Friday, August 27, 2010

The Fantastic Pocket Watch

"...Suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her...There was nothing so very remarkable in that...but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waist-coat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waist-coat pocket or a watch to take out of it..."

Pocket watches have been around, surprisingly, almost as long as printing itself; it is not surprising, then, that they keep popping up in works of fiction, and perhaps especially fantasy fiction. Read or view a work of Fantasy (and I include under that unfortunate rubric Horror and Science Fiction as well as works dealing with Magic) and sooner or later characters of a certain port or gravitas will haul out a chronometer to consult. I would like to consider several examples and and explore the uses to which the fantastic pocket watch has been put.

A pocket watch (like any clock) can be, of course, a symbol of the tyranny of time. In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels the Lilliputians observe something of this when they report to their Emperor on the contents of the shipwrecked surgeon's pockets:

"We directed him to draw out whatever was at the end of that chain; which appeared to be a globe, half silver, and half of some transparent metal...He put this engine to our ears, which made an incessant noise, like that of a water-mill; and we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us...that he seldom did any thing without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said, it pointed out the time for every action of his life."

If any creature can be held to symbolize the worried fussiness of a slave to his watch, it might be the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It is his pocket watch that heralds the start of Alice's strange adventures and hurries him along to an unpleasant appointment which, if missed, might have fatal consequences. In direct contrast is the watch of the irresponsibly Mad Hatter, which only tells the day of the month (and that incorrectly) and is completely useless since the Hatter has quarreled with Time and got stuck in a perpetual afternoon tea.

It is a small step for the imagination to go from a watch that tells you what time it is to a watch that tells Time what time it is. Lewis Carroll takes that step in Sylvie and Bruno:

"The Professor drew from his pocket a square gold watch, with six or eight hands, and held it out for my inspection. ' an Outlandish Watch...which has the peculiar property that, instead of its going with the time, the time goes with it....It goes, of course, at the usual rate. Only the time has to go with it. Hence, if I move the hands, I change the time. To move them forwards, in advance of the true time, is impossible: but I can move them as much as a month backwards--that is the limit. And then you have the events all over again--with any alterations experience may suggest."

The narrator whom the Professor is addressing borrows the watch and has the usual unsatisfactory adventures with time. Besides being the great-grandfather of dozens of Twilight Zonesque stories, the Outlandish Watch is obviously an ancestor of the Man in the Moon's watch in James P. Blaylock's The Elfin Ship, stolen by Theophile Escargot and coveted by the evil dwarf Selznak:

"This watch freezes everything. Just stops things dead. Lets a chap do what he will, if he has that watch. I had it once and it was worth a few larks, I can tell you...Then one day I ran into Miles the Magician...He said that the watch tells time...He says that any other watch its you that tells time by it. With this, it's the watch that tells the don't think they had time before they had a watch to tell it, do you? Well, that was the watch."

A pocket watch is also an eminent symbol for the Age of Reason, going all the way back to the Deist fable of the watch found on the beach implying a watchmaker. Scientists, explorers, and train conductors: anyone concerned with thinking, observation, and precision timing had to have an efficient chronometer to regulate a chaotic world. At the dark end of this spectrum is Captain Vidal's watch in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, the metal gears and wheels of which seem to represent his brutally materialistic view of the world. But what better image to open T. H. White's novel The Elephant and the Kangaroo than 'Mr. White' tucking his watch away before the foolish, fantastic adventure begins:

"Mr. White had been constructing a secret door in the board floor, where he could hide his gold watch...The watch, for which he had made this arrangement, had seven separate dials on its face. It could tell the name of the month, the date, the day of the week, the phase of the moon, the time, and the second. It was also a stop watch for timing races, and a repeater, for telling the hours, quarters, and minutes in the dark. There were so many dials, in fact, that it was difficult to tell the time by it, and, as it was a full hunter which needed to be opened by pressing a spring before it could be consulted at all, the best place for it was under the floor. Besides, it was valuable."

