Anachronism

One of the many classic moments in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which I watched last week) is when King Arthur confronts a peasant who insists that his community doesn’t have a king because “we’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune” while another peasant argues that they’re “an autonomous collective.” It’s hysterical precisely because it’s such an absurd anachronism.
As I observed in a recent post, people in every time have the same basic feelings and drives, but they may express them or understand them very differently. Even in the 10th century, there were probably people who resented kings, but they didn’t use 19th and 20th century political terms to do it.
In Life of Brian, we also get anachronism in the form of the anti-Roman resistance groups, the People’s Liberation Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front (Names IIRC). Here again, we have anachronism, with a familiar present-day sentiment—resistance to an occupying force—dressed up in a modern garb. Only the idea isn’t simply absurdity but satire on the radical militants of the early seventies and their constant infighting.
A third use for anachronism is more serious: To show that the past and the present aren’t that different (or Earth and the fourth planet of Betelgeuse, for that matter). People in the Roman Senate or Arthurian Britan discussing power politics in the same way we imagine modern-day American senators doing it.
This can effectively drive home the point that we have more in common with the past than we imagine. It can also just look anachronistic. Ursula LeGuin argued that if you could put a scene in a fantasy novel into a present-day setting without changing anything but the names, the writer had screwed up; she was talking more about language than story, but she has a point (though I don’t agree that this somehow disqualifies the novel as fantasy).
For example, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novel, Thendara House (set on the psi-powered, barbaric world of Darkover), initially impressed me by showing how the Free Amazons—the Darkover feminist movement—were dealing with exactly the same kind of issues modern-day feminists were coping with.
It stopped impressing me when I realized that was all they were dealing with: On this barbaric, patriarchal, violent planet, feminists have exactly the same problems they do on Earth. And that centuries after our own time, married Earth women still can’t get Earth authorities to accept them keeping their maiden name. This does not, as they say, pass the smell test.
I’m sure there have been better uses of serious anachronism, though none immediately comes to mind. So on that unsatisfying note, I’ll take my leave.

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