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Jeneen, a very good paper

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Jeneen, a very good paper, dazzling at times. In your email you said you hadn’t gotten it just as you would like. If you wanted to spend more time, I think you could go on to explore the inconsistencies in Pearse’s creation of mythic time, or discuss how her first Paradisiacal garden time in which Time is truly stopped, shifts into a semi-historical/semi-magical Time, in which Time is peculiarly slowed down. I love Tom’s Midnight Garden, but at the end I get a sense that Pearse felt all of that magical moment stuff is somehow not right, and that Tom should be getting on in the world. I think she just abandons the powerful myth, which you have elegantly discussed, for a lesser, progressivist, notion, perhaps because she could not figure out what to do with a perfect, but static world. A

Time, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden,

And Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return

Jeneen LaSee-Willemssen

December 14, 2001
Each night, when the clock strikes 13, Tom leaves his bedroom and passes out the door into the “midnight garden” that once or someday will exist. Nice opening Tom’s nightly journeys allow him to form a fast friendship with Hatty, one of the young inhabitants of the garden that Tom visits. Hatty, however, is not from Tom’s time, and both think the other is a ghost. The idea of time travel doesn’t seem to occur to either child, but the mystery of time is considered by Tom as he matures both emotionally and mentally (if not chronologically) due to his repeated crossings across the threshold of time. Good

The mystery of time in Tom’s Midnight Garden has been explored, discussed and analyzed ever since the book was first published in 1958. The discussions noted in the literature (Spivak 1991, Aers 1970, Cameron, 1969), however, do not attempt to connect the ideas about time in the novel with mythic archetypes. Thus, an analysis of the novel’s time problem in relation to Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return is one that will be both fresh and particularly useful to the scholar of myth and/or of children’s literature. Very logical!

Tom’s Midnight Garden begins when young Tom is sent away to live with his aunt and uncle’s because his brother has the measles. Readers are introduced to this new home of Tom’s with a rather unsavory description. The house, readers learn, has an “empty—cold—dead” heart, a heart that is filled only with the ticking of an old grandfather clock (Pearce, 5). The clock is a source of fascination to Tom not only because he is forbidden to touch it, but also because it does not strike the hours as it should. Indeed, it strikes a 13th hour after the midnight hour! The clock, it seems, is a key to the mystery that Tom experiences when he slips out the back door of the house, not into the empty, paved yard he expects, but into a lush, spring-time garden filled with flowers and inhabited by children his own age. It does not take Tom long to discover that, in addition to the paved yard’s disappearance, his “time” has disappeared as well. Tom is convinced that it is the clock that holds the key to the mystery.

Readers who consider the time question are, like Tom, quick to point to the clock as the key: how and why is the clock able to create a condition or state in which Tom can slip out of his own time and into another? One supposition, in line with Eliade’s theories [about Time], is that the power of the clock is due to its place at the center or heart of a variety of time-connected circles. First are those elements that surround the face of the clock itself: the numerals representing the hours of the day (which the clock ignores) and the strange, mythically symbolic figure which is painted on the clock’s face. Further circles also surround the clock and are a key to its abilities: the house and gardens which make up the physical and environmental home of the clock; and the convergence of the past, present, and future as represented by the characters of Hatty and Tom. Excellent! Sacred time is depicted through the traditional figuration of Sacred space.

A normal clock’s chiming is certainly not unusual or evocative of ritual acts, but the clock in Tom’s Midnight Garden is not usual. Not only does this clock, a keeper of time, willfully not keep time by randomly chiming the hours printed on its face, but it also “chooses” to chime an hour that is not written on its face. When this unwritten, 13th hour is chimed, it has the same effect that an Eliadian “renewal ritual” has: it annuls time Good!! (Eliade, 81).

The fact that the 13th hour chime and the Eliadian renewal ritual result in the same end is not the same as saying that the 13th hour chime is itself a renewal ritual. Yet Eliade leaves room in his definition and theory of such rituals to allow for such a thing. He states: “the cosmos and man are regenerated ceaselessly and by all kinds of means” [emphasis is mine] (81). Thus the idea of “ritual” can be loosened, and the connection between the chiming of the clock and its identify as ritual are strengthened. VERY Good!

