“The old saw says that the first time is an accident, the second time a coincidence, and the third time enemy action. As a matter of policy, I’m suspicious of accidents, and I don’t believe in coincidences.”– Walter Slovotsky
Anachronism in Fantasy is a very different creature than anachronism in Science Fiction. In Sci-Fi, anachronisms tend to reveal themselves over time, following publication. Pan Am existing in 2001 for space travel, for example, or Atari dominating corporate billboards in 2018. Pay phones in 2035, that sort of thing. Authors are inevitably going to guess wrong. They will anticipate data networks but not wireless technology. They will unwittingly use now-ubiquitous slang that dates a story by next year. The best sci-fi authors must write stories that can survive such errors.
In Fantasy, however, the author has total control over anachronism except for subconscious error. This is important because, while anachronism is typically a problem to anticipate in Science Fiction, it is a critical tool in Fantasy.
T.H. White was an innovator in Fantastic anachronism in 1939’s The Once and Future King:
I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned – for instance, it is a serious comment on chivalry to make knights-errant drop their g’s like huntin’ men) and often darting back to the positively Gaelic past. .. Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.
Now, while this explains why I was subtly disappointed in White’s take on Arthur (because it was, in truth, expressly not Arthurian, or at best, willfully anachronistically Arthurian), what’s more important is his innovation with Merlin, a great visionary wizard who is living life in reverse. So, the bit about Hitler in Once and Future actually makes sense, because it is coming from a man who “remembers” the humble rise of the “future” tyrant.
And, while Tolkien did yeoman’s work in driving anachronism, especially linguistic anachronism, out of the Lord of the Rings (and, in the process, spending much of his contemporary life nostalgically hopeful for past anachronism to creep into the Modern world!) his older The Hobbit contains some clever touches for children – such as a re-imagined timeline for the invention of golf and how Dwarves haven’t yet taken to matches – that emphasize how well anachronism can work in Fantasy.
Terry Pratchett, of course, until recently, wrote fantasy that was an overt satire of modern life (post office, telecommunications regulations, Hollywood, police power, etc.) and even devoted one novel to the concept of anachronism! (The Thief of Time) Naturally, his books can get away with pretty much any anachronism he deems necessary. Accidental anachronisms are undetectable from the intentional.
The above-quoted Slovotsky is another good example of putting anachronism to work. The Guardians of the Flame series is set in the game world of a pseudo-medieval D&D, inhabited by heroes “played” by college students from 1980s America. Slovotsky provides a great number of clever “laws” governing human nature. They are anachronistic and worded in ways that are–by design–jarring commentaries on “ye olde” practices of the game world.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote in “The South” that “Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms.“
As true as that may be in the story, it is when the anachronisms are no longer “slight” that may indicate that a fantasy has bloated into something not just unbelievable, but uncomely. Anachronism is capable of destruction. The only serious question surrounding a novel slain by excessive anachronism is whether the crime was negligent bookslaughter or first-degree bibliocide.