn’t much longer to wait. She used the final moments to run her mind over the plan and her fingers over her gear. It was an exercise she had conducted so many times over the past fortnight she could now do it all within the span of a heartbeat or two. Perhaps three, at that moment. Her pulse had quickened.
A slash of amber lamplight pierced the garden’s gloom. The manor door had opened. There against that rectangle of light, like a stormcloud blotting out the sun, stood a familiar silhouette. Right on schedule, Laeress thought. Her racing pulse forgotten, she slipped into a crouch and disappeared into the shadows. At long last, the time had come.
Time can be an insidious enemy for the fantasy author. Not only does it exhibit the troublesome habit of running short when it’s needed most (such as when deadlines loom), it can be hard to convey within the confines of a world that is, in all likelihood, technologically underdeveloped. Without modern timepieces, how will the band of rogues coordinate their efforts to infiltrate the palace, for example? How will the over-zealous duelist, already booked solid at dawn, high noon and dusk, know when to schedule his fourth match of the day? And just how does the vampire hunter know if ‘midnight’ falls precisely in the middle of the night? I am of course being facetious, but the issue itself is just the sort of tricky detail an author can trip up on. In the preceding vignette I have attempted (rather ham-handedly, I’ll admit) to illustrate some ways of navigating this particular problem. It’s not so hard, really, if you learn to recognize just how habituated we have become to the almighty clock. I’ll talk about that more below, and I’ll throw in a bit of history about timekeeping as well for inspiration. So sit a spell, and read on. There’s plenty of time.
It’s the 21st century, the measurement of time is taken for granted. Almost every device blinks the time at us, whether it be a cellular phone, a computer screen, a roadside sign or a cheap digital watch, and all of these with a casual accuracy that would have been the envy of early watchmakers. Yet such ubiquity of timekeeping in everyday life was not always the case. Prior to the 20th century, pendulum clocks and spring-driven pocket watches were luxury items. In the high middle-ages clocks were almost exclusively the domain of the church, while in ancient times the sun was the only universal timepiece.
Why is this consideration important for authors, especially those of us who traffic in a genre so notorious for meticulous worldbuilding as Fantasy? Because it means we are complacent. We are oblivious to the normalcy of precision timekeeping in our lives, and if we are careless, we can let that slip into our writing in places where it doesn’t belong.
…worldbuilding is such a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre that the quality of its execution can directly impact the success of the final work…
Now I can only speak for myself, but I will admit that I have sometimes fallen prey to this trap. I have been guilty of inserting my casual, 21st century attitude towards time into the mouths of my rural, illiterate, pre-industrialized fantasy characters. It’s easy to write ‘let’s meet back here in an hour‘ (because that’s how long it’ll take your rogue protagonist to infiltrate the consul’s compound, dose the wine with that second-rate sleeping draught she got from the third-rate alchemist, find the amulet and get back out again), but think about it for a minute. How would a person who had never seen a clock, who lived in a world where clocks had never even been invented, convey to another such person that they should reconvene at an interval that is equal to 1/24 of the period of the planet’s rotation? Would it even occur to her as it would to you or me? No, of course not. Yet it slips into our writing because hours, minutes and seconds are dyed into the wool of our modern brains, so much so that I bet you didn’t even notice the trick I played on you just now. I asked you to think for ‘a minute‘, and I’m wagering most of you interpreted that to mean ‘a moment‘ rather than 60 seconds.
See what I mean?
Now perhaps this is a distinction our readers will not even notice. It’s just a figure of speech, one might argue, to which I would agree. It is unquestionably a figure of speech. But my point is that it is a figure of our speech, not that of our characters. English is riddled with such idioms. Wait a second. Top of the hour. Race against the clock. Up to the minute. At the last second. If it is our goal to create a fantasy world distinct from our own, then such colloquialisms are to be avoided at all costs. (Also to be avoided at all costs: Playing dirty tricks on your readers. Sorry about that. Had to be done.)
You may question whether this level of nitpicking is necessary to write a good Fantasy story, to which I would say, ‘No, absolutely not. A good story is a good story.‘ But to that I will add this caveat: worldbuilding is such a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre that the quality of its execution can directly impact the success of the final work, regardless of the inherent merits of the story itself. While a well-developed, internally-consistent world serves to immerse the reader, a poorly conceived one catapults the reader out of the narrative faster than, well… a catapult.
So now you’re attuned to how we modern humans think about time. In order to replace this with something more appropriate for your writing, let’s spend some time exploring how time was measured in the past. I don’t purport to be an expert in this field, merely a curious individual who has gleaned the internet for some of the available information. Having done so, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. I hope you find it of interest, and that it might inspire you to delve further, and incorporate a unique timekeeping system into your own writing.
