I.What is Anachronism?
Anachronism (pronounced ah-NACK-ruh-nism) is a Greek word meaning “backward time.” It’s what happens when an author, deliberately or accidentally, puts historical events, fashions, technology, etc., in the wrong place. This could include simple things like a historical film putting the wrong type of weapon in the hands of the soldiers, or it could be extreme inaccuracies such as having cavemen fight dinosaurs. The point is that the story shows something happening at a time when it would be impossible, or at least extremely unlikely, for that thing to happen.
II. Examples of Anachronism
When you think of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, you probably imagine a group of knights in plate armor, wielding broadswords and large shields. However, this is an anachronism: full plate armor was not used until at least the 13th century AD, hundreds of years after King Arthur died (around 550 AD). The real King Arthur probably wore chain mail or hardened leather armor, and lived in an earth-and-wood fort instead of a stone castle.
William Shakespeare sometimes used anachronisms deliberately in his plays about the ancient world. He has Cleopatra play billiards, for example, a game that didn’t exist until over 1,000 years after her death. Shakespeare did this because he wanted his plays to be staged as though the events were happening in his own day, much the way we might do with a “modernized” version of old stories. (Imagine, for example, a “Shakespeare” biopic in which the bard is sitting in a café in Brooklyn, typing out Macbeth on his laptop. This would be a deliberate anachronism, since everyone knows Shakespeare never owned a computer.)
III. The Problem with Anachronism
Anachronisms make a work seem “fake” and unrealistic. They disrupt the suspension of disbelief that writers have to create in order to draw readers into their fictional stories. If readers encounter something that they know to be impossible, they’ll suddenly be taken out of the story, which is usually not what you as an author want to do. In addition, they reflect poorly on the author, since they suggest that he or she was just too lazy to do the necessary research.
Of course, not every reader will notice the anachronisms or be bothered by them. For example, very few people know about the history of medieval armor, so the majority of readers would not be bothered by a movie that showed King Arthur in plated mail. But other anachronisms are much more obvious: Sir Lancelot, hearing the ring of his trusty iPhone, knew immediately that it was Abraham Lincoln calling, and that the president needed his help.
This last example suggests one of the reasons that authors might deliberately introduce anachronisms: it can be funny. (More on this in section 5.)
IV. Examples of Anachronism in Literature
Anachronisms can be found even in ancient literature. For example, Virgil’s Aeneid (written around the year 20 BC) begins with the events of the Trojan War. In the aftermath of the war, as Troy burns, the hero flees to Carthage. However, Troy was sacked some time around 1200 BC, and Carthage was not founded until about 200-400 years later.
Several critics have raised concerns about anachronisms in the Bible, for example the presence of camels at the time of Abraham. Current archaeological evidence suggests that camels did not appear in the Holy Land until around 1,000 BC, several centuries after Abraham is believed to have died. To most Christians and Jews, of course, such anachronisms do not matter – the minute details of the Bible are not as important to them as its spiritual and ethical message.
V. Examples of Anachronism in Popular Culture
The Civilization games are all full of anachronisms. Of course, this is inevitable since the game is based on letting the player lead a single civilization from the stone age to the space age, and some things are bound to get out of place as the game progresses. For example, players have the option to play as the Romans; this makes sense during the early stages of the game, but by the end it results in nuclear-armed Romans building power plants and space ships!
Many people think that Braveheart is a historically accurate depiction of William Wallace’s campaign against the English in the 1300s. And the film is reasonably accurate in many respects, but there’s at least one key anachronism: the men are shown wearing kilts, a traditional Scottish garment that came into fashion in the 16th century – 200 years after William Wallace died.
The movie Malcolm X (1992) is also a fairly accurate film; however, it’s anachronistic when Malcolm asks for someone to “Call 911” after the firebombing of his home. The 911 service was not introduced until 1968, three years after Malcolm X’s home was attacked.
VI. Related Terms
Anachronisms are just one kind of historical inaccuracy – the kind that happens when the sequence of events is muddled, or when technologies and fashions appear at the wrong time. There are plenty of other ways for a story to be historically inaccurate, for example by portraying the relationship between two characters as romantic when in fact it was strictly professional. But these inaccuracies are not anachronisms, because they don’t relate to the chronology of events.
Sometimes people mistakenly use the word “anachronistic” to describe something that’s old, obsolete, or out of date. For example, a newspaper article refers to “anachronistic paper phone books.” However, paper phone books are not anachronistic in the modern world. The internet has rendered them less common and arguably useless, but they are still around, and fairly easy to find. If a novel placed phone books in Thomas Jefferson’s library, that would be an anachronism – but the phone book today is not.