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Literature / In the Keep of Time

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Four English children, two boys and two girls, travel to the countryside to stay with an elderly chaperone. There, thanks to a bit of magic and the curiosity of the youngest sister, the quartet is sent through a Portal to another world, where they have all sorts of adventures...

No, this isn't The Chronicles of Narnia, despite the similarity in set-up, though it may possibly be an Homage. A children's fantasy book by Margaret J. Anderson, it tells the story of Andrew, Elinor, Ian, and Olivia ("Ollie"), and how when their parents decide to go on vacation in France and leave their children with their aged Aunt Grace in Scotland, magical adventures befall them thanks to a key and the ancient ruin of Smailholm Tower. Lessons are learned, though not as many as would be expected for a children's story written in the 70's, and stronger family bonds are formed, as the children slip back and forth between the past and the present (and even the future).

For its time the writing is surprisingly good, with a great deal of research and care, believable characterization, some poignant and effective moments, humor, and an unusual approach to Time Travel that not only plays with genre tropes but leaves the reader with a slightly unsettling scenario that truly makes one think. Has become something of a Cult Classic due to its age and out-of-print status.

Contains Examples Of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Averted in the past—the adults there aren't useless, just rather busy and distracted with important things like ambushes, invaders, and battles, so can't be bothered to pay attention much to the children. Played straight in the present, where Aunt Grace really isn't of much help with Ollie, and the lady at the bookstore simply stands by and makes snarky commentary about the kids supposedly bullying their younger siblings instead of trying to help.
  • After the End: It turns out the future the kids visit is this scenario, albeit one which takes place after global warming and the energy crisis instead of nuclear war.
  • An Aesop: Surprisingly, not too many of these crop up, with the author allowing the work and its events to stand and teach lessons by example instead of being explicitly stated. One of the few that is pointed out, aside from the horrors of war, the loss of the past, and the dangers of depending too much on technology, is this one from Vianah:
    Vianah: I am sorry that they [her people] cannot meet you...They see the people of your time as grasping and thoughtless. They see greed as the cause of the breakdown of the Technological Civilization. But perhaps we look at the remains of your civilization as you, Andrew, looked at our town of Kelso. Without the people, you miss the meaning and the purpose. You have put my needs before yours. We thought that was only learned recently, and I am not sure my people know it now, or I could let you stay.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism:
    • Elinor seems to suffer from this for most of the children's adventure in the past. There are very clear indications that everything which is happening is quite real, particularly her having to watch the women of the Tower work on wounded soldiers and civilians after the English ambush. In a beautiful passage, she listens to a girl singing and playing a harp, and despite not understanding the words being sung, it "somehow made the feelings of the people real" to her, that like her and Ian, they too were waiting in fear for loved ones to return. Yet despite this, she persists in thinking everything is a dream or in their imagination. When looking for the key to get her and Ian home, she seems to believe that using it will automatically take all of them back: "When we get there, they will be there too—where else could they be?" And after Andrew returns from the abbey, she actually says, "How can you stand there and talk about Cedric and monk's robes and battles as if they were all real? I want to get away from all this." Eventually, though, it does ultimately sink in that what she's seeing is real, to the point that when they are in the future she is able to muse "What time in history do you suppose this is?" as if asking the time of day.
    • Oddly, Andrew himself seems to almost indulge in this when, after finding out they've just returned the same moment they left due to Year Inside, Hour Outside, he believes everything they experienced was "just an illusion". This time it's Elinor who calls him on it, via what has happened to Ollie-Mae. In Andrew's case however, this may have been more due to him not wanting to face the terrible things he'd witnessed.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: How the children get Ollie-Mae to give them back the key—by trading her Ian's colorful marbles. A case could be made that her taking the glowing key in the first place was itself an example of this trope, since she surely could not know the significance of it.
  • Blind Seer: Though not physically blind, old Anna is otherwise this trope, as she clearly possesses knowledge of future events she should not have, and specifically speaks to the children of a prophecy which foretold of their coming and its import. She is also noted as having a very penetrating gaze that seems to see right through/deep into others, and tends to gaze off into space when making her mysterious pronouncements, as if seeing into another world.
  • Call-Back: After the children spend all summer teaching Ollie. "Andrew had no time to be bored." See Foreshadowing below.
  • Character Witness: Mae becomes this to the Laird and his men, when they capture Andrew—believing the boy to be an English spy, they are all set to kill him when she comes to his defense, not only corroborating his story of being sent from Anna at Smailholm but testifying to him having saved her life from Savage Wolves.
