Medieval Fictional Odysseys: Better Time Travel through Hallucinogens, Nets, and Quantum Foam

Article excerpt

While time-travel adventures constitute a generic staple in Hollywood films produced within the past forty years, (1) timeslips seldom journey to the terrain of medieval historical fiction. With the blossoming of popular interest in all things medieval (fairs, jousting, chivalry), however, at least three significant "medieval" novels--The House on the Strand (1969), Doomsday Book (1992), and Timeline (1999)--have emerged. Set in what the public considers a riveting past, the visionary worlds of medieval England or France, such fictional time-travel odysseys offer readers an exciting blend of technology, antiquarianism, and romantic escapism. Despite these formulaic concepts, Strand, Doomsday and Timeline often veer toward more weighty themes--the blurring of the past and present, the time traveler as alienated outsider, or the fracturing of personal identity. With such ideas in mind then, I shall offer, first, a conspectus of each novel's storyline. Following the summary of the narrative, I shall explore each book's panoply of technology, especially the mechanical method of time travel in an Einsteinian space-time continuum; the notions of time paradoxes (anachronisms) and lapses (slippage); and the linguistic problem of translating medieval tongues into contemporary English. Finally, since time-travel fiction entwining both past and present frequently embraces sociopolitical and socioeconomic agendas, I shall investigate the corrupting influence of an unfettered technology upon human idealism. More specifically, I shall demonstrate how and why the arrogance, the lust for power, and the greed of key individuals in both academic research institutions and corporations may jeopardize the very existence of time travel.

Set against the mysterious backdrop of Kilmarth, the embodiment of a living medieval past (Horner and Zlosnik 167), and the site of Daphne du Maurier's own 600-year-old Cornwall home, (2) her House on the Strand interweaves the fourteenth-century world of Edward III's reign (1327-77) with the psychedelic age of mod England (late 1960s). Since "the desire to belong both to the past and the present goes very deep in human nature" (du Maurier, Cornwall 166), Strand's Magnus Lane--a professor of biophysics at the University of London--concocts an experimental drug that "gives the user a sense of altered time" (Dempsey 60). Once Lane's lifelong friend, Richard (Dick) Young, leaves his position with a London publisher, the wily professor lends his Kilmarth home for the summer to Young, his American wife Vita, and Young's two stepsons. In exchange for his life of ease summering on the Cornish coast, Young must "act as guinea pig for Magnus's drug" (du Maurier, Cornwall 175), a mind-altering substance that dislocates and clouds reality (Kelly 97). With Roger Kylmerth, steward of Tywardreath, as his medieval guide and mentor, (3) Young then embarks on numerous "trips" to his drug-induced world (4)--a dream terrain mirroring the violence, political intrigue, and sexual liaisons of the twentieth century. (5) As Young emotionally embraces more fervently the figure of Isolda Carminowe, his "medieval dream vision" (Kelly 115), his psyche disintegrates while "reality and dream become interchangeably violent and doom-ridden" (Auerbach 67).

Crucial to Young's ability to make treks through time is his ingestion of a psychoactive drug, (6) perhaps a variant of mescaline or LSD. (7) Such a hallucinogen in Strand fuels Young's euphoria--"a tranquil sense of well-being, the blurred intoxication of a dream" (1); an enervating sense of timelessness--"I might have stood forever, entranced" (3); and heightened senses, except for "the sense of touch" (1), along with "[his] body in the present, [his] brain in the past" (187). Yet, as Lane warns Young, the tie to the medieval world will dissolve abruptly and painful side effects (nausea, vertigo) will ensue once a time traveler touches a figure from the past: "Inanimate objects don't matter, but if you try to make contact with living flesh, the link breaks, and you'll come to with a very unpleasant jerk" (4-5). …