The Time Machine and the Origins of Modern Fantasy

At a recent conference in Fudan University a Professor asked me about the difference between fantasy and science fiction, and I gave my usual somewhat glib reply. In a science fictional world, if you asked how something worked you would get an answer that made some sort of sense in terms of contemporary science; while in a fantasy world you would not get any such answer – would not, in fact, feel inclined to ask many questions about how things worked at all, being far too preoccupied with reacting to the wonders and horrors on every side. In other words, science fiction claims to operate within the realms of what may at one stage be possible, while fantasy is concerned with the impossible, with things, creatures and phenomena which the reader knows full well have never existed, never will, and never can. The Professor gave as an example of science fiction a text from before the genre was named, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). At once I remembered my own recognition when I first read it that it draws freely on the tropes of fantasy: the Eloi resemble elves or fairies, the Morlocks goblins or malignant dwarves, the Time Traveller’s journey the wanderings of some unwary mortal in what Tolkien calls the Perilous Realm or Faërie, where time is disconcertingly out of kilter with human clocks. I then remembered that Tolkien refers to the book a number of times in his most famous statement on the fantasy genre, the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (1947), usually encountered in the anthology Tree and Leaf (1964). I went back to the essay to remind myself what he said about it, then re-read The Time Machine in the light of Tolkien’s essay. In the process I discovered all over again just how cunningly Wells was meddling with the ingredients in Tolkien’s Soup of Story – that endlessly evolving dish to which each new generation, each new writer contributes distinctive new touches – in this early text of his.[1]

Tolkien first mentions Wells’s story when he is trying to work out his definition of fairy stories – something he never finally succeeds in doing, not because he fails in the attempt but because he isn’t really interested in success. The definition of a fairy-story, he says, depends on the definition of its chief ingredient, ‘Faërie’, and defining this, he says, ‘Cannot be done’, since ‘Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible’.[2] Later he links the term to the art of enchantment, a capacity to provoke ‘wonder’ in the reader. If wonder has any meaning at all it refers to something that has not yet been subjected to analysis – something that is for the time being simply reacted to, emotionally and rationally, as extraordinarily strange and desirable (though for Tolkien desire is invariably qualified by the adjective dangerous, a term that recurs over and over again, along with its cognates, in his essay). The undefinability of Faërie sets it at odds with the lucid, purportedly scientific explanations of seemingly impossible things which Wells offers in his science fiction, a genre Tolkien links with travellers’ tales in its preoccupation with marvels ‘to be seen in this mortal world in some region of our own time and space’ – as opposed to the other-worldly marvels of fairy story.[3] Clearly for Tolkien ‘this mortal world’ includes other worlds in the physical universe we inhabit, such as the titular satellite in Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901). But Tolkien goes on to identify The Time Machine as possessing something of a fairy tale quality, precisely because of the distance of time with which it concerns itself: ‘Eloi and Morlocks live far away in an abyss of time so deep as to work an enchantment upon them; and if they are descended from ourselves’, he adds, we should remember that the Beowulf poet traced the ancestry of the elves ‘through Cain from Adam’ (p. 13). They are far enough away for their link to ‘our own time and space’ to have been rendered more or less untraceable – the Time Traveller repeatedly reminds us that any conjectures he may have as to their evolution are precisely that, conjectures ‘which may be absolutely wrong’.[4] Elsewhere Tolkien states that one of the attractiveness of fairy stories consists in the sense that they have been cut adrift from recorded history, a condition most admirably evoked, he thinks, in that simplest and most evocative of openings ‘Once upon a time’ (p. 81).[5] For much of The Time Machine the Time Traveller finds himself literally cut adrift in that he is without means of escaping from the far future, bereft even of the ability to link up his personal history to the rest of the history of the world with any accuracy – or to communicate his discoveries to his fellow historians, even if he does succeed in puzzling out what has taken place between his original period and the time in which he is stranded.

