Most secondary-world fantasy writers love creating a whole world (or at least a significant part of one) for their characters to play in. They create geography, cultures, races, religions, politics… the list goes on. But there’s one thing most of them seem less thorough about — time.
Now, that might seem an odd statement, considering how rich many fantasy worlds are in history. But that’s the point. Whether it’s the memory of Bran the Builder or the ancient triumph of the Dragon, these periods are only ever seen from the perspective of a “present” — as history.
Authors might write stories about this history. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, for example, includes a book called Tales of Earthsea, made up of short stories set long before Ged’s time (her “present”). However, these are told very much as “tales of old times”, rather than being immediate, as are the main stories in the series.
There are exceptions, and in general SF is better at this than fantasy. Both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, for instance, have shown themselves willing to move around in their universes’ histories. Most fantasy works that do the same, though, are still looking at the time factor from some kind of (at least relatively) fixed points.
For instance, both Tolkien and Howard were writing about fictional prehistories of our world and could therefore treat different periods essentially as a historical novelist would. Tolkien, in any case, was supposedly translating ancient works about the War of the Jewels and the War of the Ring.
The Chronicles of Narnia certainly cover a large amount of history, since they go from the creation in The Magician’s Nephew to the end of the world in The Last Battle. In this case, though, it’s all being seen from a relatively fixed point (a lifetime) in our world. The same is true of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where millennia of the Land are seen within a few years of Covenant’s lifetime.
A fantasy world that has time built into it is different. It’s like the contrast between a two-dimensional picture, where the distance is always the distance and nothing exists in front of the foreground, and a 3D virtual tour, where you can wander around and see points from each others’ perspectives.
My first real moment of enlightenment in this respect was when I read Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series. An excellent but often overlooked sword-and-sorcery series, it tells the wanderings of the immortal main character (essentially the biblical Cain) through an antediluvian world. Each story is set in a different kingdom or civilisation, with locations of other stories sometimes mentioned as ancient history.
This inspired me to do something similar with an immortal of my own, the Traveller, who at this point had only appeared as a secondary character in one context. I realised that, like Wagner, I could tell tales of the Traveller’s wanderings where the setting of one story might be crumbled to dust in the next.
In time, I took that further, and now I have stories set in every period of my world, from its stone age to its computer age — and even the odd glimpse into an age even we’d find futuristic. There’s no artificial “present” — why should there be? My world isn’t in any way synced with our own, so no time period has more relevance than any other. Each story is set in its own present, with references back to characters who are now legends and foreshadowings of what’s to come.
Is that a unique approach? I’ve no idea. I haven’t read any other author approaching their world that way, but then I’m really only familiar with a small selection of recent fantasy. Any recommendations would be very welcome.
But I’d love to see more fantasy authors shake off the shackles of a false present and make time more fluid in their worlds. After all, as Einstein would tell us, it’s all relative.
 Yes, the “fixed point” is several decades (from the childhood to old age of Polly and Digory), just as Earthsea’s “present” is Ged’s whole lifetime. In historical terms, though, a lifetime can be seen as a fixed point.