Of first importance in establishing the 13th hour chime as a ritual is the figure that is drawn or painted on the face of the clock:

In the semicircular arch above the dial itself stood a creature like a man but with enormous, sweeping wings. His body was wound around something white. His face was a round of gold, and his feet were the same colour and were planted on either side of the clock-dial. One foot seemed to stand on a piece of grassy land: the other went into the sea—Tom saw painted fishes that swam around the creature’s foot, and seaweed. In one hand he held a book, opened towards himself (Pearce, 33).

A reader familiar with Eliade’s theories [or of Western myth] would know that such a juxtaposition of water and land connected by a human entity is representative of the transformation of the formless to the actual through an act of creation, an act which results in a “paradoxical instant” when time is suspended and the past and the present can become one (Eliade, 62). very good indeed. Readers would also know that, on a simpler level, the connection between elements represented an act of imagination. The Eliadean gloss is tremendously insightful, but it helps to see how it fits an ordinary iconotropic reading.

In addition to the mythic symbolism of the figure is the overt connection of the figure to the New Testament’s Book of Revelations, 10:1-6, in which the apostle John sees a similar vision to that painted on the clock and states: “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer” (Pearce, 165). Hatty explains this passage to Tom as referring to the time “when the Last Trump sounds—when the end of the world comes” (Pearce 165-6), but Tom is more intrigued by the connection of the figure on the clock to the phrase “time no longer” and sees the “enormous possibilities” (Pearce, 166) of such a sentiment as it applies to his situation. Eschatological time or an end to historical time is also part of the myth of renewal, on a universal scale.

All of the above elements together work to show how the clock’s chiming of the 13th hour is indeed a type an instance of Eliadian renewal or time regeneration ritual. When the clock chimes the 13th hour it is actually chiming on the figure of Revelations, thus sounding the “Last Trump.” This endlessly repeated act represents a re-enactment of the end of the earth and of time. Tom’s entrance into the alternate time, into a springtime garden, is representative of the idea that he has entered into the moment of time in which the world is in the process of being regenerated, a moment that is outside of the bounds of time. When Tom returns to his world, the “cosmogonic act” is complete, and time begins anew. bra-vo!

Thus, the clock itself functions as one part of a gateway across or through time. The clock annuls time, but there are other mythic elements that surround it that work to help explain the functioning and nature of time as it relates to the clock. First are its physical surroundings: the garden and the paved yard.

In a mythical sense, the garden is representative of paradise, or a time before profane time in which history did not exist. The paved yard is really rather non-mythical. It is an element of profane yes! time in which mythic connotations have been removed, or, alternatively, it may stand as mythic element because of its juxtaposed relationship to the garden: it may represent hell or the eternal existence of time. This idea is supported by Tom’s experiences: while in the garden, Tom loses no time in the profane world, and while he exists in the profane world, time passes very quickly in the world of Hatty (and for the garden). [This passing of time in the garden is problematic; the time of the beginning never dissolves or passes, but is always accessible as a powerful, rejuvenating moment.]

In addition to the physical environment surrounding the clock, the season of that environment is also important. Tom arrives at his aunt and uncle’s home in the summer, but when he begins his adventures and enters the garden, he enters in the spring. The garden’s seasons are changeable, but overall, the seasons that Tom enters when he visits the garden have a noticeable pattern: they move from spring to summer to fall to winter. Indeed, Tom’s last visit to the garden occurs in winter, and while he is there, he and Hatty skate on a river (symbolic of the flowing of time) that is frozen (stopped time). Good, but why isn’t time stopped? Thus, the symbolic nature of the cycle of seasons and their connection to Eliade’s myth of the eternal return through the practice of regular, cyclical rituals, is striking. Yep, but Eliade actually draws a distinction between cyclical time and the seasonal round. In Myth of the Eternal Return, he writes, “Nature recovers only itself, whereas archaic man recovers the possibility of definitively transcending time and living in eternity” (158) My own feeling about TMG is that PP had two contradictory impulses—wanting to dispel Time and wanted to reaffirm it. Perhaps she tries to reconcile these after the way Carroll celebrated an escape from VICTORIAN ENGLAND and then, finally, its opposite, an escape back to V.E.?

At this point it has been established that the clock is at the center of a series of wheels or cycles including the passing of hours and the cycle of seasons. At the center of the clock, however, where the wheels do not turn, is the angel of Revelations (the symbolic representation of “time no more”). And finally, the clock itself sits in the center of a garden paradise, a paradise beyond time. The clock, however, does not simply stop time, it suspends it and allows past, present and future to exist simultaneously.