The one element of Wells’s novel that separates it from fairy story, Tolkien opines, is ‘the preposterous and incredible Time Machine itself’ (p. 13). The device, in other words, that purports to offer a rational explanation for the Time Traveller’s ability to reach the far future is precisely the thing that weakens the ‘enchantment of distance’ (p. 13), presumably by implying that there is a real scientific possibility of future expeditions to periods other than our own. I think – as most readers will, I expect – that Tolkien is wrong about the preposterousness of Wells’s device, though his view is wholly consistent with his insistence that fairy story achieves its effects by resisting explanation or definition, in scientific terms or otherwise. Indeed for many readers of science fiction, the problem with the Time Machine is that it doesn’t offer a rational explanation for anything, since we never get a hint as to how it operates – not even something as perfunctory as the account Wells gives of the non-existent substance, ‘cavorite’, that enables the spacecraft to leave Earth’s atmosphere in The First Men in the Moon. The Time Machine is, I think, partly introduced in order to tie Wells’s novel to the sorts of stories being written by his contemporaries that aimed to undermine confidence in scientific materialism: ghost stories, occult narratives, accounts of séances. (In some of his other time travel narratives, such as The Sleeper Awakes (1910) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), he uses sleep as the protagonist’s mode of transportation). And the machine is also an embodiment of the inexorable link between technological innovation and violence which is such a marked feature both of Wells’s scientific romances and of the later sections of Tolkien’s essay.

It’s in the section that discusses ‘escape’ or ‘escapism’ in fairy stories that Tolkien most famously associates technological progress with the human propensity for violence against its own kind. For him, as a veteran of the First World War and a horrified witness of the Second, the turn to literary archaism – both in fantasy and elsewhere – could be an act of political protest as well as of personal taste; ‘For,’ he writes,

it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable […] products. (pp. 63-4)

A few sentences later Tolkien refers to the ‘Morlockian horror of factories’, and adds that these are condemned even by that ‘most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science Fiction’ (p. 64) – and here one assumes he is thinking, among other books, of the novel in which the Morlocks feature. The fact is, of course, that Wells condemns factories (if that’s what he’s doing) not by ‘mere silence’ but by representing them in the form of the monstrous thudding machines that loom in the glare of the Time Traveller’s matches as he stumbles through underground caverns in quest of his lost machine. Intriguingly, then, Wells’s novel seems to militate against the sort of escape from the horror of the times which Tolkien identifies as one of the chief functions of both fairy story and science fiction. Yet there’s an escape of sorts in the narrative (as Tolkien points out), since it transports its readers so many thousands of years from the times they live in. Does Wells’s novel expose a contradiction or weakness in Tolkien’s argument? Or does it instead expose a paradox in it, implicit in the way he suggests that turning away from industrialism may be seen as a riposte to the technological turn in contemporary history – reminding us of that turn, so to speak, through its conspicuous absence? If this were the case then escape wouldn’t ever be escape – it would be a means of addressing the time of writing rather than evading it, summoning up what it rejects like a vengeful ghost or monster or demon from the turbulent id of the unwary reader. This is something the comparison of Wells brings to the fore in Tolkien’s thinking, as I hope to show in another post.

I’ve so far discussed two references to Well’s novel in Tolkien’s essay – the acknowledgement that it achieves ‘enchantment by distance’ despite the technology it contains, and its condemnation of technological progress through its representation of the great-great-grandchildren of the Victorian working classes, who have been transformed into inhuman monsters by the inhuman conditions under which they worked. A third, more oblique reference speaks again of the transportation device used by Wells, this time more generously than Tolkien did when discussing it specifically in the context of the narrative. The reference occurs when he is discussing what he calls ‘Chestertonian’ fantasy, of the kind exemplified by G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), which denotes an abrupt recognition of ‘the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle’ (p. 58). Such moments of recognition – as when the boy Charles Dickens saw the word moor-eeffoc on a glass door (it is ‘coffee-room’ seen from the other side), and found his perspective on Victorian London radically transformed – may cause you, Tolkien avers,

suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits[.] (p. 59

This distancing or estrangement of a familiar place is exactly what Wells achieves in The Time Machine, the whole of which happens within geographical walking distance of the Time Traveller’s suburban residence – though much of it at thousands of years’ distance from the time of his birth. The inhabitants of England at this chronological moment are indeed odd and interesting to the Time Traveller, though less interesting (and, indeed, less interested in their visitor from the past) than he had hoped. This is because they seem to have grown backwards in terms of intellectual and physical development since the late Victorian epoch in which his journey started, devolving (in the view of the Traveller) to a ‘remote past age’ when humans were smaller, less intelligent and more readily victimized by predators than in the age of empire. They are surrounded by antique monuments of the sort one might find in the British Museum: the marble statue of a sphinx, a doorway carved with ‘suggestions of old Phoenician decorations’ (p. 27), and decaying ‘palacelike buildings’ instead of individual houses (p. 29), which perversely make the Time Traveller think of ‘communism’ rather than the despots of earlier epochs. Wells’s ‘strange dim future’ contains many traces of a ‘remote past age glimpsed by history’, and the time machine is the two-way glass or (in Tolkien’s term) ‘time-telescope’ that reveals both (p. 59).

