Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
How is it possible for sorrow and joy to coexist in a single moment in time? I asked this of myself this summer over our week-long family vacation to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We returned to the camp I spent 23 summers of my young life attending, and having been away for eleven years since my last visit, I walked around the familiar buildings and trails like a person caught in a waking dream. Perfect memory collided with each moment as if the fabric of space and time had folded in on each other. More than once, I caught my breath, certain I could see ghosts of my former self—my lifelong friends and I sitting on stone-paved fireplace hearths, running barefoot with sandy feet down cedar-chipped trails, skipping rocks at the water’s edge. I have grown up, but the faces of old friends are as familiar to me at 36 as they were at age six. At this place, where past and present blur into one, I grieved what I could never fully recapture, even as I felt the joy of return. I wrestled with the finitude of this life and looked ahead to the infinitude of the one that is to come.
Despite the mathematical simplicity of the ticking of the clock, time is one of the great mysteries of life, and its passage is a thing we are more likely to wrestle with than embrace. More than anything, time is something we endure, our experiences with it as varied as all aspects of life itself. Because we are finite beings bound by time, it is through its passage that we observe the ravages of the Fall. Through time, all things decay, all people experience loss, we age and draw closer to death. Yet in a pre-Fall world, the passage of time would have been very good, as with all things in creation. Time was once a gift—part of a created order in which there was no death and decay—no loss or sorrow or suffering. If the passage of time did not bring such things, how would we rejoice in it? Can we imagine a world like that? In our hearts and minds, we know that the passage of time brings a mixture of bitter and sweet, and in our imaginings, and our struggles, we seek expression for how this bittersweet time works on us. This is where stories can help.
All of time itself is but a dream from which the people of Narnia—and, let the reader understand, all of us—will someday wake.In our efforts to understand the effect time has on us, we personify it. We say that time is cruel, that it flies, that it has not been kind to us. And we also say that time is precious, and we cling to every second of it that we have. And we struggle to understand how we can love it and fear it and loathe it, and all these feelings pour over into the stories we tell about time. Our desire to understand something that is so universal yet mysterious leads storytellers to turn it over and look at it from all sides, and across time and culture, some patterns emerge that reveal both the bitter and the sweet—patterns that point to our deepest longings for eternity.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, while navigating the dark and twisting tunnels of Under-land, human children Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb and Marshwiggle Puddleglum are shown the cavern of an ancient giant-like man. The man, the Warden of Under-land tells them, is Father Time. Lying fast asleep and bathed in a source-less silver light, he is old, yet noble and beautiful; alone, yet at peace. The Warden goes on to say he was “once a King of Overland” who sunk down below and “now lies dreaming of all the things that are done in the upper world… They say he will wake at the end of the world.” The travelers move on from there through Under-land, leaving almost all thought and mention of Father Time behind, because The Silver Chair is not about Father Time, and Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb and Puddleglum have an important mission to fulfill.
From a narrative perspective, the scene with Father Time seems rather pointless. He doesn’t help or hinder the achievement of the protagonists’ goals, and neither does his presence provide new information to the story that isn’t provided elsewhere. The world is already built; the setting already established. His inclusion seems a whim of C. S. Lewis’s mythological fancy, and nothing more. Without greater understanding of the larger story, the scene with Father Time is the sort of scene that could have been cut altogether.
But Lewis did not write The Chronicles of Narnia piecemeal, and his passing mention of a slumbering father of time is no authorial fancy, but a portent of things to come in the final book in the series when Lewis does, in fact, tackle the subject matter of the end of the world. What we learn of Father Time in The Silver Chair tells us something of Lewis’s perspective on time itself—as a Christian and as a Platonist—and it deftly sets up a story marker so that Father Time’s crucial appearance in The Last Battle would not be as deus ex machina.
It is far easier to meditate on the bitterness of time than on the goodness of it.It is important that, in The Silver Chair, Father Time is asleep and dreaming of the world above, and that he is both beautiful and noble. A modern readership might be less familiar with the concept of Father Time now, but in Lewis’s day, any mention of him would bring to mind more of a Grim Reaper character. An old man, cowled and carrying an hourglass and a scythe—Father Time was fearful, a harbinger of the end of your life, more akin to the figure of Death from The Tales of Beedle the Bard in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But Lewis reinvented him, as he was wont to reinvent many aspects of myths for his Chronicles of Narnia, putting both a Platonic and a Christian spin on his character. Father Time is not to be feared, he communicates. He was once a king, once very good (as all true kings and queens of Narnia are), and now he is but asleep. He is entombed, as one dead, and he will both bring an end and come to an end, but he dreams of what passes above. Thus, all of time itself is but a dream from which the people of Narnia—and, let the reader understand, all of us—will someday wake. Since Father Time’s awakening will be as from a tomb, so our awakening will be as a resurrection unto true life.
The Greeks also personified time and trapped him under the earth, but unlike Lewis’s story of a beautiful and noble giant, the Greek Cronus (from which we get the word “chronology” and its derivatives) was a wicked and terrifying Titan who earned his spot beneath even the Underworld by castrating his own father and devouring his children. Eventually, through the schemes of his mother and youngest child Zeus, Cronus was brought low and sentenced to the depths of Tartarus.
