How Many Seconds In Eternity?


How many drops of water are there in the ocean?
How many stars are there in the sky?
How many seconds of time are there in eternity?

These are the questions asked by an Emperor to a shepherd boy in a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. In the story, the boy answers each of the three questions in turn, and the Emperor, impressed by his wisdom, adopts him as his own child.

Why am I writing a blog post about this? To some of you, this post might not even make any sense!!! Well, I happen to be a big fan of the television series Doctor Who, in other words, a ‘Whovian’. And one of my favourite episodes is partly inspired by this fairy tale.

The episode is called ‘Heaven Sent’, and I could watch it over and over on a loop. Everything about it is unique and mesmerising. The writing, the acting, the direction, the music, the plot line – you name it, the whole thing is totally spot-on.

The Doctor has been trapped in a prison, and is being constantly pursued by a slow-moving creature called the Veil. He ends up staying for 4.5 billion years, repeating the same cycle time and again in the name of escaping and saving the life of his companion, Clara. (I hope this description is easy enough to understand 🙂 🙂 )

This is where the questions of the shepherd boy come in. They are used as a metaphor throughout the episode, but particularly towards the end, where the Doctor is faced by a wall of abzantium, a stone that is 40 times harder than diamond.

As he slowly penetrates the wall, he recites a series of lines inspired by the shepherd boy’s answer to the Emperor’s final question. Every time, he gets slightly further into his recital before being mortally burned by the Veil, until the next go (it’s complicated!). But finally, after many, many years, he breaks the wall and reaches the end of the story.

Here is the shepherd boy’s answer to ‘How many seconds of time are there in eternity?

“In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.”

And here is the version of the story told by the Doctor.

The Doctor acts as the bird in the metaphor, the abzantium acts as the Diamond Mountain, and he is trapped in the prison for an eternity. I cannot do the brilliance of the story justice, but the subtlety and symbolism of the metaphor is what helped make me love it so much.

If you would like to read the whole fairy tale, it is available here.

Have you enjoyed something that is based on a fairy tale, a folk tale, or a poem? If you have, please let me know in the comments!

Happy reading 🙂

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