There’s a fourth reference to Wells’s story in Tolkien’s essay, and in many ways this fourth is the most unsettling of them all. It occurs when Tolkien is discussing what he sees as the perverse and arbitrary association of fairy stories with children. This association arises, he thinks, from the sentimentalizing of childhood as a period of pastoral innocence and its corollary, the association of adulthood with an atmosphere of deepening industrial gloom:

Let us not divide the human race into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children – ‘elves’ as the eighteenth century often idiotically called them – with their fairy-tales (carefully pruned), and dark Morlocks tending their machines. If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. (p. 45)

The view that children have a natural affinity with fairy stories arises from the conviction voiced by Andrew Lang in the introduction to The Blue Fairy Book that young people resemble ‘the young age of man’ in their ‘unblunted edge of belief’, their ‘fresh appetite for marvels’ (p. 36). For Tolkien this statement traduces both early human beings, about whom we don’t know much except that they provided the template for modern humans and were probably therefore highly sophisticated (p. 40), and children, whose lack of experience may make them easy to hoax but who have a keen interest in distinguishing between truths and falsehoods, things to be believed and things to be enjoyed as delightful fictions. Tolkien’s linkage of children with Wells’s Eloi draws out the disturbing connotations of Lang’s comments. The Eloi are effectively a ‘different race’ from the machine tenders,[6] just as sentimentalists see children as a different race from adults. They suffer from arrested development, like a community of vapid ‘Peter Pans’,[7] and can never grow up as children are meant to. Above all, the Traveller thinks that they are food for the Morlocks, nourishing them and by extension their machines with their bodies while engaging in no kind of intellectual exchange with their minds or culture.[8] The perception of children as naïve simpletons to be protected from tough literary meat through the administration of bowdlerized fairy tales bears some comparison, Tolkien implies, to the Morlocks’ preservation of their cattle the Eloi in a state of abject dependency, which in turn recalls the subjection of human bodies to the service of the ‘Morlockian horror of factories’, of which ‘machine-guns and bombs […] appear to be [the] most natural and inevitable […] products’ (p. 64). Another way of putting this is that providing children with dumbed-down fantastic narratives on the grounds that they are naïve enough to think them true resembles a totalitarian state keeping a populace in its place with propaganda, or a capitalist government providing a labour force with inferior educational opportunities in order to preserve their status as components in the industrial machine – while the same capitalist government encourages its most highly-educated citizens to think of fairy stories as infantile, with the result that any practical philosophical or emotional purpose these stories might serve is nullified for adults. Under these circumstances Lang’s reference to a ‘fresh appetite for marvels’ takes on decidedly sinister connotations (like the Time Traveller’s reference to the Eloi as ‘these delicious people’, p. 33).

The comparison of adults to Morlocks and children to Eloi does something else; it renders the domestic environment profoundly uncanny, in exactly the way that Wells’s novel renders Richmond and its surrounding suburbs both beautiful (in a way that all Victorian suburbs aspired to be beautiful – as pastiches of pastoral communities) and disturbing. In the future world, Tolkien implies, families eat each other, as the ‘adult’ Morlocks eat the ‘childish’ Eloi. In evolutionary terms, however, the Morlocks and the Eloi are the same generation – cousins, perhaps, rather than parents and children. Wells makes this clear by the fact that the Morlocks are nearly as small as the Eloi in relation to the Time Traveller (he calls them ‘little brutes’, p. 73, and refers to their ‘soft little hands’ as they touch him in the dark, p. 67). It’s the Time Traveller who’s the grown up in Wells’s narrative – the father figure; in which case his relationship to the Eloi, especially Weena, is almost as disturbing as his eagerness to inflict needless violence on his less favoured offspring the Morlocks. I don’t think Wells means to imply that the Time Traveller’s relationship with Weena is sexual – he describes her as ‘exactly like a child’ (p. 42), refers to her as his ‘little one’ as he carries her protectively on his shoulder (p. 67), and even expresses doubt as to whether she is male or female (‘my little woman, as I believe it was’, p. 41) – but his strange double vision of her as both human and less than human, both childish and capable of adult attachments, both lovable and contemptible, represents a decidedly unhealthy intensification of the estrangement between the late Victorian middle class father and his children (separated not only during daylight hours by their distinct locations at work and school but even in the domestic environment, where the feminized space of the nursery is more or less out of bounds to an adult male). More than this, it represents a pastiche of the conventional relationship between late Victorian men and women, with the former perceived as physically and intellectually powerful and practical, the latter weak, infantile and affectionate. The relationship begins in the manner of a fairy tale romance, with the man rescuing the little drowning woman; but it ends in a manner that underlines the Time Traveller’s dismissive attitude towards the child-woman: he loses track of her in a fight against the Morlocks, and when afterwards he finds her ‘gone’ he derives comfort from the thought that she has been burned to death in a fire he himself started instead of being carried off by her cannibalistic relatives to their underground kitchens. His sorrow for her, too, is short-lived. As soon as she has vanished he starts to think of home – ‘of this house of mine, of this fireside, of some of you’ (p. 71), his male friends – and once back in the ‘old familiar room’ his grief seems ‘more like the sorrow of a dream than an actual loss’. In Wells’s novel, nursery notions of fairy-tale heroism, or of fairy-like children utterly alien to their towering father figures, lead inexorably not to a happy ending but to the inevitable destruction of the family.