This of course brings up the idea of the watch as treasure or wealth. In the beginning, a watch could be valuable simply because it was a rare machine; these became status symbols, encased in gold or silver and occasionally jeweled. They have always been the prey of thieves, from pickpockets to highwaymen. Charles Dickens in his fabulous The Pickwick Papers has Sam Weller tell the story of the man so fat no thief can pull his watch from his tight waistcoat. In John Masefield's The Midnight Folk young Kay Harker, seeking a lost treasure that will clear his great-grandfather's name, comes across a lesser discovery in his search:

"Inside...was something of the sort that he had seen in the clockmaker's shop, an old gold watch fatter than the governess's table clock. It was very big; it had a dial for the seconds as well as the hours; there was an engraved inscription on the back...'I know what it is, then,' Kay said. 'Of course, this is [the highwayman] Benjamin's treasure. This is the repeater watch that he took from Sir Hassle Gassle, "that Sir Hassle mourned to his dying day," as Ellen said. I'll take it at once to the present Sir Hassle.' "

Of course the value of a watch doesn't reside merely in its materials. A watch may carry a picture or be inscribed (like Sir Hassle's) when presented as a gift or memento by family, friends, or colleagues. It is a tradition to be given a gold watch upon retirement, a symbol that you are now master of your own time. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, the watch may be only "goldish." In Men At Arms, Carrot writes (with characteristic spelling and punctuation) to his parents about Captain Vimes' retirement:

"We are clubbing together to get him a surprise present, I thought one of those new Watches that don't need demons to make them go and we could inscribe on the back something like 'A Watch from, your Old Freinds in the Watch', this is a pune or Play on Words."

This watch becomes a reminder for Vime of his duty and his friends, and keeps him from making a terrible mistake.

Pocket watches are also presented to the young, as symbols of new duties and responsibilities as they grow older. In J. K. Rowlings' book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we learn a tradition in the Wizarding World:

"Harry sat down, took the square parcel she had indicated, and unwrapped it. Inside was a watch very like the one Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had given Ron for his seventeenth; it was gold, with stars circling the face instead of hands...'It's traditional to give a wizard a watch when he comes of age,' said Mrs. Weasley...'I'm afraid that one isn't new like Ron's, it was actually my brother Fabian's and he wasn't terribly careful of his possession, it's a bit dented on the back, but--'...The rest of her speech was lost; Harry had got up and hugged her."

Wizards of all kinds seem to love watches. Elsewhere in the Harry Potter books it is mentioned that Dumbledore has a fancy timepiece with ten hands. The state alchemists in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist all carry a watch as a badge of office: officially they are merely symbolic, but legend has it that they enhance alchemical powers. In Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone Merlyn anachronistically consults a watch, and Roger Bacon in John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost has

"...a turnip-shaped gold watch on a long twisted chain. The large ticking bulb was covered with glassy warts, crystal-domed dials that told lunar eclipse dates, the rate of rainfall on the third planet out from Alpha Centauri A, and, incidentally, the time."

Pocket watches were the most popular personal timekeepers for centuries. They began to lose ground to wristwatches after World War One, when it was discovered in the trenches that the easy access on the wrist was more efficient than hauling a watch out of the pocket. Nowadays pocket watches persist as a reminder of a more leisured, elegant time; lately they've had a bit of a comeback because of the steam-punk movement, with its emphasis on Victorian and Edwardian technology. But no matter how its use waxes and wanes in the real world, the pocket watch remains a perennial favorite and a lasting symbol in the realms of imagination.


AlanDP said...

An unexpected and interesting subject.

Babel said...

It is interesting that characters of a certain scholarly/magical persuasion have pocket watches as standard gear. These types are often at odds with all things technical or mechanical, with the exception of these timepieces. There is something more personal and intimate about them; I suppose because you wear them close to you in a pocket, and they are meant solely to be consulted by you the owner. As soon as I was earning money of my own I bought a $10.00 Bullseye watch that ticked like a timebomb and withstood a hell of a beating before ending up mistakenly dropped to the bottom of the Guadalupe river.

Brer said...

You might remember I had a twin to that one. Its rusted corpse is still in one of my boxes. Of course I now have a silverish stag hunter pocket watch (a 'hunter' is a watch with a lid that opens on a spring) and a goldish one with bears. Battery run.

I could have mentioned Mr. Flay's rusted iron watch in Gormenghast or Phileas Fogg's superior timepiece. Dr. Who has a pocket watch.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from "The Young Ones" (involving a wrist watch):

Helen Bach: Goodness, is that the time?

Mike: No, time is an abstract concept. That is a watch.

AlanDP said...

I have one that I found at Wal-mart many years ago, and it's spring powered (you have to wind it). I wouldn't have bought it if it was battery-powered. It's one of the "hunter" types, but with glass on the lid so you can partially see the hands without opening it. I wear it only on rare occasions and when I'm barbecuing to time my barbecue.