Are time travel stories relatively new

There’s a thread about time travel books. It got me to wondering, is time travel fiction new? We’re there stories in the Middle Ages of time traveling heros? Or in ancient Egypt?

Short answer, no.

Longer answer, a lot of people have looked through ancient literature for anything that corresponds to modern ways of telling stories. Time travel doesn’t seem to appear. When ancient writers wanted to talk about differences in societies they displaced them in space (i.e. to other parts of the world) rather than in time.

This listing of time travel stories confirms what I’ve read in numerous histories of the field. Time travel stories develop out of utopian literature, which was written to comment on contemporary society.

Time as an intrinsic difference seems to have emerged out of the Enlightenment. Clocks, calendar reform, measurements of processes, steam engines. Malthus and Condorcet battling over future population growth. A new sense of time creating constant change. Inserting time travel into fiction as other than satire took a long time. It wasn’t obvious until suddenly it was.

The ancients might not have told time travel stories per se, but they explored a lot of the same ideas via prophecy stories. Fundamentally, there’s no real difference.

There are folktales from around the world (including Ireland, China, and Japan) in which the hero encounters some sort of supernatural being, stays with them for what seems like a short period of time, then returns home only to discover that decades or centuries have passed. It’s hard to precisely date folktales, but this sort of “Rip van Winkle” plot predates the Washington Irving story by hundreds of years at least.

Are time travel stories relatively new

Maybe, but we can’t be certain.

Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” came to my mind when I read the topic.

Sure, but Twain is still fairly recent, and that’s usually reckoned as the first time travel story.

A Christmas Carol was almost 50 years earlier.

I thought of that also, but that was more a vision coming from the ghost then actual time travel. More a prophecy, really.

What about Kakudmi’s meeting with Brahma from the Hindu epic Mahabharata?

The way time works there, is not too far away from modern relativity, where its rate of progress depends upon the frame of reference.

There are a couple of myths around the world that are similar to Rip van Winkle but have been around far longer, like Lan Ke from China, the Celtic Oisín or the Japanese Urashima Tarō:

Japanese Fairy Tales
by Yei Theodora Ozaki
The Story of Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad

Added: I also dimly remember a Germanic tale that deals with something akin to time travel - but I have to look it up.

I’m not familiar with those, but from your links I wouldn’t call them time travel. It’s a mistake to include anything that contains a reference to time in the category. The mode of thinking is too greatly different. The Story of Urashimo Taro is a standard morality tale, nothing more. Time is a happenstance in it.

That’s a common problem when people want to show that something modern was talked about in the past. Once you start loosening definitions beyond a certain point understanding is lost.

As was touched by Exapmo in his posts, time travel in fiction is often used to compare and comment upon changes in society, culture, and technology over a given period of time. Until relatively recently in history, these changes happened very slowly so, for example, a Back to the Future type of story where the protagonist goes back in time 30 years and meets his parents as teenagers wouldn’t have as much heft if it was set in a 13th century European village.

They’re more time dilation stories than time travel stories.

I can’t think of any time travel in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the 1001 Nights, nor in the Bible, Shinto mythology, or any other mythological tales that I can think of.

The story of Atlantis is as close as I can come, and that’s only in the sense that it was written as “historic fiction”, so it’s the only case I can think of where someone was depicting a historical setting for the sake of contemporary commentary. Later utopian fiction probably followed from this (though, there was a looooooong gap between the two).

I agree that the mode of thinking about time is indeed quite different. The foundation of many “modern” time travel stories is the idea of a linear time that can be visited at any point if you had a means to transport yourself to them (let’s ignore for the moment the false time travel stories that are visits to other universes).

This, of course, is a concept that rather belongs into a Newtonian/Victorian-world, and not into our post-Einsteinian era.

The ancient Mahabharata is more modern than, say, Back to the Future in its idea about time and the conceivable ways of traveling within it. Just call the gods “aliens”, and you read a time travel story that wouldn’t hurt physicists too much.

Yes and no. The locations change and with them shift the points of reference and, afaik, this is the kind of time travel envisioned in any story that includes some science in its fiction.