Interestingly, Tolkien in his essay both opposes fairy tales to machines – whether the conjectural time machines of fiction or the real-life factories that serve modern industry – and aligns them with them. Consigning fairy stories to the nursery, he says at one point, would have the same effect on them as leaving a fine work of art or a delicate scientific instrument in the hands of small children would have on those objects.

[A] beautiful table, a good picture, or a useful machine (such as a microscope), [would] be defaced or broken, if it were left long unregarded in a schoolroom. Fairy-stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined. (p. 35)

This passage strangely invokes the contents of Wells’s novel: the beautiful and useful objects lying ‘long unregarded’ and hence ‘defaced and broken’ in a futuristic version of a public ‘schoolroom’ – a museum – whose own pedagogic function has in turn long been lost by disregard (and the Time Traveller among the Eloi at one point thinks of himself as ‘a schoolmaster amidst children’, p. 28); neglected machines in this building’s galleries, one of which is willfully damaged when the Time Traveller himself breaks off its lever to use as a club; the sense of ‘banishment’ which the Time Traveller feels because of his difference from the Eloi and the loss of his means of escape, the Time Machine; the ubiquity of ‘ruins’ of all kinds in the far-future landscape. The loss of interest in fairy stories themselves, in fact, is a fundamental element of Wells’s story. It ends with the members of the elite middle classes who have been gathered to hear the Time Traveller’s account of his great experiment, his journey to the future, collectively dismissing the narrative as fabricated and therefore worthless. Unable to see its application to themselves – with the sole exception of the story’s scribe, who sees it clearly – they implicitly consign their species to the fate it describes. In the process they also dismiss the Time Traveller exactly as he dismissed the Eloi, confirming the affinity he felt for the little people when he first met them, in spite of the physical disparities that set them apart.