  • Child Prodigy: Ollie was a very precocious reader for her age; after her jaunt into the past, this has to be re-taught to her.
  • Commander Contrarian: Elinor again. When in the past, all she ever wants is to come back to the present, no matter how much Andrew enjoys the exciting adventures, Ian likes playing with the other kids, or the fact they might be leaving Ollie behind. Similarly, when they go to the future, as soon as they figure out they're not in the past and won't be finding the "real" Ollie, Elinor again wants to head home. But as soon as Andrew appeals to her sense of charity via the old blind Vianah needing their help, she changes her mind and agrees to stay. Then, when they go to Kelso and discover they are in a future After the End, Andrew is frightened and immediately wants to go home...only to have Elinor think the place is beautiful and peaceful and want to stay. It'd be annoying, if the irony and slight bit of Laser-Guided Karma to Andrew weren't so delicious.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: Ian, much of the time, has his commentary/contributions rejected, discounted or outright ignored, particularly on matters of magic and Time Travel, even when he turns out to be right in the end. A bit unusual since those dismissing him are other children (albeit older ones), but it does act as another point in favor of the Elliots being an Expy of the Pevensies.
  • The Constant: Smailholm Tower. In an unusual variation, it is also the "time machine", as it were. The interesting implication of this is that the key can only take time travelers to a time period where the tower exists, not before its construction or after it collapses.
  • Creepy Crows: Before the children go to the past, a dark omen of sorts occurs in the form of a starving black bird trapped in the tower, and falling to its death after they startle it from a window ledge. Later, when the children are returning to the present, another such bird swoops down on them right as they are turning the key.
  • Damsel in Distress: Sadly, Elinor is this for much of their time in the past. Mae is too, during the wolf fight, but that's justified since she's only a little girl.
  • Determinator: James II is characterized this way, being described as stubborn, fierce, refusing to back down in anything (but especially in battle—"Here was a man looking for victory, no matter what the cost"), and leading his people in rebelling against the English. This turns out to be fatal for him, since it causes him to take far too many risks to win the day, including approving the design of an oversized cannon that ends up exploding and killing him. His sobriquet "James of the Fiery Face", while originally referring to the large red birthmark covering it, also refers to this character trait as well as his temper.
  • Dramatic Irony: At the start of the story, Andrew is positive that the whole summer will only be "boring"...but discovering a magic key and a Time Travel tower that will take them to the 1400's and then to a future after climate change proves him incredibly wrong. Also referenced later through the Call-Back mentioned above.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Ollie dreams of Smailholm Tower even before they first see it.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Aunt Grace is a hilarious, if harrowing, example of this, tearing off erratically with every car ride. Ollie-Mae has the excuse of being from the past, but Andrew silently observes that he's just as tempted to hide on the floor of the car, since he's in the front seat with their aunt and therefore "especially vulnerable".
    Aunt Grace drove so fast that the hedges went by in a blur. The car rattled and creaked, and she took every corner wide. Whenever they met an oncoming vehicle, there was an exchange of strident horn blowing.
  • Exactly Exty Years Ago: Averted. The author is very careful not to state exactly how far in the future the children travel, with the book Andrew finds making mention of it being the twenty-second century but being no more specific than that.
  • Expy: The four children are in many ways quite similar to the four Pevensies of Narnia. At the start, Andrew is dismissive of his younger siblings and not particularly excited about their stay in the country, and he is also the first to adapt very well to the past and become immersed in the time period and even a warrior mentality, like Peter; Elinor is the one most skeptical about the reality and acceptability of the adventure, as well as the Team Mom, like Susan; Ian is very much resentful and jealous of his youngest sister; and Ollie herself is the one whose recklessness and eager curiosity leads them into the past in the first place. However, they all eventually grow beyond these roles, with Andrew rejecting the past world for the present, Elinor becoming stronger and more willing to believe in the impossible, Ian not betraying them like Edmund did, and Ollie ends up losing herself and has to be taught and bonded with her siblings before she can recall who she is—which may perhaps be a commentary on Lucy's being thought mad and how incredibly willing she was to believe and immerse herself in Narnia.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Played straight, averted, and inverted. When the children go to the past, Ian and especially Elinor do not feel like they belong at all, with Elinor constantly complaining of only wanting to get back to the present as soon as possible. Andrew, however, fits in almost right away thanks to some handy archaic clothing and a mercy mission to save the people of Smailholm, befriending Mae, proving himself to the Laird and his men, learning much of history from Cedric, and even witnessing the Battle of Roxburgh. When they all return to the present, it is Ollie, in the mentality of Mae, who is instead completely out of her depth and has to be instructed and helped to become part of that world. Interestingly, she isn't able to fully accept who she is and where she belongs until after another trip where they're all in the wrong time, in the future.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • At the start of the story, Andrew is positive that the whole summer will only be "boring", which to any Genre Savvy reader is a sure sign their summer will be anything but. Not only do their adventures through time make a very eventful and intense summer, but having to reacquaint Ollie with the twentieth century and teach her everything she forgot as Mae makes it so he "had no time to bored."
