“One of these days we’re going to have to talk about how ridiculous time scales are in fantasy. Ten thousand years is more than you or I could ever hope to comprehend and that is a threat.”
And now, that day has come. Thankfully before ten thousand years had the chance to pass and turn all that I know and love into dust.
Essentially, today we’re going to discuss time in fantasy fiction. Our first point is on the sheer absurdity of most fantasy time scales. Next time, we’ll look at how to rationalize different mortal lifespan lengths into a narrative.
So without wasting further time… let’s begin!
The Grudge of Ten Thousand Years
Our title reference, of course, is from World of Warcraft (though I’m sure it’s shown up elsewhere). It’s a good line, spoken by fan-favorite shirtless jerk Illidan, and for a game focused on “epic moments” over narrative integrity… it works quite well. But when you start to dig into it, everything sort of falls apart.
In general, “ten thousand years” tends to be the point that a lot of fantasy settings coalesce around. I understand why – it just reads well. It has that repetition of “t” sounds and multiple different places to put the stress of the sentence. In writing, it has the benefit of being a long phrase at sixteen letters total – “million” may be larger, but the word is just a tad shorter thanks to repeated thin letters – and yet it isn’t such a long phrase that the eyes sort of skip over it. It also allows the use of both “centuries” and “millennia,” which are very fun words, as well as “eons” since it doesn’t have a set definition besides “stupid long time.”
But this is just a writer’s musings, not anything solid. If you want something solid, it’s this – one thousand years is an incomprehensibly long time.
I’m not going to focus on examples overly much, but I will detail the basic example which gave this post its title – World of Warcraft. In the Warcraft lore (or what’s left of it), the first invasion of the demonic Burning Legion came ten thousand years before the events of the game. This event, the War of the Ancients, ruined the world and had a bunch of other effects, drastically changing everything.
And then, for ten thousand years, basically nothing happened.
Oh sure, they’ve made efforts to fill in this time period in subsequent lore books. But in-game, the most important set of big dates always remained the ten thousand years between the first invasion of the Burning Legion and the events of the modern day. Some things happened before the War of the Ancients, some happened “just after” or “a long time after,” and a few events have specific times in the last two hundred or so years (“fifty years ago” or “in my grandparents’ time”).
So, what does that mean? Well…
- Night elf society as seen in-game has existed for ten thousand years. The night elves are immortal during this time.
- For the entirety of this period, the night elves have been led by Tyrande Whisperwind – thus meaning she’s been in power for ten thousand years. Her husband, the archdruid Malfurion, has been asleep for the same amount of time.
- High/blood elf society as seen in-game has existed for slightly less than ten thousand years. The high elves are not immortal, but do live a long time.
- Other cultures have had little change during this ten thousand year period.
- Humans switched from tribal alliances to kingdoms at some point. And also may have actually come into existence during this time, I’m not sure.
- Three or so troll empires existed with relatively little disruption. I think one of them fell, but the others stuck around just fine. For ten thousand years.
- The Burning Legion apparently takes ten thousand years to invade again despite their second, third, and fourth invasions all happening within twenty years of each other.
This is all fairly typical of absurd fantasy time scales. The latest Legend of Zelda games, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, are the same and imply that the kingdom of Hyrule has existed, mostly unchanged, for (at least) ten thousand years. Most fantasy settings seem to have at least one “ten thousand years ago” in their worldbuilding.
But let’s look at the real world for a moment.
The Sheer Confusion of Ten Thousand Years
My initial statement on this topic was that “[t]en thousand years is more than you or I could ever hope to comprehend and that is a threat” – and I hold to that. To begin, let’s look at some of the most ancient civilizations with a wide recognition outside of specific academics.
Which is to say Egypt, basically. It’s always Egypt, because Egypt is rad.
Ancient Egypt goes back, as a historic civilization, to about 3100 BC (and yes, Wikipedia is fine for this – I’m not going to get more specific than this). This date is derived from the Narmer Palette which shows the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt. In 30 BC, Egypt became a Roman province. So, as far as the most base-level understanding goes, “Ancient Egypt” lasted about 3,000 years.
Since we are now in the year of 2023, that means that the beginning of ancient Egyptian civilization (as a unified, record-keeping historical kingdom) is about 5,000 years ago. The end of “ancient Egypt” due to its incorporation into the Roman Empire came about 2,000 years ago.
