J.R.R. Tolkien’s attempted science fiction Time-traveler was began in contest with CS Lewis (who chose to work on space travel). But Tolkien posited the impossibility of time travels, and we see his hostile skepticism toward analogue machine technology when he uses a character wanting to go backward, not forward, on the lost road of time. Albion wanted to experience old and forgotten landscapes, smells, to see and hear the ancients.
This character says, “I wish there was a ‘Time-machine,’ [….] But Time is not to be conquered by machines.” (p. 52 The Lost Road.) Nor did the master world-builder use (as other authors used) “a blow to the head” as Deus Ex Machina to help his character find the lost road back in time to a culture and place mysterious to him.
Albion wanted to “walk in Time, perhaps, as men walk on long roads.” (p. 49 Ibid.) Thus we see Tolkien’s skepticism in his character’s speech. Albion wanted to experience old and forgotten landscapes, smells, to see, and hear the ancients. Through visionary, dream, and mental imagery of possibilities for such travels, Albion experiences, not the violence of a physical blow, but the textual “thin places” of legends, language, and lore. He’ll travel among the ancients of story and history; experience a given reality made possible through study and literary remembrance of what once was true. Was good. Was brave. The head, it turns out, needs no blow to experience the goodness and wonder of ancient culture, tradition, and life. It needs only memory through oral traditions, books, or scrolls.
Often called a MacGuffin (variously spelled), it was first used in films as a kind of metaphorical “tool,” helpful in moving a character from one time to another. Its entry in Wikipedia says this narrative device is initial, but its presence in a story diminishes, perhaps disappears, yet often reappears climatically, and, more rarely, in denouement.
In a newsletter’s synopsis before reading L.A. Smith’s Wilding, I noticed a similar MacGuffin used in both Mark Twain’s The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Smith’s new book. Twain’s time/place traveler receives a blow to the head with a literal tool. Thomas McCadden, the eponymous Wilding, is a troubled young person who also experiences a blow to the head. In a “Thin Place” far forward in time on the other side of the world he is attacked by demons in a culture steeped in belief. Like the New Englander Yankee, this Canadian also woke in great pain and confusion. He also was greeted by a peculiar and unexpected member of nobility—in knightly regalia—the undemocratic ruling class.
For the Yankee it was a knight in armor, horsed; for Thomas McCadden it was the Lord Celyn, with sword, exiled from Gwynedd in Wales. Lord Celyn tended his injuries and tentatively befriended Thomas; the knight facing the Yankee Hank Morgan held a lance, found his prize, captive of his errantry. And here, with Arthur’s knight challenging Hank Morgan, we have the Yankee in Twain’s early medieval Britain, with his self-imposed mission to transform “the system.”
Thomas has no such grandiose supporting motivation in his new life, and for the remainder of the first book lives his life bewildered, often physically hurting, and determined to find again his “Thin Place,” his way home. This is his hope. Hank Morgan gives this over, trying instead to bring “home,” the industrial democratic republic, to the 6th century Dark Ages.
The ages long industrial arc begun with Nimrod’s Tower of Babel is played for all it’s worth in those ancient early medieval days. As expected, Twain’s novel is not especially sympathetic to the religious order of the day, not as Smith’s evenhanded treatment seems to be in her 640’s A.D. Britain. Twain’s story takes for granted that magic is superstition, unreal. Not so Wilding, where demonic magic is found even in 21st-century Canada in the form of the Undying. It takes a Power greater to keep free of the Undying, one Twain might not be willing to imagine in his tale.
Being untrained in first millennia warfare, Thomas, with awkward strength, helps save his benefactor from ambush by knights of an opposing kingdom. Then he finds solace in a mare taken in hand from one of the slain warriors. This is Missy. Throughout this troubling and prolonged misadventure she is an encouragement to Thomas who was no accomplished rider even in 21st-century rural Alberta, Canada. Missy often mirrors the young man’s state of mind, and Smith has a deft writer’s hand expressing the horse’s simple equine movements and her more complex emotions. Her legs may move with “powerful thrusts,” at a gallop, her head rear in an attempted bolt as demonic dogs skim close; and, as Thomas pleads for mercy from some unseen Power, she quivers and is comforted by the young man patting her neck, speaking softly, receiving her comforting nicker and breaths.
