Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

The Symbolism Of The Sphinx In H G Wells’ The Time Machine

Book cover

As I read The Time Machine, one thing in particular drew my interest: the sphinx. ‘Why the sphinx,’ you might ask, ‘when the rest of the story has so much meaning, so much going on?’, but to me it was the identification. Whereas the main messages are easy enough to work out once you’re a fair way through the story, the sphinx is a lot more subtle. And whilst you can say ‘oh, it’s power’ and get enough from that, I sensed that there was more to be had. And, whether or not I was over-thinking it – though I would argue not given the lengths Wells goes to otherwise – I decided it was worth further research and thought.

Let’s begin on that most obvious of thoughts, then: the overall idea about sphinxes is that they are very powerful. No doubt this is emphasised by the sheer size of the statues ancient societies built, but it’s safe to say that there is the idea of power regardless of how big they are in art. In Wells’ story, the sphinx is controlled by the Morlocks, likely belongs to them, as much as it can if it was salvaged (more on that later). This, then, infers that the Morlocks have power over the Eloi, even if neither sub-race could grasp such a concept.

It’s worth the time exploring what the sphinx meant to those who first used it. In sum, the sphinx is an ancient symbol from the old world, even if it was not actually made during what we call the ancient era. There is the possibility the Morlocks, or Elois, took it from one of the museums mentioned in the story. If someone did take it, which race did they belong to? We could say it was the Morlocks because the Eloi are scared of the sphinx, but that fear could easily have been conditioned – who’s to say an Eloi didn’t place it to warn of the Morlocks or, indeed, that it wasn’t originally meant as a good sign?

To both the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks, the sphinx was viewed as a guardian, but apart from that thoughts varied. In Greek culture, the sphinx was seen as a riddler; those who could not answer the riddle were killed or eaten. We don’t know for certain if the Morlocks kill the Eloi, though it is suggested, however we do know they eat them. Whether they kill or whether they simply take the deceased the comparison remains – the Greek myth matches Wells’ story.

As far as additional evidence is concerned we can assume the Elois can’t figure out the ‘mystery’ of the sphinx, at least as far as the time traveller is concerned. This can be compared to a riddle not being answered. Then there’s the time traveller – he can’t or, rather, doesn’t, solve the ‘riddle’, and whilst he escapes, his machine becomes bait.

Ancient Egyptians saw the sphinx in a better light. It had great strength, yes, but it was benevolent. This matches the believed strength of the Morlocks, yet it could also be said to match the time traveller, who is stronger than the future races in a multitude of ways.

Could the sphinx represent the time traveller himself?

Whilst later ages interpreted the sphinx as less dangerous, I think we can assume, if we look at the content of the book and Wells’ background, that the author did his homework. We can assume that Wells was familiar with the original ideas of the sphinx and used them because as much as the sphinx in The Time Machine may not actually do anything itself, it represents something that is dangerous, even if the danger is not something that’s fully comprehended by itself (that’s to say that the Morlocks may not realise they’re dangerous).

In regards to the time traveller’s place in all this, then, we know that the sphinx is a grand statue standing in place of a laboratory – the laboratory of not just a scientist, but a time traveller. The laboratory of a person from the past who would have a direct impact on those who lived with the statue. This placement of the statue intimates that the symbolism is not clear-cut – as much as the sphinx is a symbol of the Morlocks, it is also about the time traveller. Even if the Elois and Morlocks didn’t understand what or who he was, the time traveller’s appearance next to the sphinx in a way symbolises the coming of power; it’s a sign, a prophecy of sorts.

And whilst the time traveller would not see himself as dangerous, just as the Morlocks likely do not, he is a threat to the world he enters. He creates discord, he saves lives when such a thing is not ‘normal’, he passes borders, he starts fires. He kills. There is no doubt that there would be after effects and confusion once he left. If the sphinx proclaims the coming of the time traveller, or even if it’s just a memorial to him, then it’s a fitting comparison. No one in 802701 can answer the riddle of the time traveller; they cannot understand him and they don’t understand his machine, and in turn he brings destruction. He may be benevolent, like the Egyptian sphinx, but he is also merciless like the Greek.

The comparisons between mythology and Wells’ story are too many to dismiss. The balance between various theories has to be taken into account also. In my opinion, it would be fair to say that Wells intended all possibilities, all meanings, and that the sphinx is a symbol of both the dynamics between the future races and history’s place in that future time – the time traveller being part of history, of course.

What are your thoughts as to the symbolism of the sphinx?

Further Reading

Further Thoughts On H G Wells’ The Time Machine

Subscribe to this site via email and you’ll receive 3 posts a week. If you use Gmail, you may find the posts are stored in your ‘social’ or ‘promotions’ tab.


No Comments


Comments closed