When I first saw the trailer for the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children movie coming out later this year, I wasn’t super interested until Miss Peregrine literally turned into a peregrine falcon. Falcons are one of my favorite birds! So I decided to seek out the books to find out what this series is all about before the movie comes out.
All in all, I was quite impressed with the books. If you’re trying to tell a story about British kids with magic powers that’s wildly different from Harry Potter, then this is the way to do it. Author Ransom Riggs not only found ingenious ways to incorporate the “peculiar” old photographs he found into the story (e.g., the photo of the floating girl on the cover inspired a character whose peculiar ability is to float), but he also used them to inspire a quite original take on how “magical” (called “peculiar” in this trilogy) folks can hide within plain sight in the world of “normals”: time loops. But while I loved the time loops, they allowed characters to essentially live forever, which could be a huge problem.
While I’m pleased with how things panned out for the main characters at the end of the trilogy with regards to time loops, I don’t think Riggs fully explored the insidious implications of the time loop mechanism he set up. Immortality is a dangerous thing, and while there are rules governing it in the series and those who try to get around the rules are punished, the system itself is never adequately questioned. This ends up undermining the trilogy’s otherwise brilliant worldbuilding.
Spoilers for the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy below!
It’s not a coincidence that those seeking immortality/eternal youth are usually the villains in stories, from Voldemort to Orochimaru to the evil queen in Snow White. Such a quest is viewed as the ultimate hubris, as trying to play God and avoid the limits placed upon us. It also allows a person to continue perpetrating evil indefinitely, while death would cut off their rampage in a way that likely nothing else would. I have more to say from a religious perspective about the problems with earthly immortality, but that would be a whole other post! The point is, immortality is problematic, and usually in our media, immortality-seekers are punished and/or defeated, and fail to achieve their goal.
In the Miss Peregrine series, time loops provide a route to (limited) immortality. The latest trailer spells it all out: time loops are twenty-four-hour periods that replay indefinitely. Only peculiars can enter them, and they retain their memories even as the daily loop resets, while any normals in the loop unknowingly redo the same day over and over again (these normals aren’t really in the loop, as their real selves continued moving forward in time. They are more like background fixtures). Meanwhile, outside the loop, time moves as usual. Peculiars can hide in these loops, which also, at least at first, shield them from their most dangerous enemies. Perhaps most interestingly, though, they do not age within the loops. Their bodily state remains locked in the same state it was in during those original twenty-four hours, or in the state it was in when they entered the loop, if they were not there during its original creation. This allows peculiars to live far longer than a typical lifespan while maintaining youth. For instance, the main female character Emma looks 16, but has actually lived for over 100 years. If peculiars who have spent too long in a loop leave it for the present, however, they will soon “age forward” to their true age, and if that is over the age of a usual human lifespan, they’ll die.
Time loops are created and maintained by ymbrynes, women who have powers over time and can also (seemingly unrelatedly) turn into birds. Ymbrynes maintain order in peculiar society, and many of them run orphanages for peculiar children, keeping them safe within time loops. In the case of Miss Peregrine, she didn’t intend to arrest the growth of the peculiar children within her care, but when a bomb is about to fall on their house during World War II, she has no choice but to create a loop that resets just before the bomb hits. The thing about being a peculiar child in a time loop is that you do not fully mature, either physically or emotionally, no matter how much time passes, even though you retain your memories. All the children continue to identify as children for the entire seventy-odd years that the loop exists. While the main male character Jacob, from the present day, is intrigued by the new friends he discovers within the loop, he feels conflicted about staying because he’d be stuck at the age of sixteen, and would have to abandon his family. So we at least have acknowledgement that the eternal youth of a time loop is not necessarily desirable. But while Miss Peregrine didn’t mean to doom her children to an eternity of childhood, it seems that doing so is common practice in the rest of peculiar society, because many other homes for peculiar children within time loops exist in the world. No one in the story questions this or tries to change it. Riggs alludes to the problematic aspects of eternal youth and immortality within his time loops, but doesn’t follow those implications to a fully satisfying conclusion.
I have seen a twenty-four-hour time loop as a way to cheat death once before: in a Sandman comic in the Endless Nights collection, in the story focusing on Death. In it, the personification of Death drafts a man to help her infiltrate a twenty-four-hour time loop that people were using to hide from her (i.e., from Death). They retained their memories and the sense of time passing, but everything done to their bodies, including dying, was reset when the loop reset. In the end Death is successful in breaking the loop, and she takes all the souls that had tried to hide from her. Perhaps this is why I felt like Miss Peregrine should end with the dissolution of all time loops in the peculiar universe. It did not. However, the main characters are pleasantly surprised to discover that during a black-hole-like collapse of one loop, their internal clocks are placed back in sync with the normal flow of time without aging them forward, so they are able to begin living in the present day outside of a loop and age normally. This also means that Jacob is able to join them without having to remain 16 for the rest of his life.
The villains, meanwhile, sought to overthrow ymbryne rule, steal powerful peculiar souls to use their powers for themselves, and to achieve true immortality by subverting the “aging forward” limit. Before the story starts, their attempts to do this ended up turning them into hollows: multi-tongued monsters without souls or sentience, only a hunger to consume the souls of peculiars. Here’s the weird thing: the heroes end up accomplishing precisely this latter goal by escaping the collapsing time loop instead of getting caught in it as the villains did. So why was it bad when the villains tried it, resulting in their punishment, but celebrated when the heroes achieved it? Was it simply because they weren’t intentionally trying to seek true immortality, since it was sort of just a side effect of the loop’s collapse? Despite this inconsistency, I was satisfied with it because it meant the characters I had grown to know and love were now free from the prison of a time loop and could finally reach adulthood. I hope they won’t simply become adults and then make a new loop where they can live forever, which is presumably what the villains wanted to do (though they were already adults). But, again, this was too limited of a conclusion, because it had no bearing on the other time loops in the peculiar world, nor did any of the characters talk about the inherent problems with the loops.
Strangely, the closest the narrative gets to questioning the entire loop system is in the mouths of the villains, who, though they want to keep the loops for their own purposes of immortality, also talk about the “infantilizing” influence of ymbrynes. Presumably this refers to the many loops where ymbrynes take care of peculiar children—but also keep them as children indefinitely. I think this is a legitimate criticism, but the narrative treats the villains as 100% wrong for wanting to overthrow the ymbryne matriarchy. Don’t get me wrong; the matriarchy is awesome! And it is also pretty awesome that the villains’ rhetoric sounded a lot like that of MRAs. But because the villains are so soundly defeated and treated as purely evil, any possibly legitimate criticisms they have get swept under the rug. After the bad guys are defeated, the ymbrynes take back control and appear to resume running peculiar society in exactly the same way.
I actually think the time loops are the coolest and most unique aspect of this trilogy. I loved it when the characters entered each new one, so I could find out what the world was like in that time and place. They allow for time travel, because though a loop may eventually close when an ymbryne no longer maintains it, if you go back in time by entering one loop, you can then enter any other loops that were open during that loop’s time, and continue doing this for as far back as ymbrynes were making loops. But loops are used to cheat death and trap people at the same age indefinitely, and for that reason, the time loop system should probably be dismantled. The author only partially acknowledges the problems with the loop system, and this leads to inconsistencies in worldbuilding and an ironic and seemingly unintentional vindication of the villains’ points about ymbrynes. It may be that Ransom Riggs is blinded by his own system’s coolness to the point where he cannot fully see its negative implications. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe he’s planning a new story in this universe that actually will adequately deal with all these issues!