Hank Morgan the Yankee also took to horse for his 6th century’s required errantly. But we experience no comfort and can imagine none for the horse, when it is forced to carry a clanging, rattling armor- and helm-wearing neophyte more used to industrial tools and equipment. In an LARB Marginalia essay about Anna Sewell’s contemporaneous Black Beauty, Karen Swallow Prior points out that horses of that day were forced to work like machines alongside the increasing mechanization of transport.
At the Yankee’s climax, we find horses and riders destroyed en masse in their attempts to combat the combustion, dynamite and electric dynamo of an industrial revolution. This battle presages the reality of World War I where an infantry is also decimated by industrial might. In contrast, Thomas, used to the now missing 21st-century technological advantage, finds comfort and calm in his horse, in his fledgling faith, and much of the natural world.
On my first reading of Yankee as a teenager I may not have expected a fantastical satire but a more detailed historic fictional approach, such as we find in Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. I mentioned learning, in synopsis, of Wilding’s “blow-to-the-head” MacGuffin. I had other expectations from Smith’s historically informative blog entries, but these expectations changed on my reading of Wilding, book one of The Traveller’s Path.
On her website I learned the details: settings, domestic environments, culture, battles, classes and various others facets of medieval life. I knew fantasy would play its role, but I had no idea how deep the cultural fantastic would go. So much of Thomas’s new life and deep perplexity are not from an historic but an imaginative fantastical quality. Both Twain and Smith are on top of their cultural history. The difference in the former is a focus on satire, the latter on the fantastic.
LA Smith has confidence in her readers to follow the narrative without explicit explanations and verbal play-by-play or recap. Often we are as perplexed as Thomas, and sometimes long for a crib sheet or episodic resolution. For instance, I might have liked an explicit list defining various categories of the Fey. What exactly are Travellers, wildings, Unseelies, Seelies? Why these last two names? Who and what are the Undying?
On page 48 of my print copy I finally encounter “Speaker” and “Speaking” defined in character conversation. This is also on page 59 of my search PDF. Initially I bought the book because of “my reading muse,” but the copy I received was not the final version of the book. So this definition is found in a revised file from the author. Other characters explain things as we go along but are they right? Are they telling the truth? Yet we, like Thomas, must pick these things up, without clarity and in suspicion of other characters; without complete understanding we read of his ongoing experience.
It’s not that there’s no magic in The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It is scattered sparsely throughout. But, as when humans are changed into swine, it’s generally hilarious in comparison to Hank’s superior scientific acumen and applied knowledge. And he uses threats of magic, of superstitious wizardry, to bolster his perceived power, backed up by his demonstrations.
As a young reader I fell into the Yankee’s confidence, and even certainty, of triumphant societal transformation, forgetting his subdued and melancholy appearance at the framing start of his story in the 19th century, forgetting a Deus ex machina might be needed for his return. I simply got lost in his A.D. 528 adventure and its trajectory, as I have in Smith’s tale of lost or misplaced Thomas mac Caden. Even Thomas’s last name is spelled differently to signify pronunciation and cultural distinctions.
But horses in these stories are really horses. As far as I know, having read Wilding once, and now drifting back through both print and PDF for a closer look, all horses are as we find them in our world. I like bringing these real and discrete creatures into this essay of comparisons… in part because they are so normal, lively, obedient and emotive. At the time of Twain’s composition, horseback was still the mode of individual conveyance, with locomotive power carrying people en masse. Hank was deeply familiar with “horsepower” both in metaphor and reality, whereas Thomas knew the automobile. His brother Danny, left behind, was a 21st-century long-distance truck driver.
“Horse” is mentioned 100 times in The Yankee, 80 times in Wilding. In the former book we seldom if ever feel the relational potential between horse and rider, perhaps because horses were ubiquitous in his time. In the latter novel we find devotion and affection in Smith’s horses, especially with Missy and Arawn, the mighty stallion of Lord Celyn. The reality is anchoring, wholesome, providing a sense of the gifted material and natural realm, often missing in the Twain narrative’s more utilitarian use. Yet, we have Hank’s admission that, “Yes, Sandy was sane; that must be admitted. If I also would be sane—to Sandy—I must keep my superstitions about unenchanted and unmiraculous locomotives, balloons, and telephones, to myself.”
