The Mythologist


Andrew May


I think I'd seen the fellow lurking around the college grounds a few times before. I'd always had the feeling he'd been staring in my direction, and then looked away just as I turned toward him. I didn't give it much thought -- I guess I'm something of a local celebrity now, and I've become accustomed to little things like this. But then one day he strode right up to me as I was crossing the quad on the way to my rooms.

"Doctor Raphson!" he exclaimed. "I need to speak to you. Do you think you could spare me a few minutes of your time?" He was red-faced and out of breath, clutching a briefcase in one hand and a paperback book in the other.

The fellow looked harmless enough -- he had the unmistakable manner of a lifelong academic -- but on this occasion I was in a hurry to correct some proofs and return them to the printers. "I'm afraid you've caught me at a bad moment," I said. "Perhaps we could arrange to meet later on?" I reached into my jacket pocket for my diary.

"It's about your time machine," he said. "I know all about it."

I put my diary away. I'd read the man wrong -- he was obviously a crank. I excused myself and tried to move on, but he blocked my way.

"It's all in here," he said, waving the book in my face. I recognized it immediately -- it was my own Escape from Ragnarok. The second paperback edition, published a couple of years ago in 2007. But what was the fellow on about? The book was about space travel, not time travel. I was about to make a second attempt to get past him when I was struck by a sudden thought. It was only a faint glimmer -- a tiny possibility -- but if that was what he meant then it was something I had to act on right away. I had to put a stop to this before it got out of hand.

"Very well," I said. "Come up to my rooms and we'll talk there. But we'll have to make it brief."

As we walked through the cloisters and ascended the stone staircase, he introduced himself. His name was Charles Horndyke, and he was a lecturer in Medieval Literature here in Oxford. He belonged to one of the newer colleges of the university -- "nowhere near as prestigious as your college," Horndyke had said regretfully. He was old and gray-haired -- pretty close to retirement, I judged.

Once inside my rooms, I ushered him into one of the well-worn but comfortable leather armchairs the college had provided me with. After a few moments in the kitchen I provided him with a mug of coffee. "Now, what's all this nonsense about a time machine?" I asked.

"It isn't nonsense, as you know very well," Horndyke said. His eyes roamed over the oak panelling and gilt-framed pictures with unconcealed envy. "To the world, Clayton Raphson may be nothing more than a slightly eccentric space scientist who happens to have a talent for writing lucrative popularizations. But I know better. I've seen through your cover -- I know that you've invented a time machine which allows you to alter history." He leaned forward confidentially. "You choose to keep your invention secret. Very well -- I'll respect that secrecy, so long as you grant me use of your time machine for my own purposes."

By this time I'd got a fair idea what Horndyke was on about, but I feigned incredulity all the same. "You're out of your mind," I said. "As far as I know, time travel is an impossibility. Certainly I don't have a time machine, and I don't know anyone who has. Wherever did you get this ridiculous idea?"

"From this book," Horndyke said earnestly, tapping his copy of Escape from Ragnarok. "On the surface, it's an impassioned plea in favor of interstellar colonization. You argue that this is an essential step in human evolution if the race is to survive in the long term. That's a favorite theme of yours, of course, and I'm not doubting your sincerity. But to support your case you quote the old Norse legend of Thor and the Rettungs -- and this proves to me that you must have a time machine."

I shrugged. "All it proves is that I'm an amateur mythologist," I said. "I study myths in my spare time. I came across that particular legend and the imagery suited my theme perfectly. I even used it in the book's title -- Escape from Ragnarok."

"Mythologist, indeed!" Horndyke snorted. "I've studied mythology all my life -- it's my job. The Norse pantheon is my specialism. Perhaps that's why I've been able to see through you when no-one else has. This legend of yours -- the legend of Thor and the Rettungs -- there's something very odd about it. Something very odd indeed."

"Really? I would have thought it was simple enough," I said. "Shortly before Ragnarok -- the long-prophesied end of all things -- the god Thor takes pity on a particular group of humans. This is the clan known as the Rettungs, a wise and peaceful people. To ensure that the Rettungs are saved when the rest of Earth is destroyed, Thor builds a great ship for them and sends them off to the stars to begin a new life. A charming little tale -- what's odd about that?"