    • Also, Mae watching Andrew hide the key in the rabbit burrow indicates to the careful reader just where the key has disappeared to when the children find it missing later (Mae was suffering from Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!, and was thus persuaded to return it in exchange for some of Ian's marbles).
  • Green Aesop: Rather ahead of its time, too, seeing as environmental concerns were not as strong in the 70's as the 90's and beyond. Also unusual in that with the Cold War still in full swing, most Speculative Fiction writers (even children's authors) tended to focus on nuclear war as the danger to be warned, however, it is global warming, climate change, the energy crisis, and not being good stewards of the planet that are underscored.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ian, toward Ollie. Although it isn't clear at first, after her return from the past when she has forgotten almost everything of her past life, including her high reading ability, Andrew and Elinor wish to teach her again and so want to buy children's readers. Ian, however, won't contribute any money because, after hearing their parents and teachers go on about her genius, he "was happier with a young sister who couldn't read."
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Averted. Other than King James II, who is only viewed from afar, no one of historical significance appears in the story, with all the characters the children meet being original characters, or at most archetypes and positions likely to be expected in the time period. The exception might be the Laird of Smailholm who may have been a real person, but since none of the children had heard of him prior to their adventure, meeting him doesn't fully hew to this trope either. Sir Walter Scott is mentioned as having stayed at Smailholm Cottage, but this tale seems to be included simply for historical flavor (and accuracy—not only is this story true, Scott wrote of the tower, including it in his poems The Eve of St. John and Marmion).
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Cedric, a young acolyte at Kelso Abbey whom Andrew encounters, is absolutely determined to make something more of his life, and especially to go off to have exciting battles that proves his warrior spirit and loyalty to the king. He pays dearly for this desire.
  • I Want My Jet Pack: Very much Andrew's reaction to discovering the future is not that of The Jetsons. Made more intriguing (and amusing) by the exact predictions he makes for the twenty-second century.
    Andrew: By the twenty-second century, every house should have its own computers and robots and maybe people would talk by telepathy.
  • Jumped at the Call: Cedric again, who as soon as he learns about the goings-on at Smailholm and the Laird and his men going off to join King James and his army wishes to go with them. As a result, he's quite eager to trade clothes with Andrew so he can be disguised as a soldier. Again, he pays for it.
  • Literal Metaphor: After jumping down through the magical time mist inside the tower:
    Ian, to Vianah: We live around here. We just dropped in, you might say.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair: Inverted; the people of Kelso in the future, though disapproving of the greed which they believe led the Technological Civilization to its doom, very much admire the buildings, monuments, and other remnants of our world left behind and are quite interested in studying and understanding it, as well as doing their best to preserve and make new use of it in their world. At the same time, they are determined not to let history repeat itself. On a more meta level, Smailholm Tower itself seems symbolic of this, since it remains even centuries in the future and, in the belief of the author, will "still stand when our knowledge and skills are but a chapter in the course of the history of man"—i.e., a sign of the wonders and glory of man, rather than of pride and hubris.
  • Magical Seventh Son: Anna is the seventh child of a seventh child.
  • Mind Screw: At the heart of the main conflict driving the plot—who is Ollie? Did going through the mists of time merge her with a girl from the 1400's? Was there never a Mae, and time shifted around her to account for her? Did something happen to the real Mae? Or if it is Mae the children take back to the present, where did Ollie go? Did taking her along leave Muckle-mooth Meg without a daughter? Which memories are real? How did they come back, or did they? Some of this is never actually resolved.
    Andrew: That doesn't make any sense.
    Elinor: Does any of it?
  • Never Split the Party: Fear of this trope drives much of Elinor's contrarian demands of Andrew. To a point she is right to worry, as during their time apart Andrew is almost killed by a wolf and could easily have died at Roxburgh Castle, while her attempts to search for the key almost get her and Ian shot by arrows. But in the end, splitting up never seems to truly endanger them much.
  • Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: Andrew seems to suffer from a bit of this, in the scene where Anna asks him to climb down the backside of Smailholm Tower and he goes after she says Mae is not afraid to do it, "as if she meant to imply that he was afraid".
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Inverted and averted—when Mae is brought to the present she still retains her Scottish accent, and the children try to teach her to lose the accent with no success.
  • Plot Device: The key, particularly after it vanishes and the children have to scramble to find it, hoping they won't be trapped in the past.
  • Portal Slam: Variation: since it isn't possible to Portal Slam against a portal which consists of simply opening a real door, the children are instead kept from traveling through time by the need to warn the men of the English ambush, then by the key's disappearance. Although the magic of the key comes and goes, this turns out to be a Red Herring and not a Chekhov's Gun, as it seems that once "unlocking" a time period, the key remains ready to use until the bearer returns to their own time. Something of a wasted plot development, although subverting reader expectations here was also clever.
  • Portal to the Past: Smailholm Tower again, and a rather more literal one than usual, since it is by unlocking its door (but only when the key glows with magic) that the children are able to travel through time. Unusually, it also turns out to be a Portal to the Future.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Anna's prediction is that "four would come" with a silver key, and that their coming would spell the end of an age. This is literally true, but also symbolically, since their arrival coincides with the English ambush and the attack of James II on Roxburgh Castle—a battle which, despite the king's death, does mark a critical turning point in the battle for Scottish independence from England. See also Rule of Symbolism.
  • The Resenter: Ian again, in regards to his younger sister's precocious nature and how all the adults dote on her and shower her with praise. "All his life he had heard his parents and teachers go on about Ollie and her reading ability, and it would serve them all right when they found out that Ollie couldn't read any better than he could."
  • Rousing Speech: The Laird gives one just before the men go off to join the king at Roxburgh.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Ian describes how they managed to Time Travel by usage of the key metaphor: "We unlocked the past." Muckle-mooth Meg also relays part of Anna's prophecy as "you will mark the end of an age with the turn of a key". Another notable moment is when the children first see Smailholm Tower, washed in a shower of rain and illuminated by a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds..."and for a moment, the children felt the magic in its shimmering walls." (Also counts as Foreshadowing, naturally.)
  • Sacrificial Lamb / Sacrificial Lion: Cedric, depending on how much you think he got characterized before his death.
  • Savage Wolves: Andrew has to fight one to protect Mae.
  • Screaming Woman: Hannah, one of the women at Smailholm, becomes this when she learns her husband died in the English attack, although the sheer grief displayed in her breakdown pushes it toward an in-world One-Woman Wail.
  • Secret-Keeper: A case could be made that Aunt Grace is one of these. She certainly seems to know more than she's telling about the Tower, even if she isn't specifically aware of its magical Time Travel properties...
    "It has a sort of power over people..."
    "Go by yourselves, and perhaps—if you let it happen—you'll find out many things. The walls themselves have a story to tell."
    "Seeking the solace of the tower walls, was she? I have done that myself."
    "They never give any part of themselves when they look at these old places."
    Mrs. Elliot: They've learned to appreciate each other.
    Aunt Grace: Perhaps they have learned more than that.
  • Shoot the Messenger: The Laird's men almost do this to Andrew until Mae vouches for him.
  • Shotgun Wedding: How Mae's father ended up marrying Muckle-mooth Meg, courtesy of the threat of the gallows.
  • Shown Their Work: Clearly the author did a great deal of research on Scottish and English history, as well as Smailholm Tower itself, which is a real place. In fact Kelso, Roxburgh Castle, and King James (as well as how he died) are all accurate pieces of history.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Some of this comes through, not only in Elinor's refusal to believe they are truly in the past but in how Andrew reacts to Ian's understanding of how the key works.
    Ian: The key's not shiny anymore. It lost its magic.
    How much easier to be seven years old and accept magic.
  • The Slow Path: Apparently, this is what happened to Aunt Grace after she fell asleep in the Tower as a child and was so difficult to rouse "because the people wanted her to stay". She lost the memories of her life before then, because that part of her stayed behind to grow up and become Vianah. One can hope the same thing happened to the part of Ollie that was Mae, so that Muckle-mooth Meg didn't have her only child taken from her by the Elliots.
