Time and Death in Fantasy Worlds

Since much of fantasy literature is accessible to readers of all age and education levels, writers often use a variety of methods to work around and through difficult or unsavory topics. These techniques alImage result for time and deathso help with creating an alternate view of these subjects suitable for the alternate worlds in which these stories unfold. One subject that frequently manifests itself in unique ways is that of Death. While figures like Voldemort fear and flee death, it is an inevitable part of life, and no amount of Horcruxes or Invisibility of Cloaks will hide us from it forever.  To personify Death, authors sometimes rely on the conventional imagery of the Grim Reaper, but when it comes to speculative fiction, on the page or on the screen, this image sometimes is conflated with another, that of Father Time, and, in the process of fusing Time and Death, these stories use creative imagery and unique symbolism to portray the brief candles that are all of our lives.

On that cheerful note, cue up the cowbell and follow me after the jump for a look at a few recent and popular treatments of Time and Death in fantasy worlds. It really is less depressing than it sounds, TRUST ME.

Time and Death

The figures who are sometimes used to represent Death and Time are frequently conflated, even outside literature, and have been for a very long time. The figure of Time, from the Greek god Cronos, carried a scythe to represent his role as an agricultural patron. His Roman counterpart was depicted in similar fashion. 005Both figures were generally grim-faced old men (hence the term “saturnine” for a stern expression), so it is understandable how elements of their personae beImage result for Kronos scythecame part of the Grim Reaper image that evolved, probably in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance. Until then, artworks usually portray Death as a skeleton or as the Pale Horseman of the Revelation of Saint John. The Grim Reaper, though sometimes a skeleton under the hooded black robe, carries the scythe of Cronos/Saturn, not as a scary weapon, but as a symbol, just as the scythes often used on Victorian tombstones do not indicate that the individual died in some sort of farming implement accident, but that he or she was “harvested” in the prime of life. The hourglass, also popular on cemetery art, is a symbol often carried by Father Time and incorporated with the Grim Reaper as well.Image result for father time


Further layering to the image came through Charles Dickens, whose Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is also often combined with the Grim Reaper, further cementing the bond between Time and Death in this one   figure. Up through the Victorian era, and into our own, the Grim Reaper is such a codified personification of death that a black hooded robe and scythe make an instantly recognizabl010smalle Halloween costume.  Certainly death can wear many other faces, from the charming Joe Black to the wonderful mummy with an hourglass Death created by Scott Fensterer in the Four Horsemen challenge on Face Off (I don’t usually “do” reality TV, but Scott is a friend, Image result for faceoff fensterer four horsemenso we watched for him and really loved seeing him work, especially on this beautiful piece). In portraying the figure of Time and Death, storytellers can draw upon these traditional images and elements, as well as adding their own unique touches.


“Big, and wearing Cloaks”: Dementors and Nazgul

Two of the most terrifying figuresImage result for nazgul in literature include the menacing cloak of Death. In The Lord of the Rings, the ominous Nazgul (or Black Riders, the Nine, or any of their other scary names)  hunt down Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship, along with anyone else standing between them and the One Ring. Once men, they have purchased immortality through their service to Sauron, become mere shades draped in the robes of Death. Thus, by trying to evade time and death, they become agents of death, not truly bound by time or mortality, but bound but something much worse. In text and in film, these figures clearly transmit fear and foreboding, reflecting their own feelings about death.

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As we know from the great Dumbledore himself, there are far worse things than death, and those who allow themselves to be driven by a fear of death, inevitably, are consumed by something much worse.  Though, during “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” the figure of Death himself is mentioned, he is not central to the Hogwarts Saga. The paper shadow-puppet depiction of Death in the cinematic adaptation of The Deathly Hallows is probably one of the best moments in any of the movies (and who doesn’t love the way Emma Watson says “hooded figure” as “hooded figger”; it’s wonderful). However, Death’s own cloak is, according to the legend, the fabulous, infallible Invisibility Cloak in which Harry, the true “Master of Death” is so often swathed. The fact that Harry himself, by refusing to fear and flee death, can wear Death’s cloak without being fearful or fearsome is a reminder of RowlinImage result for dementorg’s constant message about seeing death, not as a terror, but as an old friend.