A lot happened during that time. Egyptian history is fascinating, and quite well-defined considering how unthinkably old it is. This wasn’t one, singular and consistent kingdom either. Dynasties changed, the ruling line changed, outsiders invaded and took over before the Romans, and they even had a brief fling with pseudo-monotheism (though I’ve also learned that the “monotheism” of the whole sun-disk thing is possibly overblown).
The point is that “ancient Egypt” lasted a long time. And yet it accounts for only one third of our “ten thousand years” of fantasy fiction. You could progress through the entirety of ancient Egyptian history three times within ten thousand years. Hell, you could fit all of history between the foundation of Egypt as a unified kingdom and today into ten thousand years twice. The 2000s, the Cold War and both World Wars, all of the colonial era, the entire modern and medieval periods, all of the Roman Empire, all of classical Greece, and all of ancient Egypt. And a bunch more. All of that and you’ve still got half of your time period left!
You can do this with other periods too. The Roman Empire, which we correctly see as a stunningly long-lasting empire, existed for about 500 years in the west. It formed out of the Roman Republic in 31 BC and mostly fell (in the west) around the late 400s AD. The Roman Republic had existed for about 500 years as well. So the Roman period (in the west) lasted about 1,000 years.
If you include the Byzantine Empire, then the age of Roman imperialism stretches into the 1400s AD and the total “Roman era” lasts a full 2,000 years. The medieval period lasted for about 1,000 years too. All of these are very general ranges, of course, since splitting history up into distinct periods can be difficult. But the point is that most of these historical ages that we think of as being “long lasting” are, in fact, around one tenth of the “ten thousand years” of fantasy fiction.
The difference between “history” and “pre-history” is primarily defined by when we start finding recorded details of the past. I believe the current record holder for that is ancient China, which has records going back to 3500 BC. And that is, quite literally, the entirety of recorded history. And it’s equal to a little more than half of our fantastical ten thousand years.
The Complications of Ten Thousand Years
Okay… so what? Fantasy fiction is fantasy for a reason. Even if ten thousand years is an absurd length of time, it doesn’t mean those stories are bad. I think that a period of ten thousand years is perfectly fine depending on its use.
For example – The Wheel of Time. One of the central concepts of the entire series is the cyclical nature of time. The Wheel turns and Ages come and go. The time of the Dragon was a time of immense sophistication and development, but it also happened thousands of years ago and the world of today is much less advanced. But that’s because the Wheel turned, and the world and its people were broken. This happens over and over again, thus you can easily build up a stunningly long history.
And there are other acceptable cases as well. A lost kingdom could be ten thousand years old and that’s why nothing is known about it in the modern day. A story in which the gods are tangible entities might have the gods’ civilization dating back ten thousand years.
There are two things I dislike. The first is when ten thousand years is presented as not being a big deal. This is the central issue with Warcraft, of course, since nearly every historical event of any species either happened within the last two hundred years, or ten thousand years ago. This then plays into the other thing I dislike: acting like ten thousand years can pass with nothing happening.
In addition to Warcraft (which was explained above), the latest Zelda games are also guilty of this. The kingdom of Hyrule is established at least ten thousand years ago and then persists, with no notable changes or major technological developments, for ten thousand years. Sure, maybe there were other Ganon incidents during that time, even though with both Calamity Ganon and Demon King Ganondorf sealed up, you’d wonder exactly how many Ganons there are. And there were the Shekiah and their technology, I guess – but they had little to no lasting effect on day-to-day life. Tears of the Kingdom just needlessly complicates things by introducing another even older “ancient technological species,” the Zonai, who somehow also had essentially no effect outside of their original time period and ten thousand years later during the events of the game itself.
And I’m not saying that everything needs a detailed historical timeline! I just wish there would be some level of effort put into it, rather than just using the “ten thousand years” shorthand as an excuse to not explain things. Tell me why this history has been lost, or why this technology was forgotten. It doesn’t have to be in-depth either! “The ancient history of Hyrule was lost in the first calamity” – and now, you’ve just used the ten-thousand-year-old problem of the first game to explain away the ten-thousand-year-old problem of the second game! I think they even kind of did do this with BotW, with some explanation about how a period of suspicion surrounding the Shekiah caused their tech to be mistrusted while also leading to the creation of the Yiga due to backlash. I just wish that was in-game somewhere.
