Ways of Measuring Time in High Fantasy

There’s no rule that says Fantasy authors have to avoid clocks and calendars when writing their fictional worlds. Many authors simply stick with seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years.

After all, the 24-hour clock and the Gregorian Calendar pre-date the Middle Ages, so if a fantasy is set on a medieval earth-like world and characters refer to hours and months, it won’t feel immediately anachronistic (though admittedly these measurements wouldn’t have been available in handy wristwatch or smart phone format).

Even if a fantasy is not set on an earth-like world, all language in a high fantasy is considered translation anyway – i.e. translation into English from whatever language is spoken in the fantasy world – so why not translate into our familiar time units? Different measurements could be jarring to a reader, so sticking with what’s known is a safe bet.

All of that said, some high fantasies do venture out and use alternative or adjusted ways of measuring time. So I thought I’d have a look at how and why they do this, and what interesting methods of time telling some books have come up with.

The 24-Hour Clock

Some authors avoid the 24-hour clock, particularly the smaller measurements like seconds and minutes, as they can feel too indicative of a technologically advanced society with portable time-telling devices and exact mechanical measurements, rather than an archaic Fantasy society.

In place of the 24-hour clock, vaguer or broader time measurements are often used to divide up the day.

SOME EXAMPLES OF MORE VAGUE TIME INDICATORS:

sunrise, sunset, sundown, dusk, nightfall, mid-morning, afternoon, half a day, in a moment, a short while later, some time later, in the space of a few heartbeats, in the blink of an eye, in the time it took to…

If an author is feeling creative, however, they will sometimes invent or use alternative measurements. Here are a few ways of indicating shorter time periods that I’ve come across in fantasy novels:

Bells

Some books use bells instead of hours, e.g. “in half a bell” or “at seven bells”, often referring to church bells and indicating a more medieval setting, but also potentially to other bell-based systems, such as the watch system sounded by a ship’s bell. The bells in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series are more akin to this kind of watch system.

Candles

Some books measure time in candles, i.e. how long it takes a candle to burn down. Characters suggest something will happen “two candles from now”, or will take “three candles” to complete.

Candlemarks

This is a system that also uses candles, but this time with marks notched into the sides for measuring shorter time periods. It’s actually a method once used in our real world, with a mention of a candle clock first occurring in an ancient Chinese poem. Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series contained marked candles that burned consistently and could be used for time telling.

Heartbeats

Some novels use heartbeats as a rough measure of time. In The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, Kettral soldiers regularly count or refer to heartbeats when coordinating or timing their activities, though the measure is inexact. At one point, two monks even use their training to synchronise heart rates, in order to coordinate a more exact plan based on timing.

Prayers

Sometimes time is measured in how long it takes to recite a prayer or text. As a contributor pointed out in this forum discussion about time measures, Cynthia Harnett’s novel The Load of Unicorn, refers to “a paternoster while”, meaning the time taken to say a Pater Noster (Our Father) prayer.

Invented Units

There are also fantasy and sci-fi authors who will simply invent words for units of time, e.g. an “ahn” or a “centan” instead of an hour. Often these names have some significance to the culture or history of the fantasy world.

Days, Weeks and Months

Image: Steampunk Clock

Steampunk Clock. Photo by someone10x (CC BY 2.0)

Days tend to be a safe bet in fantasy, as they are defined by the rising and setting sun and are an obvious measure of time passing. Of course, sometimes fantasy worlds have more than one sun, or name it differently, but otherwise the concept remains the same.

Months are again usually retained in fantasy worlds, as they are defined by the moon and easily observed without technology. Multiple moons in a fantasy world could add some variation, but generally there is only one. To make things sound more archaic, however, some fantasy authors might shirk months and use phrases like “two moons hence” or “at full moon”.

Weeks tend to be trickier, as the days of our 7-day weeks are named for planets and gods or goddesses (Thursday = Thor’s Day), which could be too suggestive of earth history and astronomy for some authors. In this case, characters usually either never refer to week days, or the author invents new names for days of the week, even changing the week length if it suits them.

