The Deeps of Time

One day I’m going to sneak four words past my editors. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it because so far they’ve caught me out every time. They delete the four words and almost invariably add a comment: ‘What on earth does this mean?’

I figure that, if they have to ask, then I haven’t managed to convey the sense at all. Yet as far as I’m concerned the four words make one of the most striking phrases in all literature. Dulcet and fragrant, honeyed, caressing and achingly beautiful: they appeal to all the senses. If only I could convince my editors they form an unassailably glorious combination… But no, foiled again!

The words aren’t mine. They’re a quote from the opening chapter of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Perhaps I’m influenced by a halo effect; that chapter is utterly exquisite in describing angelic immortals who are given power by the Creator to body forth the cosmos and give shape to history through their singing. A dark theme distorts and deforms their symphony when one of the immortals uses it to weave corruption into the fabric of the universe. But the Creator takes even this damage and reshapes it to even greater magnificence than before. The chapter ends with mankind being established in ‘the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.’

I appreciate my editors’ objections. We’re not used to thinking of time as ‘deep’. We say: ‘It’s been a long time’, measuring in a similar way to length. This is not inappropriate: Einstein said time is the fourth dimension.

As I’ve been up early the last few mornings, watching as the planets twirl away from one another, both Tolkien and Einstein’s words have been on my mind. Though, I have to admit, it’s more like the ‘shallows of time’ I’ve been observing. Planetary light emanates from that ‘continental shelf’ we call the solar system rather than deep space.

It arrives in a tangle of time most of us ignore. Reflected light from Venus takes around two minutes to arrive on Earth, from Mercury about four and from Jupiter about forty. However, if I could interview the light as it spilled across my kitchen window, I’d get a very different story. Venus would tell me she’d just left home and it had taken no time to get here. Mercury would have an identical story and so would Jupiter. They would insist—and rightly so—that it had taken no time to get here. Even though, from my point of view, it has taken varying numbers of minutes.

We live in a relativistic universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us the first questions we need to ask when we want to know how much time has elapsed: ‘What is your frame of reference? How fast are you travelling compared to the speed of light?’ From my frame of reference it takes about eight minutes for light to travel to Earth from the sun; from the sunlight’s frame of reference it takes none. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

Consequently when I look up into the night sky, I’m not only gazing into space but also looking back in time. Invisible to my naked eye are stars whose light has travelled not just all the way from the furthest reaches of the universe but from the dawn of time. Take a moment to consider the ramifications of this: as far as that light is concerned the dawn of time is less than a second ago—it’s now.

This means I can go out any night and join in the rejoicing of the morning stars mentioned in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job as they sing at the beginning of time. I’m not sure if, in Tolkien’s universe, I could join my voice with the first angelic symphony but in the real one, I can! God’s universe is more stunning than the most gorgeous flight of imagination and fantasy.

The extra-wonderful thing about the expression ‘the deeps of time’ is that it reflects the ancient Hebrew understanding of a day. In most languages, the word for day is related to some idea associated with sunlight. Not Hebrew, however: the most closely related word to yom, day, is yam, the sea or the deeps. If the idea of relativity is, as I believe, implicit in Scripture from the opening of Genesis (and explicit in Peter’s epistle), this has enormous consequences for any question about the age of the universe or the earth.

I’ve long been fascinated with what a day is. Actually I wasn’t aware this was the case until I realised my own writing continually wrestled with the concept of time. In Many-Coloured Realm, the plot is entirely dependent on the idea of different time flows. In Merlin’s Wood, the idea of what it really means to live backward in time is the major theme. And in my current work-in-progress, The Days Are Numbered, there’s a major time focus as well.

As I reflected on this hitherto unrecognised passion, I realised CS Lewis shared it. Narnia has a different time flow to Earth: Lucy comes out of the wardrobe, surprised she hasn’t been missed. Jill and Eustace in The Silver Chair return after a long perilous adventure to confront the school bullies just seconds after they’d left. Also they see Father Time, asleep in the deep lands.

In the previous post I mentioned my belief the hidden code in Narnia is not the seven planets, but the seven Days. Instead of Michael Ward’s theory that The Silver Chair is moon-related, I believe it’s Thursday-related. The Silver Chair references Thor, more than the moon. It’s true, as Ward says, water is a moon symbol and there’s water aplenty in The Silver Chair. However, Thor is a storm god and his enemies, the thurses, were bringers of foul weather. So other explanations for copious water exist.

Lewis’ allusions to giants evoke the thurses. The unnamed Lady of the Green Kirtle allied to the cultured giants of Harfang who engages in deceitful word-games recalls the unnamed lady of the green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She too indulges in deceitful word-games and is allied to a cultured giant, the half-etayn Sir Bercilak.

Which brings me to a question about Thursday. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton’s ‘Thursday’ takes on a glory of stars and planets. Lewis’ ‘Thursday’ giants lead towards a different deep: underground rather than outer space.

So, should my Thursday’s Child be my fox, fawn or the owl obsessed with sunglasses? I guess, if I want to pay my dues to The Silver Chair’s inspiration, it really has to be the owl.

1 Comment

  1. Lynne

    What is wrong with “the deeps of time”? Nothing strange about that, it makes perfect sense to me.

    I think you’re right about Thursday’s Child, it should be the owl. I saw him in my minds eye winging his way over mountain tops and through clouds. It seemed to fit in with the line from the old nursery rhyme, “Thursday’s child has far to go.” I’m a Thursday child, and so far I’ve been marching on the spot, it seems my journey is still ahead of me 🙂

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