Just as Hank Morgan gains an advantage by pretending he’s a wizard, Thomas has to pretend he’s lost understanding and memory of who he is and where he came from. He himself is recognizing he has some mysterious power or force akin to wizardry. He keeps his 21st-century clothing and device folded in a bag after donning the seventh century clothes of a dead man. He thinks he’ll need his jeans for when he finds a “Thin Place” or “sweet spot” to “get home” again. Twain’s A.D. 528 has the narrating Yankee thinking he’s landed on the grounds of an lunatic asylum, astonished at everyone he sees for their outsized talk, mannerisms and fantastical garb. No one seems surprised by anything—except by Hank in his 19th century workaday clothing plainly from some strange culture.
“ ‘If I could just see the head keeper a minute—only just a minute—‘
“ ‘Prithee do not let me.’
“ ‘Let you what? ‘
“ ‘Hinder me, then, if the word please thee better.’
“[He] would like it another time; for it would comfort his very liver to know where I got my clothes.”
Smith deals with the problem of language through Thomas’s strange new ability to absorb, learn, then speak Latin. He is feeling bizarre sensitivity, also, in the presence of another Fey, a Christian, a healer named Nona whose magic gift is healing. She describes for him two kinds of Fey, both descended from Nimrod, great hunter and tower builder of the Old Testament—since sundered by service to either God or Satan. Here is where I lean toward a favored tag or designation of mine: biblical fan fiction. The best is allusive not explicit. Twain does not form his tale in explicit Arthurian retellings, nor does Smith rely on straight or linear copying of an OT narrative. These authors don’t pattern so much as play with works they admire.
Nona says, Fey “means ‘one who is about to die,’ for we are fated to fade away from the earth. It is as God wills. But in the meantime, we hide. There is in every human a dim memory of us….” (Page 101. PDF.) We are meant to think of them as faerie.
According to the Wikipedia article on “Horses in the Middle Ages,” the Western horse “differed in size, build and breed from the modern horse, and were, on average, smaller.” Use, not breed, distinguished among horses: Chargers, palfreys, cart and packhorses, for instance. Horses plowed the earth to grow grain, they turned mill-wheels to grind it, they transported the grain to market. Technological developments enabled maneuverability and precision riding, and the nailed horseshoe transformed the rider’s ability to gain on various terrain in as many pursuits. Hauling heavy loads was stabilized by sure footing through mud and snow over fords and fields of trackless land. Recently discovered evidence suggests that the horse was domesticated as far back as 3500 BCE in the province of Akmola in Kazakhstan, and then spread through Eurasia.
The domesticated horse brought comfort and stability to Thomas in his troubling new life. “The Boss” (Hank Morgan) relied on the horse, without noticing its differences between his time and the Dark Ages—which he felt a duty to transform into his own age’s image with its republican industrial pursuits. Hank was from a crossover age, the horse facilitating his deceptively impractical vision. He was deceived into believing that his new vision for Arthurian England was practical. It was helpful to what he considered a benighted age.
JRR Tolkien countered his backward time travels in his (also fragmentary) Notion Club Papers. In them he traveled forward in Time sub-creatively. And Tolkien did, in a prevision, anticipate a real-world English storm in October of 1987, “going forward” in time, during his fictive work on the Notion Papers’ great storm of June 1987. These were not the believing Dark Ages visited by The Yankee, by Thomas McCadden, or Albion.
In our own age of presentist digital Deus ex machina, that of Thomas McCadden’s 21st-century, we are not going back in time. We live in the skeptical Bright Ages. Technologically brilliant, full of hope and help for neighbors and neighborhoods, our friends. We are not disoriented, not troubled, confused, groping for understanding. We’ve had no blow to the head. We have arrived—not on horseback—to a secure, well-oriented, time. We have, and so do not need, MacGuffins. There’s no pretending to be something we are not in this Age.