The Gregorian Calendar

Image: Mayan Calendar

Aztec/Mayan Calendar. Photo by Kim Alaniz (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Gregorian Calendar we use is steeped in real-world history, particularly Roman history (it was a refinement of the Julian Calendar, which was in turn a reform of the Roman calendar). As a lunisolar calendar it is also heavily tied to the patterns of earth’s sun and moon and the length of our months, years and days.

SOME EXAMPLES OF HOW MONTH NAMES REFLECT HISTORY:

July is named after Julius Caesar
March is named after the Roman god Mars
December is from the Latin for “10”, clearly reflecting the original 10-month calendar even though it is now the 12th month.

All of these factors could make people feel it is out of place in a fantasy world. To avoid the calendar, some fantasy authors avoid naming months altogether, and some choose to use alternative measures:

Inventing a New Calendar

Steven Karl Zoltán Brust invented a calendar and alternative time system for his world of Dragaera in the Vlad Taltos series.  His world has 5-day weeks, 17-day months, and 17-month years. However, other fantasy authors might not go into such detail with their invention, instead choosing to keep a relatively similar clock and calendar to the real world but naming months after the gods and goddesses or other features of the fantasy world.

OTHER REAL-WORLD CALENDARS

In all of this it’s worth noting that there are other calendars still in use in our real world. If you’ve only ever used the Gregorian Calendar, take a look at the Hebrew Calendar, Islamic Calendar or the Chinese Calendar for some fascinating glimpses into different ways of organising months and years. I wouldn’t be surprised if these have inspired fantasy authors in their creations of alternative calendars.

Seasons

Seasons are another popular way of dividing the year without using months. It’s not uncommon to read terms like “at high-summer” or “in mid-winter” or “at the solstice”. Occasionally, fantasy societies will have key feasts and celebration days related to the seasons that are used to indicate when something will happen, e.g. “at the harvest festival” or “on naming day”.

Why All The Fuss?

When authors offer up their high fantasy worlds, they aim to differentiate them from the real world by introducing new cultures, customs, gods, words, and ways of living. They evoke the magical and the old-world, and often shirk slang and technology that reminds us of modernity. They want these worlds to feel internally plausible, logical and unique… as real as possible without being real. Using different forms of measurement, and in particular time measurement, is just one way they can do that. It is by no means mandatory or ubiquitous, but it is an interesting and thought-provoking worldbuilding element, and can be fascinating if used well.

After all, we modern humans are ruled by the clock, and are quite rigid in our understanding of how time works. It’s easy for us to forget that a lot of our measurements are self-imposed, and that they were not always how they are now. Time is such a large part of the way we process and understand our lives, so it’s nice when fantasy throws us off balance or opens up new avenues by suggesting another way of looking at it.

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Related Links:

  • J.S. Morin’s article Ways to Measure in Fantasy provides a useful breakdown of the various approaches authors can take to measuring weight, length and time in fantasy, dividing the types of measurement into four categories: modern, archaic, familiar and invented.
  • If you’re interested in clocks and time-telling gadgets, here is a list of interesting Timekeeping Devices that have been used in our real world.
  • For a look at medieval timekeeping, why not check out this Quora discussion on the ways people in the Middle Ages told time.
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13 thoughts on “Ways of Measuring Time in High Fantasy

  1. What an interesting post! I’m relieved by the idea of not having to reinvent time for my YA fantasy, but it’s still super interesting to consider possibilities such as prayer time, candle time, and heartbeat time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anachronistic references to specific times of day or times of year can jolt me out of suspended disbelief.