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Every society in history has, in some form or another, developed a method of measuring time. Time underpinned the lives of ancient peoples just as much as it does our own, whether by marking the seasons of planting or harvest, heralding festivals, telling when to hunt or dictating when to pray. For the fantasy author, understanding how societies, groups or even individuals measured time, and more importantly why they did so, can open up new possibilities within your own writing.
Heavenly Bodies – The Sun, Moon and Stars
The most important timekeeping device in history was unquestionably the sun. The regularity and predictability of its movements made it the standard upon which all other timekeeping methods were based, and thus defined the most basic unit of timekeeping: the day. (For you scientific accuracy types out there, yes, I understand that the apparent rising and setting of the sun is merely an observable phenomenon which is the result of our residing on a wet ball of rock that is spinning through space around a cascading nuclear fusion reaction, thank you Professor Delaney. But the ancients didn’t know that, and so lets all pretend we don’t either, shall we?)
Now, where was I? Right. The Sun. Every shepherd who ever tended a flock understood its importance. Its position in the sky was in itself an indicator of the time of day, though squinting at it can hardly be considered a precise form of measurement. Shadows were better, as their movement could be easily noted (without risk of blindness), and agreed upon between individuals. We’ll rest until the shadow of the tree reaches that stone, is not an unreasonable thing for a shepherd to say. If finer measurements were needed, objects could be laid out at intervals along a shadow’s path, or a hand could be used as a convenient tool to gauge the distance between the sun and the horizon. One handspan of sky is roughly equal to an hour, an especially useful trick to be used near sunset, when losing the light is an important consideration. This method is still taught in wilderness survival circles, and I myself have used it on many a camping trip.
The Babylonians developed rudimentary shadow clocks, and it is thought that ancient Egyptian obelisks were, if not intended as, at least utilized for this purpose. But it was the Greeks who eventually developed a true sundial that could be accurately used regardless of location. These devices were, in essence, no different from sticks stuck in the ground. The stick was refined into the gnomon, a rod or triangular part that cast a shadow across a calibrated dial face. The position of the shadow denoted the corresponding hour. To this day sundials can be found on the south-facing facades of many historic buildings throughout Europe, and, more bucolically, in gardens worldwide.
We can credit the Romans, however, for what we still today call hours, or what were in Latin called horae. An hora was understood to be 1/12 of the time between sunrise and sunset, with another 12 occurring through the night. They bore no fanciful names, but were simply referred to numerically; the sixth hour of the day or the third hour of the night, for example. A notable exception to this was that the night was divided into four watches, based on the periods assigned to sentries, with one watch corresponding to three horae.
This system was not without its shortcomings. Sundials were of limited use on cloudy days and were altogether ineffective at night. Moreover, the actual duration of a sundial-measured day, and thereby each hour therein, varied drastically depending on season and location. Daytime summer hours were longer than winter hours, as were southern hours longer than those in the north. At Mediterranean latitudes, a daytime hour could be as short as 45 (modern) minutes in the winter or as long as 75 minutes in the summer. The duration of nighttime hours was inversely proportional to this, with nights being longer both in the north and/or in the winter. Imagine the luckless sentries posted to Hadrian’s wall during Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival. Their three horae watches would actually be 4 1/4 hours long. And yet the Roman system of timekeeping was so widespread that it is still the basis of how we measure time today.
Less historically significant as methods of keeping time (at least so far as I’ve been able to find), yet still certainly viable in speculative fiction, are the movements of the moon and stars. As illustrated in my opening vignette, the transit of the moon or the wheeling of the stars are observable phenomena that can, in a pinch, be used to mark the passage of time. Certainly on a broad time-scale both the moon and stars denote important periods. Months are based on the cycling of the moon’s phases, whereas stars turn with the seasons, presenting differing constellations at varying times of year. Either of these are fertile ground in which the creative mind might take root, perhaps to give rise to a byzantine guild of stargazing sages…
Elemental Timekeeping – Earth, Fire & Water
When the sun was hidden or when it was desirable to measure relatively small, repeatable increments of time, other methods of timekeeping were necessary. The ancients knew this, and so devised a variety of solutions, the oldest of which is the water clock.
In its most rudimentary form, a water clock, or what the ancient Greeks termed a clepsydra, is nothing more than a vessel with a hole in it. The premise is that when filled with water, the vessel will take a fixed amount of time to drain. The beauty of this was that it was a process that could be easily repeated with accuracy. A degree of sophistication could be achieved by adding graduated markings to the vessel to denote fractions of the overall time. Clepsydrae were often used to limit the speeches of orators, ensuring each was allotted an equal portion of time, and preventing them from running long. Yet clepsydrae were cheap and practical enough to be used in far less dignified settings, such as brothels, where they were put to much the same purpose. Needless to say, such devices were widespread throughout the ancient world, from China to Egypt to Rome, and continued to develop in the Persian, Byzantine and Medieval European worlds.
