I’ve been rereading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (because I’m a longtime fan and because it’s finally made it to the small screen—thank you, Ron Moore!). For full disclosure, I should admit that I’m also listening to the audiobooks when riding in my spouse’s car. While listening to Dragonfly in Amber, my spouse heard the word “zombie,” paused the CD, and exclaimed, “Whoa! They had zombies in the 1700s? No way. I think Diana messed up.” Since the scene takes place in the 1740s, the word zombie seemed misplaced. I stopped to ponder: Did people in Scotland at that time know that word? Or did Diana make an error?
For your reference, here’s the passage in question:
The weather had been bad all the way, delaying us. It was April 13, and I rode and walked with a constant, gnawing feeling of dread beneath my heart. Lord George and the clan chieftains, the Prince and his chief advisers—all were at Culloden House, or so we had been told by one of the MacDonalds that we met along the way. He knew little more than that, and we did not detain him; the man stumbled away into the mist, moving like a zombie[emphasis added]. Rations had been short when I was captured by the English a month gone; matters had plainly gone from bad to worse. The men we saw moved slowly, many of them staggering with exhaustion and starvation. But they moved stubbornly north, all the same, following their Prince’s orders. Moving toward the place the Scots called Drumossie Moor. Toward Culloden.
—Diana Gabaldon, “Timor Mortis Conturbat Me,” chap. 46 in Dragonfly in Amber (New York: Delacorte, 1992).
Bear with me while I take us on a short exploration to help answer the question of whether Diana made an error in referencing a zombie (if you just want the answer, feel free to skip to the * near the end of this post).
First, let’s geek out to consider a concept called anachronism. Looking in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition), we find the following definition:
Etymology: probably from Middle Greek anachronismos, from anachronizesthai to be an anachronism, from Late Greek anachronizein to be late, from Greek ana– + chronos time
- An error in chronology; especially: a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other
- A person or thing that is chronologically out of place, especially: one from a former age that is incongruous in the present
- The state or condition of being chronologically out of place
People, events, and objects misplaced in time are typically easier to spot than some other types of anachronism in writing, such as character language, habits, and attitudes.
But aren’t anachronisms allowed in fiction? After all, fiction is imagination. Right? Well, it depends. In historical fiction accuracy can be critical for enabling readers to lose themselves in the author’s world and avoid that “whoa!” moment with which I began this blog post. Here are some comments on this topic:
The very best books allow me to immerse myself in a time or place. . . . But when I’m brought up short by something that seems inconsistent with what I know (or think I know) of the period under discussion, I’m not there anymore. I’m right back here.
—Kate Nagy, “Zippers, Kohl, and Woman-Beating: Anachronisms in Historical Fiction,” Heroes and Heartbreakers (blog), March 1, 2012.
Nothing can be more jarring when reading historical fiction than encountering a scene or event that’s obviously from a later time period or is just clearly inappropriate to the era involved. . . . If a word or phrase sounds out of place in the narrative it should be avoided. . . . Sometimes even a word choice that’s factually “right” may not seem so to the reader.
—Steve Rossiter, “Avoiding Anachronisms and Clichés in Historical Fiction,” Writing Historical Novels (blog), October 26, 2013.
Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origins have been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking.
—KJ Charles, “Anachronism and Accuracy: Getting It Right in Historical Novels” (blog), May 4, 2014.
Even so, many people allow for some degree of flexibility about anachronism in fiction:
As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I can see both sides of the coin. I want to believe the novels I’m reading are as thoroughly researched and edited as possible. . . . However, I still remind myself that I’m reading fiction. If the rest of the book is stellar, I’m willing to forgive some mistakes.
—Cat Winters, “The Ugliest Word in Historical Fiction: Anachronism,” Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks (blog), August 21, 2013.
We may be writing historical fiction, but we want to write a story that appeals to a contemporary reader. . . . For me, this often results in anachronistic story lines. . . . This may not be true of all historical fiction writings, but for me the setting of my books is similar to a set on a stage, it’s the background for the actual story and not the main element of the book. . . . That being said, I dislike inaccurate historical facts as much as the next person. I have a rather flexible willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to a character’s motivation, goals, actions, even language to a certain extent, but don’t get your facts wrong. Because that will make me put a book down and not pick it up again.
—Samantha Kane, “Anachronisms and Why I Embrace Them,” Seduced by History (blog), January 15, 2011.
Now that we understand what an anachronism is and why it’s important to avoid them, let’s take a side trip before we return to the original zombie question. Have you heard of a genre called steampunk? It’s the embodiment of intentional anachronism! Urban Dictionary defines it as follows:
Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.
- Medieval Steampunk: Speculative fiction set during the Middle Ages
- Victorian Steampunk: A modern Science Fiction work (post-1930s) that is set in the early parts of the industrial revolution
- Western Steampunk: Science fiction set in the American Old West
- Industrial/Modern Steampunk: Science fiction taking place in the late industrial age, early modern age; i.e. World War 1, World War 2
You can think of steampunk as alternate history combined with science fiction:
Steampunk envisions an Industrial Age that brought to fruition theoretical designs like [Charles] Babbage’s analytical engines, flying machines, and advanced electrical engineering. How would society react? What would be the impact on a global scale? What would happen not only on a sociological level, but on a political one as well? . . . Steampunk offers you a variety of historical watersheds to choose from, now integrated with technology that can either be new, familiar, or exploited by your work’s protagonists and antagonists. . . . Beyond romantic Victoriana, goggles, airships, and brass fixtures, the “punk” in steampunk comes from going against convention, not necessarily in undermining establishment but through creativity and declaration of one’s individuality. That individuality can come across through style, gadgets, or attitude.
