Victorian Time Travel

From Raspberry World – Volume 2, Issue 3 (October/November 2007) In the so-called “gay nineties” of the nineteenth century, two famously prolific and well-read authors wrote books dealing with time travel. On the surface they first appear quite dissimilar, but even though an ocean separated them, they share eerily and bizarrely coincidental themes. The American, Mark Twain, wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889, while England’s H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895. Twain’s Yank travels back to the year 528 and Wells’ Brit travels far forward to the year 802,701. Yea, though both be noble in word, and one be East and the other be West, never the twain shall meet? Both of these famous writers wrote many stories, and these two tales were at the forefront of a new genre: time travel. Both saw with different eyes, yet their stories had striking situations and sameness. And interestingly, both stories take place in Great Britain.

In historical hindsight, we know the good old days were not good for all. It was good to be the King (or Queen) or at least a wealthy writer. Yet for all those who had, there were countless others who had not. The poor were miserably poor. Rank and class had undeniable privilege. There was much thought and dialogue at that time about new and different ways: industrialization, socialism, communism, and intellectualism. In that era, they were not dangerous words, but lofty, idealistic food for thought.

Wells’ quick-read novella is quite different from its various film versions. The book does not have a Hollywood happily-ever-after ending. The unnamed Time Traveler finds himself in a degenerating Garden of Eden, a Utopia – he thinks. Each time this philosophical traveler thinks he understands what is and what is not, he lessens his chance of survival. His very superiority is his Achilles’ heel. Time and time again, he speaks of the others as less than simple children; time and time again it is his undoing. When he does try to reason with them on his terms, he is short tempered and frightens the child-like humanoids. He arrives with no weapons, nor camera to record or verify. All he has with him are matches.

In Twain’s tale, his unbelievably intelligent blacksmith, Hank Morgan, feels the same way about the people he encounters. Morgan is a modern man; he will help these simple children better themselves with his own way. He will free them from their bondage of serfdom. Heck, he might even be willing to be their first president! Twain’s’ story is not a quick or easy read; quite a bit of it is written in an old English style, especially the dialogue.

Twain’s Morgan and Wells’ Time Traveler have fond affection for their simple charges that they want to help and ultimately “save”. Both also underestimate their enemies with their self-righteous superiority. Wells’ traveler wastes his only connection to his time, his matches, impressing his child-like charges, the Eloi. The cannibalistic Moorlocks do not get the Time Traveler the first time, but his simple charges, the Eloi, who fawn over him, certainly pay the price. Twain’s’ modernization’s upon the Fourth Century seem comically endearing – at first. Yet it’s all for naught. He can never win an argument on his terms; he also frightens his new friends. They think he may be mad – or worse, bewitched by the devil! This future man, though he knows history, highly underestimates his greatest adversary: the Church. Neither Morgan nor the Traveler can protect those they love and inadvertently bring about their destruction.

Both stories have some sly if not outrageous humor. Upon the immediate return to his time, after he has just barely escaped the cannibalistic Moorlocks, the Time Traveler’s biggest and basest desire is to be able to eat meat once more. Most of Twain’s story is loaded with sly humor and satire, offsetting much of the pathos we encounter through Morgan’s score of years in fourth century Britain. However, the human carnage near the conclusion is not funny at all. The final battle was a prescient vision of things to come. In a score of years, the First World War would be coming over the horizon. With Morgan’s knowledge and his own bloody hands, thousands upon thousands are slaughtered for his vision of a better way.

Each story has a non-conclusion. More than likely, each writer wanted their readers to reflect upon their stagnant superior status and visualize its weaknesses. Class is not necessarily “class”. Nothing stays the same through time. Long ago and far from where either story was written, a very wise man once warned us, “Pride goes before the fall.” I wonder what other truisms are destined to be or not to be?



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