Wells’s story, meanwhile, quite self-consciously proclaims its own affinity with a range of popular fantastic or pseudo-scientific narrative and theatrical forms in addition to the fairy tales popularized by Andrew Lang and George MacDonald – most prominently the ghost story, the magic show and the séance, the latter of which was notoriously associated with charlatanism and occultist eccentricity. The presence of the séance-narrative behind the story – skilfully evoked by the Time Traveller’s invitation of a group of sceptical guests to inspect a model of the time machine before he sends it on its chronic travels, like a professional medium anticipating the presence of unbelievers among participants at his act of supernatural prestidigitation – invests the scientific discourse of the Time Traveller with a fragility it would not otherwise possess. His language is contaminated by it with the suspicion of dishonesty, rendered as unstable for his audience as the physical environment of Richmond is by its association with his talk of time. The bodies of the guests, too, are unstable from the beginning of the story, flushed with alcohol and food consumption to the point that their ‘thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision’ (p. 7); so that they are susceptible to the light effects of a living room in which a fire has been laid, where ‘the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses’ (p. 7). The scene is both atmospheric and deliberately vague: there’s no way of knowing what the phrase ‘lilies of silver’ refers to – some pattern on the Time Traveller’s wine glasses? Some kind of ornament on the mantelpiece? – just as there’s no way of knowing exactly what the model time machine looks like when its creator brings it out. It has a ‘glittering metallic framework’ and is the size of any ‘small clock’ that might be made of similar material; there is ivory in it, ‘and some transparent crystalline substance’ (p. 11). The substance is formed into a ‘bar’ about which, as the Traveller himself points out, ‘there is an odd twinkling appearance […] as though it was in some way unreal’ (p. 12). Unrealness pervades the scene, and gets reinforced when the little time machine is put into motion (at the Time Traveller’s invitation) by the most sceptical witness present: a Psychologist, whose profession it is to investigate states of mind that reinforce delusions. It behaves as one might expect an object to behave at a professional séance, theatrically blowing out candles, swinging round as if out of control, being ‘seen as a ghost for a second perhaps, as an eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory’, and finally vanishing (p. 13). The witnesses are duly unsettled by this display – the Psychologist shows signs of being a little mentally ‘unhinged’ when he tries to light a cigar without cutting it first – and the atmosphere of instability intensifies when the same Psychologist later explains that the machine could have gone back in time as well as forward, because if it had been in the room when they first arrived it would have existed below the threshold of perception because of the speed at which it was travelling through time. In the Time Traveller’s after-dinner world, then, solid objects can appear unreal, things of metal and ivory can exist unperceived in the middle of a room full of people, travel can take place when a thing is stationary, and a person’s senses cannot be trusted on account of their many and obvious limitations. We are, in other words, in a place of relativity, as has often been remarked.[9] But there’s a particular feature of this relativity that Tolkien’s essay on fairy stories helps to bring to the fore.

In his discussion of Chestertonian fantasy – itself an engagement with the fantasy that was written in what’s sometimes called the decadent period of the 1890s, in the middle of which The Time Machine was published – Tolkien speaks of how a sudden change of perspective (like the glimpse of the bizarre word Mooreeffoc on the glass of a coffee-room door) can render things momentarily strange, conjuring up a sense that the familiar place where you find yourself is somehow foreign, ‘that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine’ (p. 59). Tolkien goes on to describe the limitations of such an effect; it is momentary and local, operating like a ‘time-telescope’ trained on a single spot at a particular moment but unable to transform anything beyond it. The remarkable thing about this passage, however, is Tolkien’s suggestion that at this moment of estrangement the past and the future are simultaneously brought into alignment, like a pair of planets seeming to pass each other as they are watched by an astronomer. At this point he does not choose between past and future as being dominant in one’s sense of England’s alienness, and does not suggest that at the moment of estrangement one can; the alienness is in effect both the strangeness of past and future. And Wells does something similar at the beginning and the end of his novella. Why is it, one may ask, that the Time Traveller is unable to be sure whether his little model time machine has travelled forward or back in time when the Psychologist turns the lever to send it on its way? Surely the direction of travel would be clear from the direction in which the lever turned? My guess is that Wells introduces this uncertainty on purpose to suggest that the direction is immaterial – that the stories we tell ourselves, and above all the fantastic stories such as fairy tales, ghost stories, horror narratives, projections of the future and myths, mean that the past and future are continually in dialogue with the present, telling us as much about our condition as the discourse of scientists. At the end of the story, too, the Time Traveller vanishes on his full-size machine in a direction unknown to the nameless narrator – forward or back in time, possibly traumatized, out of control. The last thing the narrator sees of him is a ‘ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass’ (p. 82), like a soldier caught in a wartime explosion (the resemblance is accentuated by the sound effects: ‘an exclamation, oddly truncated at the end, and a click and a thud’). Has the encounter of past and future put an unbearable strain on the scientist’s mechanism, pulling it to pieces at the point of its launch, scattering fragments of machine and rider promiscuously through time? If so, the Traveller remains strangely alive after his disappearance thanks to the mechanisms of story. The narrator goes on to conjecture that he may ‘even now – if I may use the phrase’ be wandering across a ‘plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic reef’, or in one of the nearer futures in which ‘men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its problems resolved’ (p. 83). He has become a ghost, in other words, but whether of the past or of the future can never be known. More importantly, he is a ghost with whom we can retain imaginative contact by virtue of our storytelling imagination and our related capacity for hope. The ability of the storyteller – the anonymous narrator – to retain this kind of contact with him suggests that for Wells the fairy story is by no means confined to the nursery; it’s in operation at every level of our lives, and can conjure up things and situations for us that the discourse of science is unable to touch.