The simultaneous existence of past, present and future is represented in the characters of Tom and Hatty. When Tom first crosses into the garden world, he is a young boy and Hatty is simultaneously both old (as Mrs. Bartholomew) and young (as Hatty). Here we find a mix of past, present, and future (Mrs. Bartholomew’s past, Hatty and Tom’s present, and when Tom returns, Hatty’s future). Tom comes to a similar realization when he shares his theory on time with his uncle: “I might be able, for some reason, to step back into someone else’s Time, in the Past; or, if you like…she might step forward into my Time, which would seem the future to her, although to me it seems the Present” (Pearce, 172).

As Tom continues to enter and leave the garden, Mrs. Bartholomew ages at the same rate as Tom, but Hatty as a little girl begins to age quite dramatically. The fact that Tom takes little note of this change in Hatty’s chronological age until the end of the book is a fact worth noting. Indeed, Hatty herself does not mention that Tom does not seem to grow any older. The two have struck a balance on their strange cycle of past, present and future that does not disrupt the system of which they have become a part. Eliade might say they have become a member of “archaic” humankind, living in the world of archetypes and denying personal history. [Not sure I get this. I think Hatty’s apparent withdrawal of emotional attachment to Tom is one of the least satisfying elements of the book.]

This world, however, is broken when Tom’s brother, Peter, enters the garden world without the assistance of the clock, to find Hatty and Tom at the top of the tower at the Ely Cathedral. It is at this point that the diverging rates of time separating Tom and Hatty are first strongly noted: “’But that’—said Peter indignantly—‘that’s not Hatty: that’s a grown-up woman!’ Tom, staring at Hatty as though he were seeing her for the first time, opened his mouth to speak; but he could not” (Pearce, 197).

Peter’s rather startling pronunciation not only alerts Tom to a problem in his time dodging, but also occurs at a most interesting time and place mythically. For the first time in the novel, someone has moved into another time without the assistance of the clock, perhaps disturbing the delicate, established balance of conjoined opposites and cycles. Second, Peter’s entrance occurs shortly after two importantce occurrences: Tom’s encounter with a telling epitaph, and the climbing of the cathedral tower. The epitaph that Tom encounters on a memorial stone in the cathedral sheds light on his intention to stay in the garden world: it states that a certain Mr. Robinson had “exchanged time for eternity” (Pearce 193), just what Tom had intended to do by staying in the garden world. This symbolic meeting of opposites, of time (life) and eternity (death), is shortly followed by Tom and Hatty’s ascent of the cathedral tower. According to Eliade, the tower is a mythically significant element that signifies the meeting of another pair of opposites: heaven and earth (12). Good

Thus, at the very moment of several important convergences (past, present, and future; life and death; heaven and earth), Peter appears to call an end to the game by announcing that Hatty is not a girl but a woman, and that time cannot be dodged after all.

It is no coincidence that after Peter’s arrival, the clock’s power to create timelessness ceases to exist for Tom; he can no longer dodge time or return to the garden world of young Hatty. [No, no coincidence, but it feels somehow makeshift and unpersuasive to me, since at this point of the story I believe in the power of the clock’s magic to arrest time and allow Tom the freedom to explore his emotions apart from the deadening influence of his rigid family.]

The ideas of time in Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden conincide very strongly with those in Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return. The conjunction of mythic elements and motifs, of paradoxicaly paradoxically joined opposites repeated over and over again in ritual format, is what allows the suspension or renewal of time in both works. [This is where a discussion of Eliade’s idea of the coincidentia oppositorum would fit perfectly.] Without Eliade’s theories to shed light on the subtle, cyclical rituals that Pearce endows her grandfather clock with, readers might not clearly see the connections with these rituals to time and timelessness.


Aers, Lesley. 1970. “The Treatment of Time in Four Children’s Books.” Children’s

Literature in Education 2, 69-81.

Cameron, Eleanor. 1969. The Green Burning Tree. Boston, Little Brown.

Eliade, Mircea. 1971. The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Princeton/Bollingen.

Pearce, A. Philippa. 1958. Tom’s Midnight Garden. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Spivak, Charlotte. 1991. “Tom’s Midnight Garden”. In Beetz, Kirk (Ed.), Beacham’s

Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Washington, D. C.: Beacham Publishing.

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