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Fantasy: Who lights all those #(#*@!!!! torches?

Posted by Charles Gray on July 13, 2011

You see it in books, and in just about every fantasy movie. It’s dark, the evil overlord in his doom fortress is stalking down a corridor, or maybe the hero is sneaking in, or perhaps people are in the streets of the city…

And there are torches.  Lamps, enough flickering lights that it looks more like an ancient version of LA than a real ancient city.

The truth is, even the rich seldom had much activity at night.  Lamp oil cost, and had to be brought in, physically.  Torches lasted only a few minutes or at most hours, and had to be replaced continually. (why is everyone poor in many fantasy movies?  It’s because all the money goes to the Torch consortium.  They’re living in a golden castle, thank you very much).

Then you get to such amusements as burning the city down, a problem that virtually every ancient– and for that matter, modern city up until the rise of electric lights faced on a regular basis.

Of course, there are a few reasons for this– the first reason is that you put in torches to explain to the audience where the light is coming from, since people seldom purchase movie tickets to be treated to two hours worth of black screen.

But the second is more interesting– it shows how far we’ve moved since the ancient days and how vastly our assumptions have changed.  We live in a world of light. To us, light is just ordinary, something that you summon at a flip.

And it’s not just our house lights– if you live anywhere near an urban center or even in a town, when the clouds come low, it often gets brighter not darker.  The reflected street lights and business lights, actually provide more light than the stars and anything other than a full moon do. In the ancient world, such days would have been pitch dark– you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. If you wanted a “flashlight” up until fairly recent times, you hired torch bearers.

That’s a big thing to remember– even at such a simple level as light, most of our movies and books have no resemblance to how life actually was carried on in the ancient and premodern world.

And contrarywise, if you include magic, or some other source of light that is like our modern forms of light?

Forget fireballs. That’s real power.  Suddenly the people with that can work 24 hours if they are so inclined. The kingdom that needs to build a lot quickly can easily start night shifts, and the farmer and artisan can now, easily, work at night– with the same productivity as the daytime.

Suddenly, even ignoring other factors, ancient productivity takes a leaps that brings it into shouting distance of far more advanced and modern societies.  Which might explain why fantasy societies have so many people who seem to have enough time to go adventuring– rather than working to not starve.

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