The ancient Greek concept of time as a fearful, devouring, destroying thing comes closer to how we tend to envision it and personify it today than Lewis’s vision of a noble sleeping giant. This side of eternity, we feel oppressed more by the slow, encroaching press of time—time as a destructive force that ravages and steals and kills—than we feel encouraged by the good gifts, maturity, and blessings it bestows. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, when Bilbo Baggins finds himself in a contest of riddles with the creature Gollum, Bilbo nearly loses the contest when Gollum presents to him this riddle:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron; bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
The answer to the riddle is, of course, time, and what a bleak perspective it offers on how the Fall has affected time. What this also reveals is how it is far easier to meditate on the bitterness of time than on the goodness of it. Although I do love that Tolkien paints his simple-life-loving hobbit as one who is incapable of figuring out what this riddle means. Bilbo nearly loses the contest at this point—in fact, he doesn’t figure out the answer. In trying to beg more time out of Gollum to figure it out, he squeaks, “Time, time!” and guesses the answer by mistake. I don’t know if Tolkien was making a statement on how Gollum’s mind was bent toward bitterness, and thus he meditated on bitter things that childlike Bilbo had never yet felt anxious about, but the scene, and the riddle, give space for the reader, too, to think about such things.
Until we are unbound by time, we will always seek the stories that help us try and understand it just a little bit better. There is a difference between being childish and being childlike, and part of the goodness of the passage of time is the putting off of childishness to embrace maturity, growth, and sanctification. These things cannot happen without time. In putting off childishness, though, we hope to retain childlikeness—to feel, as children’s fantasy author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I am still every age that I have always been,” while yet putting away childish things. I felt this acutely while vacationing at my old camp this summer—that I could not go back to my youth, but my youth was with me still. And I am still the same, but I am different, and while I want to mourn the passage of time that I can never get back, I want also to rejoice at the newness of a life matured and new memories, and the hope of an eternal life to come. Some stories put perfect expression to such feelings, and when I got home and put on the third season of Stranger Things, I found my catharsis in the struggle of the children to reconcile their own transitions from youth to adulthood.
Placed against a backdrop of monsters and exploding rats and infiltrating Russians, the main theme of the story of Stranger Things 3 was growing up and everything that comes with it. Growing up occurs because of time, of course, and the writers showed how the challenges of the transitions between childhood and the teen years, and the teen years and adulthood, and parenting these ages—how they are different for everyone, and full of much awkwardness and dysfunction and pain, not just for individuals, but for families and friends groups and communities. But mixed into all the messiness is beauty and goodness, too. This reflection of the real world, and, ultimately, the reflection of things that tug us toward eternity, is what makes Stranger Things work—it’s why the show has always succeeded despite what could otherwise have been a niche project based on ‘80s nostalgia and flashback horror references. And how season three reckons with time is what will make it stick when those ‘80s references begin to feel stale, because until we are unbound by time, we will always seek the stories that help us try and understand it just a little bit better.
In the final episode of season three, police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) writes a letter to his adoptive daughter, El (Millie Bobby Brown), that is all about change and transition. In it, he describes that life before she came into it was like being “stuck… in a cave… a deep dark cave,” and how he became so much happier after he adopted her. But he’s feeling different things now that she’s moving on into young adulthood:
I miss playing board games every night, making triple-decker Eggo extravaganzas at sunrise, watching westerns together before we doze off. But I know you’re getting older, growing, changing. And I guess… if I’m being really honest, that’s what scares me. I don’t want things to change. So I think maybe that’s why I came here, to try to maybe… stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were.
But I know that’s naive. It’s just… not how life works. It’s moving. Always moving whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s sad and sometimes it’s surprising. Happy.
So you know what? Keep on growing up, kid. Don’t let me stop you. Make mistakes, learn from ’em, and when life hurts you—because it will—remember the hurt. The hurt is good. It means you’re out of that cave…
We all, like Jim Hopper, would freeze time in our happiest moments if we could. We would all go back to avoid the fear of change and the inevitability of future pain. But for most of us, there is past pain, too, and such stories help us remember that the bitter and the sweet coexist in the passage of time. That every tick of the clock, every second that passes, is a moment we cannot reclaim.
The relentless march of time reminds us that we are mortal, time is finite, and this world will one day end. Across history and culture, we would not bind time to caves and prisons, personified abstractions and beings in our stories, if we did not have some belief deep inside us that it could, and would, be someday bound and brought to an end. But it takes a being unbound by time, a being of the infinite, to bring an end to the bitter of the passage of time, and the stories we tell point to this. “Now make an end,” Aslan says to Father Time after he awakens in The Last Battle—after he has raised his horn and called the creatures of Narnia through the stable door and into the true Narnia. And Father Time, who has a new name now, one which we’re never told, grasps the sun and snuffs it out, and the High King Peter closes the stable door on Narnia, leaving Father Time outside in the dark. In the new Narnia, in the true world in which there are no more dreams or shadows, there is no more need for time. God, who is the Alpha and the Omega, who knows the end, and that the end, like the beginning, is very good, marches us toward this land.