Wheel of Time is a narrative which does this very well. How is technology so much less advanced now than it was a thousand years ago? What happened to completely erase culture and history from the Age of Legends? Well, male channelers went berserk and literally broke the planet. An unthinkable calamity rendered everything that came before into dust. And since then, there’s a heavy implication that the Dark One’s servants have periodically caused lesser catastrophes further setting things back – in addition to secretly slowing things down even during the good times.
The Excuses of Ten Thousand Years
So, let’s look at practical ways to handle this situation. Some are easy, others are hard, but all of them are definitively doable. To me, there’s no reason not to use one, and I believe that giving any excuse makes a world’s backstory significantly more believable.
Ultimately, the simplest option here is the Wheel of Time solution – introducing some sort of recurring “reset” which can explain away why society has only progressed a thousand years despite existing for ten thousand. But what sort of incident should you use?
- Intermittent Apocalypse. Essentially, this world suffers from repeated calamities which destroy everything, leaving only enough people to continue on and enough memory of the past to suggest vague facts. Perhaps an ancient evil awakens every thousand years, causing chaos in society as nations turn against one another in a grand self-conflagration of war. Maybe it’s a magical force which fundamentally changes the world or its environment.
- The only thing you really have to explain here is what the apocalypse is, whether or not people know of the apocalypse outside of its occurrences, and how long the cycle is.
- This is the main explanation used in Wheel of Time – both with the greater apocalypse from male channelers going mad, and lesser catastrophes engineered by the Dark One across the centuries.
- Mysterious Influence. Perhaps there’s no single instant in which everything comes crashing down. Instead, for some reason, society simply goes through cycles of growth, stagnation, and decline. While you could just attribute this to human nature, I find that explanation a bit bland. Consider instead the idea of some malevolent entity or organization which deliberately hinders progress and change.
- One key danger of this approach is the unfortunate implications if you should choose for this “malevolent group” to be ethnically based. If so, you’ve essentially recreated historical and modern anti-Semitism, which isn’t a good idea or an interesting story.
- Instead, I’d suggest a collection of immortals or reincarnations which secretly manipulate the affairs of mortals. You could also make a group membership-based, thus pulling more from the “Freemason/Illuminati” theme, though that isn’t without its own issues.
- This is the secondary explanation used in Wheel of Time. And, as noted above, it uses immortals (the Dark One and the Forsaken) and a membership-based mortal cult (Darkfriends) rather than tying things to race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
- Working Backwards. And finally we have the most complex of the easy options. If your world is a medieval-style fantasy world featuring magical spells and enchanted items, one way to explain away a large span of time is to simply make sure that the “ten thousand years ago” era is notably less advanced than the modern day. “I wish the Ancients had written down the damn prophecies on something besides heavy stone!” “Well they didn’t have paper yet, so…”
- If your fantasy wizards are based on medieval trade guilds, make the famed “wizards of old” into ancient Egyptian style groups. Not only does this make a large time gap seem more reasonable, but it can also help expand things from a solely western European sphere of fantasy. Plus there’s a lot of evidence for this actually being the case in the real world – later mysticism often drew from Egyptian or Roman sources.
- Do note that while the idea is that society ten thousand years ago was less advanced, that doesn’t mean everything had to be less advanced. Consider Roman concrete, a lost art that wasn’t matched until the modern era. Some techniques and methods do get lost over time, just generally not all of them.
Personally, I think there are definite advantages to taking the harder route when it comes to figuring out how “ten thousand years” is going to work in your setting. But, then again, I love learning history. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’d advocate for a method which involves making up a bunch of history. It’s like if you wanted to know if it would be worth it or not to make up your own fantasy language for your story, and the person you go ask is J.R.R. Tolkien. The answer you’ll get should be obvious, but can’t be held as being objectively and absolutely correct.
Also, I should note that these more complex options require using one or more of the “Easy Outs” as well. Because even if you make a complete down-to-the-year timeline of ten thousand years, you still can’t just have a medieval society progress to a slightly more advanced medieval society after ten thousand years. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
- Eras and Ages. The easiest option is to simply define a set of eras for the world to have gone through. You don’t have to establish any specific details, maybe just a few events that serve as breakpoints between ages. As long as each age has a distinct feel to it, you can get away with a lot.