The time machine is a ‘framework’ (p. 11) – that’s all we know about its shape – and a framework is devised to contain or support something: a picture, the fabric of a building, a plan. It’s an invitation for something to be placed within it, like the magician’s pentagon. Into the framework supplied by the time machine – the model time machine with which the story begins, and the full-sized, grown-up time machine, now banished from the nursery, with which it ends – Wells inserts the narrative told by the Time Traveller. And the narrative, as we’ve seen, points in two directions: to past and future. It describes a future that resembles the Edenic past – with a fall built in, enacted by the Time Traveller himself as he guesses at the cannibalistic truth behind the idyll he has discovered, but also with a race of unfallen people still living in it at the end. It contains fragments of ancient myth and tragedy in the form of the sphinx, of history in the form of the inscriptions and palatial buildings, and of utopian speculation in the form of the wonderful machines in the Palace of Green Porcelain. It contains childlike creatures whose youth is blighted by an appearance of debility, suggesting imminent death: the first of the Eloi the Time Traveller sees reminds him of ‘the more beautiful kind of consumptive’, since his ‘flushed face’ possesses ‘that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much’ (p. 24); in other words he combines in his person the beginning and the end of an individual human life, just as the landscape he inhabits combines the beginning and the end of human civilization. And that landscape is also stocked with ghosts aplenty, as if they had been summoned in their swarms by the apparent séance with which the story began.

Morlock by Tatsuya Morino

When the Time Traveller first glimpses the Morlocks he mistakes them for phantoms of the dead: ‘up the hill I thought I could see ghosts. There, several times, as I scanned the slope, I saw white figures’, including on one occasion ‘a leash of them carrying some dark body’ (p. 43). Their evanescent bodies (now he sees them, now he finds no trace of them at all) recall the uncertainty of vision that characterized the story’s opening passages: ‘I doubted my eyes’ (p. 43). Ghosts, of course, evoke the past – though the ghost-like figure of the Time Traveller seen by the narrator at the end of the story could be heading towards past or future; but these ghosts, if such they are, also conjure up the notion of extreme futurity:

For a queer notion of Grant Allen’s came into my head, and amused me. If each generation die and leave ghosts, he argued, the world at last will get overcrowded with them. On that theory they would have grown innumerable some Eight Hundred Thousand Years hence, and it was no great wonder to see four at once. (p. 43)

The opening séance of the story, then, has summoned the spirits of the dead from two directions – ghosts of past dreams and nightmares, ghosts of future populations – making the time machine at the centre of the séance a two-way ‘time-telescope’ of the kind evoked by Tolkien. Meanwhile the vanishing of the time machine itself – carried off, it emerges, by Morlocks soon after its first arrival – confirms its own insubstantiality, as signaled by the unreal crystal of which it was partly constructed. As we’ve seen, the model time machine as it vanished resembled ‘a ghost for a second perhaps’, anticipating the ghostliness of the Time Traveller’s figure as he rides its larger successor into obscurity. And its disappearance may perhaps remind us of the other disappearances that his trick with the time machine has effected, including that of the house in which the séance took place, whose walls melted from around him as he travelled through time, signaling the eventual disappearance of all private dwellings from the ‘Golden Age’ he arrives at. Ghostliness is a condition of all solid objects and living things at one time or another, Wells seems to suggest, whether through a trick of the light in a firelit room, or the falling of twilight, or the passage of time.

As ghostly and evanescent as anything else in the story is the discourse of science. Science questions the existence of ghosts, despite their omnipresence (from the perspective I’ve just given) in human experience. The language of science provides explanations for things. Science can play ingenious tricks on a person’s perception (one of the Time Traveller’s guests alludes to a previous exploit of his when he asks: ‘is this a trick – like that ghost you showed us last Christmas?’, p. 14), first furnishing ocular proof of the fantastic narratives associated with the festive period, then demonstrating incontrovertibly the non-existence of the phenomenon it seemed to have proved. The Time Traveller’s adventures in Wells’s story are punctuated by scientific discourse; each hauntingly evocative set piece is accompanied by an elaborately rational explanation, from the account of duration as the fourth dimension in the opening section to the various theories the adventurer puts forward to account for the wonders he sees in the time to come. These explanations, however, keep getting dismissed as new evidence arises, and the Time Traveller himself acknowledges that he could never have gathered enough evidence to support them in the short period he spent in the future. ‘Very simple was my explanation’ he observes wryly as he finishes expounding his initial theories about the pastoral landscape and its inhabitants, ‘and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are!’ (p. 34). And later, when he has new evidence and has formulated a new theory: ‘So I say I saw it in my last view of the world of Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One. It may be as wrong an explanation as mortal wit could invent. It is how the thing shaped itself to me, and as that I give it to you.’ (p. 72). The notion of the thing shaping itself in his mind, as if against his volition, wonderfully evokes the limitations of the reach and functioning of nineteenth-century reason as confirmed by the Time Traveller’s journey.