  • Stable Time Loop: While the trope itself does not explicitly appear, logic makes one wonder—if the children had never gone back in time, would Cedric never have died? Meaning that whatever descendants he had suddenly vanished in the present? (There'd be no way of knowing really.) Or was it predetermined they would go back and Andrew would make the choice he did, because it had already happened? Or would Cedric have decided to go to the battle anyway? Similarly, would Vianah have survived anyway until her people returned, if the children hadn't shown up to help bring her food, or did they change the future by saving her? In short, it's not clear whether For Want Of A Nail or In Spite of a Nail is operating here.
  • Stay in the Kitchen:
    • In one of Elinor's few great moments, when Andrew decides he is going off to Roxburgh with the Laird and his men, but Elinor must stay behind.
      Elinor: You're not going to leave me here waiting again.
      Andrew: Well, you can't come. It's just men.
      Elinor: That's no argument. I can do anything you can do.
      Andrew: But this is the fourteen hundreds. Girls didn't fight in battles.
      Elinor: How about Joan of Arc?
      Andrew: You're no Joan of Arc. Not in your jeans and a blanket.
      Elinor: You don't look like a warrior either, in that dumb brown dressing-gown. Who ever heard of going to war in a dressing-gown!
    • Interestingly however, when the children are later preparing meals for Ollie-Mae so they can teach her table manners, it is Andrew who operates the little camp stove, and never once does he suggest Elinor should do it because she's a girl. (She is even rather suspicious who will make the "elaborate lunches", suggesting she expected such a turn of events.) Apparently he learned his lesson!
  • Such A Lovely Noun: In order to compel Andrew's obedience in taking a message to the Laird and his men, Anna implies this trope.
    Andrew: But how do you know you can trust me?
    Anna: The others—Elinor and Ian—are staying here...
  • Time-Travel Tense Trouble: Skirting the boundaries of this trope: When Ollie is trying to explain to Vianah that she is from the far past, while Vianah is assuming all the children are from one period which is the past to her. (And everything that has happened to them has been over the course of a few days from their perspective but not those whom they meet.)
    Vianah: You talk of things of long ago.
    Ollie: It's not all long ago.
  • Translation Convention: An odd example of this. The children are all from modern England and speak English. As soon as they arrive in the past and begin speaking, the people of the time recognize their language and respond in kind. This is not indicated to be a magical property of the Tower, particularly since Andrew can understand and be understood while away from it. Thanks to the Scottish having to interact with the English a great deal, they would know the language, and fifteenth-century English was not that different from twentieth-century (Middle English was already fading into Modern by that point). Yet not once does anyone comment on their language, whether to believe them English spies (a possibility which does cross Elinor's mind) or wonder about their education (from the monks at the Abbey, for example). Some of this may be due to Anna's mysterious prophecies about them, but even so... Made worse by the fact that there are at least a few instances where one of the children listens in on a conversation where those involved would surely have been speaking Scottish—if not out of habit then because they didn't consider the information important or any of the kids' business to know. And while it's possible language doesn't change for the next several centuries (but unlikely), it also seems odd Vianah can understand them just fine, and that Andrew can read the books about the cataclysm (though those would have been written closer to the modern era). Hmmm...
  • Viewers Are Morons: Repeatedly applied in-story to the tourists who come to visit Kelso and especially Smailholm Tower, even to the point where they are mocked by the children for thinking there's "not much to this place". Granted, even in its ruined state it seems a bit ignorant to assume there was never any significance to it, and dismissing it does come across as insulting. But it isn't as if they can tell what role it used to play merely by looking at it, let alone know about the Time Travel aspect. Still, the statement that the tourists had "brought with them to Smailholm Tower the interest and imagination they would take to all the other places on their tour", that they "look at a lot of places and never see anything" sadly has some Truth in Television in it.
  • War Is Hell: After initially thinking War Is Glorious, this is what Andrew comes to realize after experiencing battle and Cedric's death. Although the Aesop may be partly lost, since he still is glad that Cedric was on the winning side.
  • What Year Is This?: Andrew tries not to invoke this trope with Cedric, and then ends up not having to when he volunteers the information.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Happens twice, from different points of view among the children. When Andrew goes back to get the key from the door, while the others are waiting in Anna's cottage, he is strongly tempted to escape back to the present—and the key even starts to turn in the door, before he wrenches it free and hides it instead. This act, he thinks, "took more courage than all the adventures and battles which were to follow". Later, when he finally returns from the Battle of Roxburgh, ready to go home, he cannot find the key, Elinor, or Ian and assumes they left without him. When he is reunited with them again, he learns they were indeed tempted to do so, but couldn't find the key either. Whether they too could have resisted if they had found it will never be known.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Whenever the children return from traveling through time, they find themselves outside the tower door at the exact time they left.