"Many things," Horndyke said. "To start with, it just doesn't fit in with the rest of the Scandinavian mythos. It's an upbeat, moralistic story in what is otherwise a bleak and desolate literature. On top of that, it's hopelessly anachronistic. The idea that inhabitable worlds might exist around other stars is a post-Copernican development -- a thing of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries at the earliest. The Norse legends go back a thousand years before that." He shifted uncomfortably. "But strangest of all is the fact that I'd never heard of the Rettungs until I read your book."

I smiled. "You have to admit the legend matches my theme perfectly," I said. "If it didn't exist, I would have had to invent it. Maybe that's what I did -- maybe I made it up."

"I think that's exactly what you did," Horndyke said. "And that would be no big deal in itself, except for one thing. You must have changed the past as well as the present. I've been doing some research, you see, and it appears that the legend of Thor and the Rettungs has been around for quite some time."

I waited while Horndyke extracted various books and papers from his briefcase and set them out neatly on the coffee table.

"Imagine my surprise when I discovered an account of the legend here, in Thomas Bulfinch's The Age of Fable, written in 1855." Horndyke tapped one of the books in front of him. It was a recent paperback reprinting of Bulfinch's classic. "I first read Bulfinch as a child," Horndyke went on. "I'm certain there was nothing about the Rettungs in it then. And it's not just Bulfinch -- the legend appears, in a slightly altered form, in Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie of 1835 and many other places. I traced it back to four lines in the Voluspa of the Elder Edda, first written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and based on an oral tradition dating from many centuries before that."

Horndyke passed a sheet of paper to me. On it were four lines of verse:

Into space the great ship soars
And speeds away from Earth;
Forewarned by mighty Thor
The Rettungs to their star-home flee.

"That's from the popular translation by Auden and Taylor," Horndyke said. "Something very similar appears in the classic version by Henry Adams Bellows from 1936, and in Simrock's German edition of 1831. And going further back..."

"I get the picture," I said, cutting him short. "You think I invented the legend to fit my message, and then somehow went back in time to alter the historical records to agree with my version."

"So you admit it!" Horndyke said. "Now, if you'd be so good as to explain your time machine to me. I believe I have a use for it."

I held up my hands. "Slow down a moment," I said. "I'm not admitting anything. The sources you consulted -- were they all recent editions? Either that or online versions? This printout from the Edda looks like it came off the internet."

Horndyke slumped visibly. "Most of my research was online, or using relatively recent reprints," he admitted. "But not all -- I consulted some older books in the Bodleian library."

"But I also have access to the Bodleian," I pointed out. I looked at Horndyke -- he seemed to be totally deflated. I felt a pang of sympathy for the fellow. "You said you had a use for a time machine. What would that be?"

Horndyke looked up. "I retire next year," he said. "My career has been adequate but not spectacular. Along the way I've made a number of decisions -- perhaps not always the right ones. There was one occasion in particular -- almost fifty years ago now -- when I feel sure that I took a wrong turning. If only I could go back and change the past -- just that one little thing..." He tailed off. There was hint of moisture in his eyes.

The man was an interesting case, that much was certain. To be so dogged in one's beliefs -- even to the point of carrying the burden of a young man's mistake through all his adult life. It was going to be difficult to cut through all that and explain what was, after all, a pretty mundane truth. "Let's see," I said. "Do you ever have cause to visit the University's central administration offices in Wellington Square?"

"Occasionally," Horndyke said. "What of it?"

"There's a quotation pinned to the noticeboard there," I said. "Attributed to one Petronius Arbiter. It goes something like this: 'I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.' Does that ring any bells?"

"I believe I've seen it, there and in other places," Horndyke said. "It's quite a common quotation -- it sums up the timeless fatuousness of bureaucracy. What are you getting at?"

"The quotation is a hoax," I said. "It's true that a man named Petronius Arbiter really did exist -- he was a satirist in the Roman empire at the time of Nero. A lot of his writings have survived, but that simply isn't one of them. The quotation was invented -- probably not even as a deliberate hoax -- by someone trying to make a point back in the 1940s or 50s. The precise origin is obscure, but it's almost certain that the quotation didn't exist prior to that date. Yet as soon as it appeared it struck a chord in the world's collective consciousness. It cropped up more and more frequently, until now it's everywhere. Wherever there's gratuitous bureaucracy, you'll find that quotation pinned up on a noticeboard."

Horndyke looked doubtful. "Maybe it's a hoax and maybe it isn't," he said. "But what's this got to do with your time machine? You're changing the subject."