The one hope the Time Traveller has of getting the full story of humanity’s history is dashed when he discovers what has happened to paper in the twilight of the species. Armed with the club or mace he has wrenched from one of the machines he found in the Palace of Green Porcelain – a weapon that associates him variously with a medieval knight-at-arms protecting his damsel or a murderous caveman – the story’s protagonist finds his way into a gallery of the defunct museum which is lined, he thinks, with disintegrating flags, giving it a vaguely military appearance:

The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. […] Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought chiefly of the Philosophical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics. (p. 63)

The decay of paper means that any chance of composing an authoritative scientific or historical account of human development has been lost. As a result, the story we’re reading can only ever assume the status of a work of fiction – as transient, Wells implies, as the frail leaves of the popular magazine in which it first appeared, the New Review. The passage is rendered semi-comic by its deployment of the vocabulary of popular Gothic fiction – references to decay, rot, and disintegration combining with the reader’s consciousness of the monstrous ‘Lemurs’ (a word derived from the Latin for ghost) in the near vicinity to generate an atmosphere of ancient terror reborn (p. 49). It’s also rendered ironic by the Time Traveller’s implicit claim that he is not interested in the sort of ‘ambition’ that might have preoccupied a literary man confronted by this scene, who might have meditated on what it told him of ambition’s futility. This doesn’t ring true from what we know of the story’s protagonist. He was ambitious enough to invite ‘the Editor of a well-known daily paper’ (p. 16) and a journalist to his demonstration of the full sized time machine; and in the future he is disappointed by the public’s lack of interest in him, and sufficiently interested in leaving a mark in the Palace of Green Porcelain that he writes his name ‘upon the nose of a steatite monster from South America that particularly took my fancy’ (p. 64). The monster stands in a gallery among a ‘vast array of idols’ from ‘every country on earth, I should think’, which suggests both the Time Traveller’s wish for a global reach and the idleness (the monster is another idol) of still desiring it under the circumstances.

There is another irony at work in the passage where he finds the rotted library, and this concerns the field in which we are told the Time Traveller has done the bulk of his research. He is no specialist in the science of time; instead he has published ‘seventeen papers upon physical optics’ – that is, on the science of sight. No wonder the friends gathered at his house at the beginning of the story so strongly suspected that he was deceiving their vision, as he had done the previous Christmas.

It’s clear that this suspicion arises from his personality and looks as much as from his field of expertise. The narrator refers to his ‘queer, broad head’ – a portion of the anatomy to which the phrenologists were giving excessive attention at the time of writing, taking it as a working model of what was going on inside – while at the beginning of the second chapter he launches into a lengthy disquisition on the eccentricities that rendered the Time Traveller untrustworthy as a consultant on scientific matters. He was

one of those men who are too clever to be believed; you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness. […] Things that would have made the fame of a less clever man seemed tricks in his hands. It is a mistake to do things too easily. (p. 15)

Even in his own time, then, the Time Traveller has found it impossible to make his name in the scientific community, thanks to his own shortcomings as a person of probity. In his suburban house he has been literally and metaphorically stranded on the margins for many years before he strands himself in time. There’s a strong sense that his invitation of representative (if not particularly elevated) figures of the community – a Provincial Mayor and a Medical Man as well as the Editor and the Journalist – is a final bid to place himself at the centre of society, to escape from the banishment of ostracism, so to speak. Instead, however, he becomes in the narrator’s account only one nameless human figure among many, as completely detached from both society and scientific discourse by his namelessness as the world of the far future he discovers is detached from the unfolding narrative of evolution.