    Le Roy Ladurie’s amazing Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error is a scholarly study of Church depositions taken from 13th century peasants in a remote French village. Chapter XVII Concepts of Space and Time explores the mental space of agricultural, preliterate (somewhat) Christians. [1]

    QUOTE Fixed points in time were indicated by references to meals … [before or after] lunch or dinner, and to liturgical hours such as terce, nones, or vespers… The people of Montaillou indicated the divisions of the night by means of visual, aural, or physiological references such as after sunset, at the hour of the first sleep, [2] at the hour halfway through the first sleep, at cock-crow, or when the cock had crowed three times. Church bells are scarcely ever referred to except when they ring for funerals…

    The rhythm of the year was that of the twelve months and the four seasons but these were not referred to very frequently. Dates were sometimes fixed by reference to purely natural phenomena, not necessarily agricultural: when the elms have put forth their leaves. There are many references to turnip and wheat harvests…The division of the year was largely ecclesiastical– All Saints, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Whitsun …END QUOTE

    [1] Church inquisitors took depositions from the villagers of Montaillou because they were accused of heresy.

    [2] If you are bewildered by references to first sleep and second sleep, see Historian A. Roger Ekirch’s book At day’s close: night in times past. http://www.history.vt.edu/Ekirch/sleepcommentary.html

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    • Fascinating! Hadn’t thought about cocks crowing or trees putting out new leaves but it makes sense these would be indicators of time in a peasant’s life. And I’ve heard of the two sleeps before (I think in a documentary) but the idea still intrigues because it’s so different to our current pattern of sleep. It would certainly be an interesting time qualifier in a fantasy to use ‘at the hour of first sleep’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done. I personally can’t imagine waking up two hours after going to sleep (I like a nice long unbroken sleep!) but I guess you can fall into any pattern once it’s ingrained.

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  3. While I love world-building, I chose to maintain a relatively simplistic measure of time for my alternate universe. Days, fortnights, lunar months, seasons, and lunar-solar cycles are simple enough to track both for me and for the reader – I hope. I like the idea of using “hour” as a relative period during a single day, like “the late afternoon hour”. Candle time sounds really cool too! I think I’ve seen that in The Wheel of Time, but not as a standard measure of time – it was just used in specific scenes or circumstances.

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  4. Super interesting post! I am an aspiring fantasy author, fantasy book junkie, and amateur clock repairist, so this strikes make chords (badump chh). I will add that wooden clock movements pre-dated “antique” brass ones, and that gears were carved by hand sometimes up to the early 19th century. Sundials might also make an appearance maybe?

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  5. just stumbled across this interesting post of yours. I’ve been exploring timekeeping (in our world), and come up with my own calendar system, which is now finding its way into a fantasy story I’m writing. I’ve come across many of the questions you raise, but having already developed a calendar system, it came down to questions about dividing up the day (still undecided, but either 26 or 23 hours is more numerologically apt than 24). I still haven’t decided, but it does lead to some fundamental questions.

    I recall in “Midnight Tides” (Malazan Book of the Fallen), where the prophecy that was to be fulfilled was indeed happening, but they had miscalculated by one day… Imagine Julius Caesar assassinated March 14th….

    “But he said the Ides!”
    “Calculation error. We forgot to carry the 1…”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool that you came up with your own calendar system. I’ve also started to do that for a story I’m writing and I find dividing up the day hard. Even after figuring out the number of hours, I started wondering how long those hours actually were/felt to the characters, and then indeed how long the day on that world actually was in comparison to an earth day… anyway, once you start playing with time things can certainly get tricky.

      I love the idea of a calendar miscalculation as a dramatic reveal! I haven’t yet read Malazan, but I think something similar happens in the book Dragonflight, and I enjoyed it.

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      • I’m using the calendar miscalculation in my story, but they’re off by 780 years. Malazan is HUGE – there are some amazing story lines in there, but so many characters, it’s the most elaborate fictional world I’ve ever encountered. I revisit some of the books every few years just to read certain storylines.

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      • Also the earth has been slowing down, so the day used to be 20 hours, then 21, 22 over the course of millions of years. I think characters would notice depending on how closely they follow the clock vs the Sun.

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        • Yes I find it fascinating that the earth has been slowing down! Though I think the only reason we know this is due to the study of fossils and to exact scientific measurements so I wonder if a typical fantasy society that isn’t scientifically advanced and doesn’t have exact methods of time measurement would notice such things occurring over hundreds of millions of years. But then, anything possible in fantasy if you put some magical logic behind it, and who knows what abilities the characters might have.

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