The traditional image of Death is found elsewhere in Harry’s story. The dementors constantly co-opt the regalia of death, and even the Squib Mrs. Figg knows they are large and hooded, like Death, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Though they do not “kill” in a literal sense, their kiss is brain-death, erasing a person’s soul. Ironically, it is by manipulating Time that Hermione and Harry are able to save Sirius from just that fate. By using the Time-Turner, which resembles an hourglass, and thus one of the major symbols of Time, they prevent Buckbeak’s execution, but, perhaps more importantly, they rescue Harry and SImage result for time turneririus from the Dementor’s kiss. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, whose vision of a possible future leads him to change his ways, Harry and Hermione are able to prevent great harm and set in motion a better future.



The hourglass that is the center of Hermione’s Time Turner also calls to mind the use of hourglasses to symbolize the span of one’s life. All together now: “As the sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives….” Image result for discworld deathOne of the most evocative uses of that image is in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where Death, who is a pretty nice chap once you get to know him (and let’s face it; eventually, everyone does), lives in a house with a vast collection of hourglasses, one for each living person on the Disc. As the last grains of a person’s life fall through the neck of the glass, Death sets off (at least in the case of really important people; some folks get delegated) to escort him or her (wizards, in particular, always get a personal visit).


Though he is a skeleton, and though he wears a hooded cloak, Pratchett’s Death is often a less-than-terrifying, even kindly, figureImage result for discworld death, who likes cats and has been known to manipulate circumstances, and perhaps to even flip an hourglass. Even though royals “get the sword” when they die, Death employs the traditional scythe for regular stiffs (sorry), and like the Pale Rider of the Revelation, he does ride a horse, a nice one named Binky. When it looks like the end of the (Disc) world is near, he, along with the other three Horsemen, makes an appearance (they get sidetracked, fortunately).  Though the vast Discworld canon also includes a figure (two, sort of. It’s complicated) who is the embodiment of Time, and who has a romantic connection with Death’s granddaughter, Susan, Death himself clearly integrates images of both figures.


Tick Tock—Time (and Death) as a Thief or a Friend in Wonderland and Neverland

The recent Tim Burton film Alice through the Looking Glass (like its predecessor, only loosely connected to the Lewis Carroll novel), features its own interesting take on the Time/Death image. Time, played with typical madcap zeal by Sasha Baron Cohen, is partly clockwork thanks to some nice special effects. His primary duty seems to be maintenance of rows and rows of watches, one for each person in Underland/Wonderland. The watch stops when a person dies and is suspended on the chain waiting for it. Thus, still-living people have chains, but no watch hanging from them yet. It is a fascinating motif, and it allows Time to help Alice cope with her unresolved issues surrounding the death of her father, whose stopped watch she carries. Time is puzzled by her fixation on the “fallen soldier” she keeps. With his role as clock-stopper, Time is, essentially, the personification of Death in the bizarre world Tim(e) Burton has crafted.Image result for alice through the looking glass time


The connection of Time and Death with a father’s pocket watch is prominent in another loose adaptation of a beloved children’s classic: Hook. Captain Hook, of course, has a clock phobia due to the loss of his hand to the crocodile that also swallowed a clock, leading to his constant ticking that alerts Hook to danger. In Spielberg’s version, Hook, having killed and stuffed the crocodile he once feared, has the croc made into a clock. In keeping with his hatred of the beast and his fear of ticking things, Hook destroys every clock he finds.  For Hook, time and death are one, welded together in the creature of a ticking reptile, and, in killing clocks, he hopes to Image result for hook spielbergsecure his own immortality,


As he attempts to ingratiate himself to Peter’s son, Jack, Hook persuades the boy to destroy Peter’s pocket watch, symbolic of Jack’s resentments of a father who has never spent enough time with him. In smashing the watch, and several clocks as well, Jack is venting his frustration, but he is also stopping time, preventing growing up, the very essence of Neverland.  Hook, in attempting to destroy Peter, is consumed by the crocodile clock, finally caught by time, the scary grown-up nemesis of the boy who never grows up.