Scientific discourse itself, that future world has shown us, is unstable, as easily lost from the collective understanding as is the memory of human achievements. Our sense of what’s past and what’s to come is rendered unstable by our transplantation from one time to another of the prejudices and preoccupations of our upbringing, so that looking at the future, if we could do it, would be tantamount to looking at the past, since we can only read it in the outmoded terms that direct our vision and understanding. Our maturity, in other words, is governed by the things of our childhood – in biblical terms, we never put off childish things, but continue to see through a glass (or ‘time telescope’) darkly, from infancy to old age. Wells conveys this confounding in our minds of childhood and adulthood not only by the childlike forms of the sexually mature Eloi, or by the resemblance of the Morlocks both to uncomely children and to museum specimens (‘They were just the half-bleached colour of the worms and things one sees preserved in spirit in a zoological museum’, p. 49), but by the occasionally childish qualities of the Time Traveller himself. The prank he once played with a fake ghost makes him sound like a naughty schoolboy. When he loses his time machine he behaves, he admits, ‘like an angry child’ (p. 36). The sole piece of technology he makes use of in the future – a box of safety matches – proves as deadly in his hands as parents fear it would in the hands of an infant: he sets fire to a forest with it and burns Weena to death. Those of his ‘serious’ acquaintances who take him ‘seriously’ believe that ‘trusting their reputations for judgement with him was like furnishing a nursery with egg-shell china’ (p. 15). Could this phrase have given Tolkien the basis of his statement, in the essay on fairy stories, that consigning fantastic fiction to the nursery would be like leaving a ‘beautiful table, a good picture, or a useful machine (such as a microscope) […] unregarded in a schoolroom’? Perhaps, but Wells’s point is different: that in the long run the distinction between the nursery or schoolroom and the laboratory, lecture hall or university library is not as clear as we like to think. For all his eccentric appearance and unusual inventiveness the Time Traveller is linked to the other people who gather in his living room by the nouns, not names, by which he is identified. He is the reader’s brother, a member of the reader’s generation, no matter when in history the reader may be encountering his narrative.

In his preface to Seven Famous Novels (1934) Wells described his early scientific romances as ‘fantasies’ quite distinct from the ‘anticipatory inventions’ of the great French author Jules Verne.[10] This is because Verne deals, he says, in ‘actual possibilities of invention and discovery’, while Wells’s stories are ‘all fantasies; they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream’. One trick to making such a fantasy work, he claims, is to ensure that there is only one ‘fantastic element’ in it, whose effect is to ‘throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity’. Another trick is to translate the imaginative component ‘into commonplace terms’ – to ‘domesticate the impossible hypothesis’, as he later puts it. By 1934, then, Wells was eager to detach his early fiction from science – thus bringing it closer to the fairy stories of Tolkien’s essay. And he was also eager to bring them close to home – or to be more exact, close to the home as a concept. The location of The Time Machine in and around an ordinary suburban living room was, according to this preface, its most significant artistic feature. ‘Anyone can invent human beings inside out or worlds like dumb bells or a gravitation that repels’, he avers; the crucial thing is to accommodate these wonders among familiar and everyday objects. What he achieved, however, was rather different from this. He rendered the domestic wonderful, fearful and perplexing, making its walls transparent, its inhabitants emotionally and physically unstable, its comforts deeply uncomfortable, its social and familial relations appallingly complicated. And he helped found the genre of modern fantasy, as well as the genre of science fiction.



[1] The reference to ‘the Cauldron of Story’ (which contains the Soup) comes in the ‘Essay on Fairy-Stories’, J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 3-81. See especially p. 27, and indeed the whole section on ‘Origins’, pp. 18 ff.

[2] Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 10.

[3] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 12.

[4] H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, in Selected Short Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 48.

[5] ‘As for the beginnings of fairy-stories: one can hardly improve on the formula Once upon a time. It has an immediate effect. […] It produces at once the sense of a great uncharted world of time.’

[6] Tolkien, ‘Of Fairy-Stories’, p. 34.

[7] Tolkien, ‘Of Fairy-Stories’, p. 45.

[8] As Kathryn Hume points out, he never knows this for sure; it’s an assumption he makes that exonerates (in his view) his instinctive loathing for and desire to smash the skulls of the Morlocks. See Kathryn Hume, ‘Eat or Be Eaten: H. G. Wells’s Time Machine’, in The Time Machine, ed. Stephen Arata, Norton Critical Editions (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2009), pp. 205-6.

[9] See for example Colin Manlove, ‘H. G. Wells and the Machine in Victorian Fiction’, in The Time Machine, ed. Arata, p. 248: ‘A literary form of the theory of relativity informs the very postulated existence of a fourth dimension in The Time Machine’.

[10] See The Time Machine, ed. Arata, pp. 154-5.

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