… But I feel quite uncomfortable to make any claims about the science side of the story when the aptly named and educated Chronos is reading this thread.

Though I do wonder, Sage Rat, … do you consider Planet of the Apes a time travel or a time dilation story?

There’s a significant difference that emerges in time travel stories in the late 19th century. Before then moving in time was no different to moving spatially, as someone already noted. People were more different the further away you went. Travel far enough and you’ll reach Utopia / Dystopia.

The big shift was to stay in place and see the same society transformed into something very different. That brings up the opportunity to talk about what might be the drivers of change within society. Whether it was socially, politically or technologically driven, it framed the idea that what was real and present was capable of change from within. In the right hands a very strong idea - Wells’s Time Machine one of the first with this perspective, and seldom bettered.

Doesn’t another ghost first take him to see young Scrooge back when he was working for Fezziwig and losing out on the girl he could’ve married?

I haven’t seen it, but even the Wikipedia plot summary specifies time dilation.

Rip Van Winkle and Urashima Tarou are in suspended animation. Time proceeds around them at the regular, unstoppable rate. They cannot change nor return to the past.

These tales could have been inspired by coma patients or people who were lost (e.g. at sea) or imprisoned for decades. They are horror stories of what happens if you are separated from society for a long time. They exhibit no particular idea that time itself can be modified, nor that the world will appreciably change, just your place in it.

I, for one, do not regard time-dilation stories (as they might be called) as properly time travel. They may be used to depict a different society displaced in time, but that also I do not regard as being particularly a hallmark of time travel fiction. After all, something like Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century also depicts a very different society displaced in time from the author’s time, but nobody would claim that that’s a time travel story: It’s just a future story.

Now picture, if you will, a hypothetical story in which a person revisits their own past, but in such a way that they don’t know anything more than they did at the time. But this story doesn’t actually work: If the person doesn’t know anything more than they did, then they’ll just make the same choices again, and it turns out to just be the straightforward story of their life, just as if there were no “time travel”.

No, what makes a time travel story distinctively about time travel is that the protagonist, by some means, finds themself in one time, but with knowledge of a later time. Thus, for instance, Marty finds himself in 1954, but knows that his mother will marry his father, and that there will be a drink called “Tab”, and that lightning will strike the clock tower at a particular precise moment. The time traveler might regard these things to come as good or ill, and might try to accomplish or prevent them, and thence comes the drama.

And as I said, this sort of story is very old indeed. It’s just that, in the older versions of the story, the protagonist gets the relevant information from prophecy, rather than from direct experience. But that doesn’t change the kinds of stories you can tell with it.

wintertime, I don’t know enough about the Mahabharata to comment meaningfully about its scientific accuracy.

Although there are earlier hints of time travel, for my money the first time travel story was by the much-neglected Edward Page Mitchell, whose Clock that went Backwards* predates Wells’ Chronic Argonauts and The Time Machine** by seven years or more and Twain’s Connecticut Yankee as well. People started playing with the ideas almost immediately afterwards. Wells wasn’t really interested in Time Travel as such – it’s mainly a method of seeing the results of extrapolation. But others looked at the ideas of time loops and paradoxes at great length (look at Heinlein’s stories, or David Gerrold’s The Man who Folded Himself. )

*Mitchell arguably wrote not only the first Time Travel story, but also a number of other firsts:

Teleportation story
Faster Than Light Travel
Brain Swap
…and others. The guy deserves to be much better known than he is.

**“Chronic Argonauts” sounds like a story about Jason’s crewmate who was always sick. I’m glad he changed it to “The Time Machine” for the extended version. Wells, by the way, originally wanted The Time Machine to be a multimedia immersive experience, like those rides at Disney and Universal Studios. He would’ve had the viewer sit in a “Time Machine” box that was buffeted and would look at motion picture projected onto a screen. Wells really was a “man ahead of his time” (as the museum exhibit had it in the film Time After Time)

I found the extraordinary The Big List of Time Travel Adventures by Michael Main. It also offers Categories of Stories That Are Not Time Travel. I urge everyone interested in the subject to go there and marvel.