Like the sundial, the clepsydra had its disadvantages. Frequent filling made it impractical for long-term timekeeping, while over short periods it was difficult to gauge due to variations in water pressure. When full the water would drain quickly, gradually slowing to a trickle at the end. Also, by the very nature of the medium upon which it was based, the water clock was of little use in northern climates, where it was prone to freezing.
Yet the water clock proved popular, and over time improvements were made. Various mechanisms and gears were added to overcome the issue of inconsistent water pressure, and features were added such as dials, bells and even moving icons. These devices would better be described as true water clocks rather than clepsydrae. They varied in form and function, from household devices to the magnificently-named Tower of the Winds, a public monument in ancient Athens that featured, among other meteorological devices, a 24-hour water clock. But as these are approaching almost modern timepieces, I won’t go into further detail. This is ‘Worlds Without Clocks’, after all.
A similar device, based on the flow of material from one vessel to another, was the hourglass. There is some evidence of the hourglass, or sandglass, in late antiquity, but it did not become commonplace until the middle ages. Like the clepsydra before it, the hourglass measured a set interval of time, but had some advantages over its precursor. Its flow was more regular, it was not subject to freezing, and above all, it was portable. This fact made the hourglass the timekeeping device of choice for seafarers, where the tossing of the waves would have rendered a water clock next to useless. Advances in glassmaking techniques and the essentially simple design allowed hourglasses to be made with relative economy, and their use became widespread in churches, businesses and affluent homes. Some of you may even have one in your kitchen today, patiently waiting to time the perfect soft-boiled egg.
Less common than water clocks or hourglasses, though perhaps more intriguing to authors of the fantastical, were devices that measured time by fire. Rather than monitoring the movement of a material by gravity, these gauged time by how long it took the material to burn.
The foremost example of this was the timekeeping candle. King Alfred the Great was said to have utilized such, and examples are known from both China and the middle east. At their simplest, ‘candle clocks’ were just that; carefully made candles of uniform weight, thickness and length, that would burn for specific periods of time. They might have been marked themselves in increments, or set in a holder with markings on a panel behind. Time was noted by how low the candle had become, or by how many candles in total had been consumed. More elaborate devices, such as one designed by the scholar and inventor Ismail al-Jazari, had springs or counterweights that, as the wax melted away, gradually advanced an indicator that showed the time upon a dial.
An additional fire-based timekeeping device, one I only learned of while researching this article, was the incense clock. Originating during the Song Dynasty in China, incense clocks utilized fragrant combustible materials that burned at known, consistent rates. Often elaborate, these clocks could be made to incorporate weights that were released as the incense burned away, triggering gongs or chimes at specified intervals. Incense sticks could be calibrated by length to denote standard periods, or spiraled to measure whole days rather than mere hours. Unique from any of the other timekeeping devices I’ve discussed, incense clocks could be configured with different types of incense, so that the hours were marked not only by sight or sound, but by a change in fragrance as well.
Min entered the murmuring gloom of the temple, temporarily sun-blinded by the alabaster courtyard. He paused, inhaling the calming scent of sandalwood that hung upon the air. Good. The Revered Ones would still be in meditation. He was not too late.
Time To Get Creative
What these examples show is that regardless of era or technological sophistication, people have always put great importance on measuring time. The fictional peoples of your literary world are no different. If you are a writer of low fantasy or even historical fiction, some of these timekeeping methods may be distinctive enough to inject directly into your work. If, on the other hand, you are a purveyor of High Fantasy, then these examples should serve only as a springboard for your imagination. Consider your world, its rhythms and patterns, and ask yourself how those who populate it might mark the passage of time. What intervals do they consider to be important? How would a civilization divide the day if, for example, there was not one sun passing through the sky, but two? Would immortal beings even notice such mundane celestial flickerings, or would they only take note of patterns on a galactic scale? What if there were no sky at all? How would a society keep time if they dwelt exclusively underground? Would they order their lives by the unchanging heartbeat of a slumbering earth-dragon, or by the resonant frequencies exhibited by certain rare crystals? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination, and the time you devote to exploring it.
4 thoughts on “Worlds Without Clocks – Depicting Time in Fantasy Writing”
Such an important but overlooked aspect of world building. Great post!
This was a great post! I often struggle to figure out what my breakdown of time will be and how to convey that to my reader in my fantasy stories. Even will all my world building, time always seems to be the last thing I massage in during later revisions than worry about it during the first draft.
Super helpful and interesting, thank you!