Endgame, Time Travel, and Cinderella

Note: some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead.

Avengers: Endgame is a time travel story, and like many a pop culture time travel story, it has led to head-scratching and nit-picking among fans about the precise mechanics. Are there now multiple universes? Can characters cross between them? Can you change the past or not? Is Evil Nebula actually dead? Did Old Man Steve live out his life with Peggy in another timeline, or has he been living in secret in our universe for the last seventy years?

Since time travel is not, as far as we know, actually possible, we can’t invoke real-world physics to resolve these problems. We have to work with the rules as established by the story. The trouble is that the story’s rules don’t seem consistent. This is a common problem with time travel stories—Endgame even takes a few pot shots at the temporal mechanics of earlier movies.

The fundamental problem with time travel stories is that it is almost impossible to construct a set of rules for time travel that are internally consistent but also allow for change. (Consider the classic paradox: can you go back in time and kill your younger self?) Yet change is what stories are about: if everything is the same at the end of the story as at the beginning, why tell it?

Some stories edge around this problem by making the story be about making sure that things happen as they should, like Back to the Future or Star Trek‘s “City on the Edge of Forever,” but even these stories start from a premise that the past can be changed, which leads to the same problems.

Time travel may be a new concept, but these sorts of internal contradictions have been part of storytelling forever. Consider the story of Cinderella. This fairy tale is so familiar to most of us that we don’t often think about what’s wrong with it. Let’s review:

Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a servant. One day, Cinderella’s fairy godmother gives her a magical gift so that she can go to the prince’s ball: she changes Cinderella’s rags into a wonderful gown and glass slippers, and turns a pumpkin into a fancy coach and field mice into footmen so that she can arrive with a splash. There’s a catch, though: at the stroke of midnight, the spell will end and everything will turn back into what it was before. Cinderella is a hit at the ball and dances with the prince, who falls for her, but once the clock begins to strike midnight she suddenly runs for the door. She is in such a rush that she looses one of her glass slippers on the steps and can’t go back for it. The prince finds the glass slipper and, determined to find the lady he was dancing with, searches the kingdom for the maiden whose foot fits the slipper. He finds Cinderella, marries her, and they live happily ever after.

Do you see the problem?

Why didn’t the glass slipper change back to a ragged old shoe along with everything else?

The magic in the story is not internally consistent. Without the midnight expiration date, Cinderella has no reason to rush from the ball and leave a slipper behind so that the prince can find her, but if the slipper she leaves changes back like all the rest of her magic gear, the prince has no way to know that it’s hers and go looking for her. Even though we’re talking about magic, not time travel, Cinderella runs into the same internal contradictions that pop up in Back to the Future or Endgame.

Generations upon generations of children have grown up with this story, very few of them ever troubled by its inconsistencies. Now, you could argue that that’s because children don’t have well-developed logical faculties, but I prefer a simpler explanation: it doesn’t matter.

Folklore and fairy tales are the most economical form of storytelling. Oral tradition strips tales down to their most important elements, and the most important thing in a story is what happens to the characters. All that matters in the end is that Cinderella and her prince get their happily ever after. Everything else in the story exists to serve that purpose, and can be bent, broken, twisted, or turned however it needs to be in order to get there.

Magic exists in stories to serve the human narrative. Often, serving this purpose requires consistency, to present our heroes with challenges to overcome and rules that can’t be broken (but which a clever hero can circumvent or turn to their own advantage), but when it gets in the way of the story, magic just steps aside so that the thing that should happen can happen. The same applies to time travel (which is really just magic for a technological age).

So Steve and Peggy get to have their happily ever after, and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how or why.

Image: Steve Rogers looking at Peggy Carter’s picture via Giphy

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

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The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Magic Words

From Gandalf’s “Naur an edraith ammen” to Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus,” words carry the power to work magic in many stories. The idea is not a new one. Here, for example, is some medical advice from the early Roman writer Cato the Elder’s treatise on agriculture:

A dislocation can be made whole with this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half, and have two people hold it at your hips. Begin to chant: “Motas uaetas daries dardares astataries dissunapiter” and continue until the halves touch. Flourish an iron blade over them. Where they touch one another, take them in your hand and cut left and right. Bind the pieces to the dislocation or fracture and it will be healed. Keep chanting every day like this: “Haut haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.”

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

Cato was a Roman traditionalist who preferred folk remedies like this one to the more scientific Greek medicine that was becoming popular in Rome in his day, but Greeks had magic words of their own. A set of six words, known as the “Ephesian letters,” were believed to be particularly powerful: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, and aision. These words may have been used for spoken incantations like Cato’s charms, but they were particularly used in writing. Reportedly, they originally came from an inscription on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. It later became a common practice to write the words on scraps of papyrus which were then tied up in small pouches and carried or tied to various parts of the body for magical protection. Boxers were especially known to use these sorts of amulets for strength and defense in competition.

Magic words often seem to sit somewhere on the line between meaning and nonsense. These magic words—both Cato’s spells and the Ephesian letters—are not meaningful in themselves, but they suggest meanings to those who know Latin and Greek. Cato’s incantation implies the movement of something broken. The Ephesian letters suggest words relating to power—damnameneus, for instance, seems to derive from the verb damazo, meaning to tame an animal.

Other examples of magic words from Greece and Rome are derived from real words in other languages the Greeks and Romans had contact with, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. Osoronnophris, for example, another magic word used in various Greek and Roman spells, comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Osiris (god of the dead) is beautiful.” In much the same way, although J. K. Rowling’s “expelliarmus” may not be a real word, it sounds a lot like Latin and it is not hard to guess that it is intended to disarm an opponent.

Another way of invoking the magic of nonsense is to use words in ways that disrupt normal understanding. Repetition, for example, like Cato’s “haut haut haut” makes real words into magical nonsense. In written spells, words were sometimes written backwards or with letters reversed.

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

Image: “Expelliarmus” from Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code” via Giphy

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.