William and time-travel
A lot of people have asked that question since AN ECHO IN THE BONE came out in 2009. It's a question that comes up frequently on Compuserve and on Diana Gabaldon's Facebook page.
[UPDATE 1/24/2012 10:33 am: Please note that Diana has not (to my knowledge) ever come right out and said definitively, "No, William can't time-travel", or "Yes, William has the time-travel gene". Different readers are free to draw their own conclusions. And what I wrote in this blog post is only my own opinion, based on the text and on things Diana has said in public since ECHO came out. If you disagree, that's fine. Only Diana really knows for sure.]
[UPDATE 2/21/2013 8:04 pm: Diana answered that question definitively on Compuserve in June 2012, here. (She says he's not a time-traveler.)]
Here's the original scene in ECHO that started all the speculation:
He’d heard the rocks talking to themselves on the fells at Helwater. The Lake District, his maternal grandparents’ home. In the fog. He hadn’t told anyone that.And here's the same incident from Jamie's point of view, in THE SCOTTISH PRISONER:
He’d heard his mother--his real mother--whisper to him, too. That was why he’d gone into the fog. They’d been picnicking on the fells, his grandparents and Mama Isobel and some friends, with a few servants. When the fog came down, sudden as it sometimes did, there was a general scurry to pack up the luncheon things, and he had been left by himself, watching the inexorable white wall roll silently toward him.
And he’d swear he’d heard a woman’s whisper, too low to make out words but holding somehow a sense of longing, and he had known she spoke to him.
And he’d walked into the fog. For a few moments, he was fascinated by the movement of the water vapor near the ground, the way it flickered and shimmered and seemed alive. But then the fog grew thicker, and in moments he’d known he was lost.
He’d called out. First to the woman he thought must be his mother. The dead come down in the fog. That was nearly all he knew about his mother--that she was dead. She’d been no older than he was now when she died. He’d seen three paintings of her. They said he had her hair and her hand with a horse.
She’d answered him, he’d swear she’d answered him--but in a voice with no words. He’d felt the caress of cool fingers on his face, and he’d wandered on, entranced.
Then he fell, badly, tumbling over rocks into a small hollow, bruising himself and knocking out all his wind. The fog had billowed over him, marching past, urgent in its hurry to engulf things, as he lay stunned and breathless in the bottom of his small declivity. Then he began to hear the rocks murmur all around him, and he’d crawled, then run, as fast as he could, screaming. Fell again, got up and went on running.
Fell down, finally unable to go further, and huddled terrified and blind on the rough grass, surrounded by vast emptiness. Then he heard them calling out for him, voices he knew, and he tried to cry out in reply, but his throat was raw from screaming, and he made no more than desperate rasping noises, running toward where he thought the voices were. But sound moves in a fog, and nothing is as it seems: not sound, not time nor place.
Again and again and again, he ran toward the voices but fell over something, tripped and rolled down a slope, stumbled into rocky outcrops, found himself clinging to the edge of a scarp, the voices now behind him, fading into the fog, leaving him.
Mac had found him. A big hand had suddenly reached down and grabbed him, and the next minute he was lifted up, bruised and scraped and bleeding but clutched tight against the Scottish groom’s rough shirt, strong arms holding him as though they’d never let him go.
(From AN ECHO IN THE BONE by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 36 ("The Great Dismal"). Copyright© 2009 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
“William!” he bellowed, plunging into the fog.Argument
“Willie! Willie!” The women’s higher voices obligingly took up the call, regular as a bell on a ship’s buoy, and serving the same purpose. "Willie! Where are youuuu?”
The air had changed quite suddenly, no longer clear but soft and echoing; sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
“William!” The sound bounced off the stones and the short, leathery turf. "William!”
He went higher, among the tumbled stones. Staggered from one to another, feeling round their bases, stubbing his toes. The fog was cold in his chest, aching. His foot came down on something soft--Willie’s jacket--and his heart leapt.
Was that a sound, a whimper? He stopped dead, trying to listen, trying to hear through the whisper of the moving fog and the distant voices, cacophonous as a ring of church bells.
And then, quite suddenly, he saw the boy curled up in a rocky hollow, the yellow of his shirt showing briefly through an eddy in the fog. He lunged and seized William before he could disappear, clutched him to his bosom, saying, “It’s all right, a chuisle, it’s all right now, dinna be troubled, we’ll go and see your grannie, aye?”
“Mac! Mac, Mac! Oh, Mac!”
Willie clung to him like a leech, trying to burrow into his chest, and he wrapped his arms tight around the boy, too overcome to speak.
(From THE SCOTTISH PRISONER by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 39 ("The Fog Comes Down"). Copyright© 2011 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
A lot of people seem to think that William "hearing the stones" in the scene in ECHO means he can time-travel.
I understand why people think so. It does seem that Diana deliberately wrote that scene in ECHO in such a way that many readers would be left with that impression. He heard something in the rocks (or thought he did); that much is clear. And was obviously frightened out of his wits as a result. Both of those things could be taken as evidence that he sensed the presence of a time-portal, and therefore, that he can time-travel.
Now, I understand the temptation to jump to conclusions here, and assume that because William heard something in the rocks, he must therefore be able to time-travel. But I'm not at all convinced.
1) We know that Jamie does not have the time-travel gene, and it seems awfully unlikely that Geneva Dunsany would have it. Theoretically possible, but very unlikely. (I could be wrong about this, but I don't think I am.)
2) I don't see anything in these two scenes that indicates that there's a stone circle nearby. A pile of "tumbled stones" could be any random rock formation; it certainly doesn't sound like a ring of standing stones marking a time-portal. (And Jamie surely would have noticed a stone circle -- or the remains of one -- on the Helwater estate. Given his reaction when the abbot told him there was a stone circle near Inchcleraun (SCOTTISH PRISONER, p. 257) -- I can't imagine that he would have failed to recognize a circle of stones when he saw it.)
3) William was so young at the time, can his memories of the event really be trusted? Isn't it possible that he was simply hearing the fog-distorted voices of the women (Isobel, Lady Dunsany, and Betty) calling to him, and he only imagined that the voices were coming out of the rocks? That's always been my impression, and seeing the scene from Jamie's point of view in SCOTTISH PRISONER helped to reinforce that.
4) Finally, consider Diana Gabaldon's own comments on this subject. Here's what she said on Facebook today (January 24), in response to a similar question:
Well, we don't know that he's actually hearing the rocks; he's only three (he thinks he was five at the time, but it was a bit earlier than he recalls) and was lost in the fog and imagining he heard his mother's voice. He may very well have imagined hearing the rocks as well.Diana has also commented on this in a discussion on Compuserve:
I don't _think_ Willie heard the stones scream--he thought they were talking to him.And a bit later in that same thread on Compuserve (here), she mentions "red herrings". I think that's what this is: deliberate misdirection. Or, to put it another way: she's messing with our minds -- something that Diana readily admits that she enjoys doing. She once told me, "Hey, that's one of the chief perks of this job. <g>"
I think it's highly unlikely that William has the time-travel gene, and I don't think the incident where he was lost in the fog as a small boy proves that he can travel. But that's just my opinion. Until and unless Diana gives us some definitive proof one way or the other (for example, having the adult William walk up to a ring of standing stones so we can see how he reacts), we just don't know for sure. But it's fine to speculate about it if you want to.