History, its one of those things that we pour hours into developing for our settings and then we put it into nice neat timelines where everything has an exact date and position in the past and this is very handy for us. The problem of course is that history isn’t really like that at all. Yes our modern perspective of history is one of nice linear and accurate time lines, but the history of the past is far more mutable and one of the challenges for modern historians is actually sorting among the accounts from the past and getting them all in order.
History is Fluid
To start with I’m going to ignore long-lived races like elves and dwarves and just go with basic human lifespans. When humans record history there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly our modern concept of history is pretty new in the grand scheme of human history and a critical element to its development is the printing press making written history easy to both record and distribute in a stable fashion allowing more people to engage with it (along with corresponding social changes and the development of scientific ideas).
So as fantasy settings are primarily places where history is recorded in two ways; oral and written. Oral history, or oral tradition as it is accounted by Historians, is usually in the mode of stories that recount specific events in the past for a group of people, these histories are often fairly stable over long periods of time but also not necessarily the most accurate accounting of what transpired. Oral tradition is far more common than written history and so is one of the best ways to find out about the past (and present) of a group of people, unfortunately assessing this history often requires belonging to the group or earning special access (oh look adventure hooks) meaning that if the person (or people) holding the history are killed before it is passed on it is lost. Early written history is then often simply a hard copy of those same oral traditions making it no more accurate than the oral tradition it is based on.
Now oral tradition often lacks a strong sense of time, there is an order to it; this event happened then this event happened etc, but it isn’t like oral traditions routinely say 116 years ago on the 12 of March, instead understanding when something happened is more dependant on knowing what happened before and after it and being able to cross-reference it with other sources. Because written history is often just a “hard copy” of those oral traditions it suffers from the same issues, it also often has additional issues; a book might be translated from its original language, it might have been deliberately changed by a scribe to put things in different light and so on. Because oral tradition is about more than passing on an account of historical events the authors are less inclined to change it to serve their own purposes, written works on the other hand are often composed to a purpose. A significant amount of the efforts of historians is based on finding “original sources” and collaborating them with other archeological evidence in order to place events in time and order them correctly.
40 years vs 400 years
One of the things about human history is that it is done in short generations, for much of our history lifespans much greater than 40 years have been rare. This makes our ability to track events over a long period of time poor, especially when there are more important things to do than worry about what someone did 50 years ago (like grow next winter’s food and not get eaten by some random monster). However in a fantasy setting there is often an assumption of a long period of fairly stable technology that includes bound books or other recording devices (you have magic to play with so memory crystals or whatever) combined with long-lived races such as elves or dwarves. For a human an event that happened 50 years ago is probably something that happened to their parents or maybe grandparents, for an elf or a dwarf this is something that possibly happened to the same person, or is easily in their experience so they have a contemporary account (what might be called an Oral History as an elf may have personally interviewed someone involved in the event).
In essence these long-lived races potentially give the history of a fantasy world a stability that real human history lacks, this makes those static timelines we so love all the more plausible, but it isn’t a certainty. Long lived races need to be interested in the events that are transpiring to bother recording them. Consider that as you get older the years go faster. This isn’t necessarily because you are busier, but rather because each year is a smaller percentage of your life. A week is much longer for a 10-year-old than a 40-year-old (as I’m reminded on a daily basis), this is no less true for years. Imagine a 200-year-old elf in the prime of their life, they are 10 times older than a 20-year-old human, its like you are 20 and the “human” is 2. Their sense of the passage of time is incredibly different. That human war that last for 5 years; its like it lasted 6 months, it just isn’t that big of a deal. Of course if the elves are actively involved in the human world (living among them etc) they care about the events of the humans, but if they are separate isolationists (as is not uncommon in fantasy settings) do they really notice those things that are not directly impacting on them?
So even having these long-lived races around doesn’t necessarily give your history the concrete base that we see so often in fantasy sources, perhaps for their own culture but not necessarily of the world at large.
To Timeline or Not To Timeline
The advantage of a timeline is that they put things in order and let us, as world builders sort out the past of our setting so that we can decide how the history of our world is relevant to the present (and future) of the world. They are a great organisational tool that can also let us dabble in the past of our settings as well.
The disadvantage of a timeline is that they put things in their place and in doing so may require us to explain things more than if they were left more fluid like a narrative. For example if you have cold periods every 400 years in your setting why does this happen and what is the explanation the people in the setting have for it? In comparison if you have periods of great cold in the past, perhaps they were caused by things outside the experience of the people in the setting (example a volcano eruption around the other side of the planet) and they just believe that there is a cycle, because no one has been around long enough to live through even one.
Fortunately we can have the best of both worlds, and this is the solution I personally use. The history of the ancient world is little more than a narrative story though related in dot points and with the occasional estimation of time for particularly important events. Then from around 2000 years in the past things start getting dates, but these are things that are often hundreds of years apart and always involve elves or dwarves. Then starting about 300 years ago things become more frequent with lots of events, these are things that have happened inside the lifetime of elves and are thus easier to learn about because there are people alive that can be asked about them directly.
History vs Truth
The final thing is that once we put things on “paper” they tend to become true, they become historical fact for our settings, so another advantage of using narrative rather than a time line is that we tend to think of stories as more mutable than a list of facts (ok I do at least). These narratives can still be reflective of history in the setting, they can be “rooted in truth” but they need not be definitively true either. This suggests that writing a dot point list to build a chronology and then expanding those dot points with a sentence or two and leaving the dates out of it is a better way of presenting your setting’s distant past, then only in the lifetime and experience of the characters do you need that detailed timeline.
One advantage of having this mutable past is that you can mess with time travel in your story more, just because the PC’s history check revealed “A” doesn’t mean the actual events were not more like “B” with some appropriate loss of detail to transform them into “A” with the passage of time.
So while I’m not going to say “no to timelines” I think there is much to be gained by only having short specific timelines and having most of the setting’s history be more loosely defined because of the flexibility such definition gives us.