"I'm trying to make a point by analogy," I said patiently. "The significance of the Petronius quote is not so much the fact that it's a hoax, but the astonishing -- almost religious -- fervor with which people are prepared to defend its authenticity. These are people who know little or nothing about the Roman empire, let alone the works of Petronius Arbiter. Yet they object vehemently to anyone who suggests the quotation is anything but genuine. What's happening is that these people are confusing the truth -- factual truth, with a lower case 't' -- with Truth -- deep, inner Truth, with a capital 'T'. They intuitively recognize the inner Truth of the quotation, and that's enough for them. It's True, even if it never happened."

Horndyke looked thoughtful. "That's an interesting idea," he said. "But I still don't see the connection. What does this have to do with your fabrication of the Rettung legend?"

"That's the same thing exactly," I said. "Tell me, what do you colleagues say about the legend of Thor and the Rettungs?"

Horndyke's eyes narrowed. "The idiots say the legend has always existed," he said. "They write about it in their own books and articles. They like the story -- they believe it. Fools, all of them."

I sat back. "I think I've proved my case," I said.

"You haven't," Horndyke said. "By your own admission, the Petronius quote can't be traced back before the middle of the twentieth century. I've traced the Rettung legend back to the middle ages, or even earlier."

I was stumped. I'd told Horndyke the truth, and he just wasn't listening. I didn't want to have to spell out every last detail of my modus operandi. Looking back over the last few years, maybe I'd taken my little game further than I should have. Not that I ever did anything illegal, in the strict sense of the word -- but some of my actions may have been less than totally ethical. I was worried Horndyke might carry out the veiled threat he'd made earlier and divulge his suspicions to a wider audience.

I had to think rapidly. "If you give me your word that you won't speak of this to anyone else, then I'll tell you the whole story," I said. "You're going to be the first person to hear it -- and, I hope, the last. But I should warn you in advance that you won’t like what I'm going to say."

Horndyke's eyes flashed. "At last!" he said. "Yes, yes -- I give you my word. Please proceed."

"I have constructed a device," I said, thinking as I went along. "It's probably not what most people would think of when they imagine a time machine. It's not a vehicle that travels through the fourth dimension, like something out of H.G. Wells' story. But my device has two apertures -- one here in the present, and the other in the past. The aperture that opens into the past has a very narrow focus, which is governed entirely by the equations of quantum chronodynamics. I can go into details if you'd like..."

Horndyke shook his head, as I'd hoped he would. I have no idea what the equations of quantum chronodynamics are, or even if there are such things.

"A few years ago I was extremely fortunate, because the past-time focus was centered on a point in Iceland in the year 1265 AD. I was able to send back my own version of the Elder Edda's Voluspa. As I'm sure you realise, this point was a kind of bottleneck in the history of Norse mythology. Before that point, there were countless different oral legends. After that point there was an ever-multiplying number of written texts. But all the texts derive from the Edda, so that was the only thing I had to change."

Horndyke could scarcely control his excitement. "So I was right," he said. "You can change the past!"

"Ah, but there's a problem," I said. "The equations of quantum chronodynamics determine where the past-time focus is located. When I used the device, that focus was in thirteenth century Iceland. Most of the time it's out in the vacuum of space. At the moment it's half-way between the Earth and the Moon, some time back in the Jurassic period. It will be another sixty years before it coincides with the surface of the Earth again. I said you wouldn't like what I had to say."

Horndyke slumped back in his chair. He looked very tired. After a while, he began to collect his books and papers together and return them to his briefcase.

I shook hands with Horndyke and told him -- genuinely -- that I was sorry I hadn't been able to help him. He made his own way out, leaving me to ponder what had happened. It was ironic that he'd been so easily satisfied with a lie, after it had proved impossible to convince him of the truth. It was yet another example of what I'd told him earlier. Human beings aren't interested in the truth with a small 't' -- factual truth. Only in the grand, deep, inner Truth which echoes their beliefs even if it has no grounding in reality. Truth with a capital 'T'. Or perhaps it's so big it's all in capitals, like this: TRUTH.

I told Horndyke the truth when I said I didn't have a time machine. I can't change the past, and I don't think anyone else can. But maybe the TRUTH is different. After all, I succeeded pretty well in changing the record of the past. So perhaps I have got a time machine, after all.



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"The Mythologist" Copyright © 2004 Andrew May. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.


This page last updated 01-19-04.

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