Death in the Time of the Hunger Games

One of the most effective themes in The Hunger Games is that of time. With emphasis on the numbers 12 and 24, the trilogy is clock-centered even before the use of the clock arena in Catching Fire.  When the Tributes Image result for hunger games arena cornucopia clockare lifted into the Seventy-fourth Games, Katniss describes the 24 figures, in a circle, standing on circular plates, surrounding a circle. It is hard to imagine a more potent representation of time, and it is one that is intricately tied to death, as the Tributes will be blown to bits if they move before the 60 seconds elapse. In addition to the time limit that holds them down with the threat of death, the tributes are all facing death, if not in the bloodbath that always follows the opening of the Games, then in the days to come.
Image result for mockingjay watch heavensbee

Though there is no personification of Time and Death in Panem as there is in Discworld, Underland, or Middle earth, the two concepts are inextricably linked, as Collins even structures the first novel around a day of the week scaffolding that places certain events, including deaths, on certain days. For example, on Wednesdays in the arena, the day whose child is “full of woe,” a little girl always dies.  Tuesday, named for the Norse god of war, is a day of death, usually marked by bloodshed, as in the opening at the Cornucopia. For more on the brilliant day-of-the-week structure, click here. In the Seventy-fifty Games, Wiress’s chant of “Hickory, Dickory Dock,” is a clue about the arena’s structure, connected to Plutarch Heavensbee’s clue on his pocket watch. But, as she transmits the clue, she is murdered, fusing time and death, in a story that so often wrestles with matters of mortality and time.

Though these are clearly only a few of the many possible examples of the fantasy fusion of  Death and Time, they do, truly remind us that one of reasons why we enter these alternate worlds is to help us understand  our lives, and, in the process, our deaths, as a part of life. For Christians, Death is not a bogeyman, but a gateway, and Time is not our enemy. We don’t have to have Time Turners to control time, or stoppers to put into death. Instead, as Dumbledore reminds us, we just have to change our perspective. Don’t fear.

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  1. https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2011/10/17/there-are-no-ordinary-people-you-have-never-talked-to-a-mere-mortal/

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
    All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
    It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
    There are no ordinary people.
    You have never talked to a mere mortal.
    Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
    But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
    This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.
    We must play.
    But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
    And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
    Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” — The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001), pp. 45-46.

    Eternity is the proper perspective for time and death. For when we shuffle off this mortal coil and put on immortality, then we shall truly live! The foretaste of that victory shines through to pierce our souls with true longing and to call us into Life Himself.

  2. Oops, that should have been started with … “C S Lewis observes …” .

  3. Brian Basore says

    For a classical Graeco-Roman (pre-Christian; when Fluffy was called Cerberus) perspective on life and death, there is Trent Jamieson’s The Death Works trilogy of novels (2010-2011). The employes of MortMax Inc. are living humans who use old magic and supernatural skills much as Magic is Technology in the HP world. The Regional Managers are Death in their respective regions, are somewhat supernatural, and each has a Scythe for extraordinary situations. Voldemort would not qualify to be a Regional Manager, because he feared death, and death is a necessary part of life. Souls need to be guided safely to the local Underworld after death.

    As Dumbledore observed, there are worse things [in life] than death. Still, The Business of Death books are grim compared to the HP books, and, it should be noted, that MortMax employes have to be alive to be on the payroll. If they get killed, they’re gone like everybody else. Life is the concern of living humans, not an abstraction. There’s a lot of that attitude in the HP books. Harry feels like that a lot in the books.

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