- As an example, you can just say that your world experienced the following eras: the Age of Legends (mythological tales, no historical records), the Age of Kingdoms (rough historical records and monuments), the Imperial Age (defined by one or more empires), the Age of Strife (defined by the fall of said empires), and the Current Age (where we are right now).
- This breakdown is very simplistic. But, most importantly, it allows for you to have epic legends from a very long time ago (Age of Legends) and a current age that’s roughly medieval in scope (Current Age) with a total length of maybe 5,000 years. Getting out to ten thousand years while still having a medieval “present day” would require at least one “reset” event or similar idea, but otherwise wouldn’t be difficult.
- One important thing to note about this method, however, is that you have to have a fairly good idea of how long each era is. While it’s very normal for there to be disagreements about when, exactly, a given time period ended, most time periods have fairly consistent lengths down to the century or decade. An age can’t last “between 500 and 1,000 years” and still make sense.
- Big Picture Timeline. Rather than sweat the details, just focus on the big selling points. When did a certain kingdom come into existence? How long ago did an important figure live? Once you’ve got all the major events settled, just decide on a generality for each gap in between.
- So you have the founding of the kingdom in year 400, the reign of the Mad King from year 532 to 537, and the present day in the year of 687.
- For the 132 years between the founding of the kingdom and the reign of the Mad King, the kingdom was a growing power slowly conquering neighboring lands.
- The Mad King’s reign itself should probably be more specifically detailed out, but it’s only five years long. Plus, it’s when all the interesting stuff happened.
- After the Mad King’s death in 537, the kingdom continued on to the present day in 687 – one hundred and fifty years of provinces breaking away, leading to a steady decline in prosperity before the kingdom was conquered by one of its former vassals.
- Now, this only covers just under three hundred years. That isn’t very long. But if you do this multiple times, you can easily make even longer time periods work. Just define each kingdom’s beginning, one notable event or short (<10 years) period, and either the kingdom’s fall or its status as of the current day.
- Also remember that you can make the gaps in this option longer the further back they occur in history – it’s normal to know less of the distant past than of the recent past. If you want to get really specific, you can give more recent kingdoms two different notable events/periods rather than just one.
- The critical thing is that you’re providing something. Time is passing and something is happening, even if you never say what.
- The Pax Solution. During the height of Rome’s power was a period called the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. During this time there were very few (major) wars or disruptive incidents. There still were some, but even in the real-world we often gloss over those. Unless you’re a history student specifically, you probably don’t learn much about that period.
- This is more of an add-on to the other options rather than a separate thing. Essentially, “ages of peace” can be used to artificially extend a timeline without having to define more.
- The only issue is that you’re a bit limited in how often you can do this and how long these periods of peace can last. The Pax Romana lasted about two centuries. There are other proposed periods of peace, but few which are as easily accepted as the Pax Romana. So you can’t just have an endlessly revolving cycle of peaceful eras, but it can still help extend things.
- All you really have to define for one of these periods is why things remained peaceful and why the peace ended. It’s also important to note that these periods are never entirely without war, instead being more of a comparison to contemporary times and a question of severity. War definitely happened during the Pax Romana. Just not the same number of wars or severity of war as the times immediately before and after.
The Culmination of Ten Thousand Words
One way to view all of this is to simply say that I am a massive history nerd and thus get excited about historical timelines far more than any sane person might. And I can’t say that’s an incorrect way to view it.
But at the same time, I honestly do think that taking this type of care can make a world seem more real. I have my own thoughts on the current fascination with worldbuilding (namely that it’s unsustainable and oft misunderstood), but if you’re going to build a world then you might as well make it a good one. And I think avoiding arbitrarily long time frames and frustratingly vague timelines is a good step towards that.
Looking at real history can be a good way to get a proper sense of scale for things. Knowing that the entirety of written history to today is about 5,000 years really puts things into perspective.
There remains one issue in all of this which we haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the existence of longer-lived (or immortal) entities within a setting. And that’s what we’ll be looking at next time. Since actually immortal entities don’t really exist (except maybe sponges), there’ll be less of a focus on the real-world and more of a focus on how to make these fantasy concepts work in a realistic way.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s the point. It’s fantasy, yes, but it isn’t nonsense. Even if something is fantastical and very definitely unreal, for a story to truly work it needs to seem real. Or as close as we can get it. And that’s what we’ll be looking at later.
Just hopefully not ten thousand years later.
As always, let me know what you think!