—Chuck Sambuchino, “Examining the Wonderful World of Steampunk: Maritime Terrorists, Time Travelers, and Mad Science,” Writer’s Digest (blog), August 29, 2014.
Returning to my original question of whether Diana made an error by using the word zombie in Dragonfly in Amber, let’s look it up in the dictionary:
Etymology: Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole zonbi, of Bantu origin; akin to Kimbundu nzúmbe ghost
Date: circa 1871
- usually zombi a: the supernatural power that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body b: a will-less and speechless human in the West Indies capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated
- a: a person held to resemble the so-called walking dead; especially: automaton b: a person markedly strange in appearance or behavior
- a mixed drink made of several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice
Aha! Diana did make an error, since the word zombie originated circa 1871. But wait, the narrator of the book is a time traveler. Hmmm.
Let’s do some more digging (pardon the pun) about the origins of the word zombie. NPR published an informative article that fills in some more details (Lakshmi Gandhi, “Zoinks! Tracing the History of ‘Zombie’ From Haiti to the CDC,” NPR, December 15, 2013). From this article, we learn that the word zombie comes from Haitian Creole traditions which originated in West Africa. In these traditions, a voudou sorcerer called a bokor could create zombies by casting spells. The word “zombi” (for years it was spelled without the “e” at the end) first appeared in print in an U.S. newspaper in 1838. By 1872, the linguistic scholar Maximilian Schele de Vere would define a zombi as “a phantom or a ghost, not infrequently heard in the Southern States in nurseries and among the servants.” Mainstream use of the word probably began in 1929, with travel writer William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, in which he wrote about Haiti’s voodoo and zombi. Horror filmmakers then used the concept, with the 1932 film White Zombie and the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie, among others. In a 1943 interview, author Zora Neale Hurston stated:
A zombie is supposed to be the living dead: people who die and are resurrected, but without their souls. They can take orders, and they’re supposed to never be tired, and do what the master says.
Given all of this information, I’ve decided that Diana’s use of the word zombie accomplishes two things in that passage from Dragonfly in Amber. First, it paints a clear and vivid picture of the scene: “the man stumbled away into the mist, moving like a zombie” and “the men we saw moved slowly, many of them staggering with exhaustion and starvation.” Second, it’s entirely consistent with the time-traveling aspect of the book and with the main character’s first-person point of view. The description in Claire Beauchamp’s head must be consistent with her experience. Since Claire herself is misplaced in time (she traveled from 1945 to 1743) and spent much of her childhood with her archaeologist uncle after the death of her parents, she would certainly have known about zombies. Zombie behavior would have been a ready metaphor for her to use in describing the men’s movements.
Diana Gabaldon seems well aware of the dangers of anachronism in historical fiction, so much so that when she began writing from Claire’s point of view she felt the need to introduce the time-travel element into Outlander:
It’s all Claire Beauchamp’s fault. If she hadn’t refused to shut up and talk like an eighteenth-century woman, these would have been perfectly straightforward historical novels. As it was, though, being too lazy to wrestle with her natural inclinations through a whole book, I found myself instead obliged first, to allow her to be modern (not that I had much of a choice; she’s remarkably stubborn), secondly, to figure out how she got there, and thirdly, to conclude what happened then.
—Diana Gabaldon, “The Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel,” in The Outlandish Companion (New York: Delacorte, 1999), 331.
I had meant Outlander to be a straight historical novel, but when I introduced Claire Beauchamp Randall . . . she wouldn’t cooperate. Dougal asked her who she was, and without my stopping to think who she should be, she drew herself up, stared belligerently at him, and said “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?” She promptly took over the story and began telling it herself, making smart-ass modern remarks about everything. At this point I shrugged and said, “Fine. Nobody’s ever going to see this book, so it doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do—go ahead and be modern, and I’ll figure out how you got there later.” So the time travel thing was entirely Claire’s fault.
—Diana Gabaldon, “Answers,” in The Outlandish Companion (New York: Delacorte, 1999), 367.
*The answer: Diana’s “zombie” reference is not an anachronism. Diana did not make an error. However, I should point out that authors can easily and unintentionally introduce anachronisms in their writings, especially with regard to language. As Steve Rossiter said, avoiding anachronisms—especially in word choice—“is one of the many areas in which it’s crucial to have someone else read your work to give you unbiased feedback.” I would add that a professional copyeditor is best suited to do this (see Why Is Copyediting Necessary?).
I apologize for the length of this post—I seem to have misplaced time myself!—but I hope that you found the exploration informative. Please visit my website (www.louannpope.com) where you can find information about copyediting in general and my services as a copyeditor specifically, as well as links to my social media accounts.
Postscript: We should keep in mind that Diana published Dragonfly in Amber in 1992—a decade before the 21st-century zombie craze which includes The Walking Dead phenomenon—when the image conjured by the word zombie would have been a bit different. Let’s not mention her 2011 novella Lord John and the Plague of Zombies, which is set in Jamaica in the 1700s and does not involve any time-traveling (oops!).