Sunday, December 18, 2011

Using History in Fantasy

You can’t have epic fantasy without history. 

Well, perhaps that’s too sweeping a statement, and someone’s going to produce an example of epic fantasy with no sense of history whatsoever, but it would certainly be an unusual exception.  On the whole, an epic fantasy novel (or trilogy, or dodecalogy, or whatever) arises out of the history of the world it’s set in. 

How well, for instance, would Lord of the Rings work without some knowledge of the affairs of Arnor and Gondor, the War of the Last Alliance, the Fall of Numenor, and even the War of the Great Jewels?  Would Song of Ice and Fire make sense without knowing why Daenerys is in exile, or the past relations between the Starks, the Lannisters and the other great families?  Or the Belgariad, without knowing why there’s no King of Riva?

And so on.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that all that history has to be laid out in the books; but, even when it’s not, the author needs to understand what’s going on, in order to communicate that sense of connectedness to the readers.

This means that anyone hoping to write epic fantasy – and many other types of fantasy – successfully should have at least a rudimentary understanding of how history works.  There’s really no substitute for studying real history – whether that’s in a formal academic course, or just by private reading – but I want to point out a few things to look out for.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that history is never neat, except in retrospect.  We speak, in our own history, of eras such as “classical”, “mediaeval”, “Renaissance” and so on, but these were usually defined much later. 

Even the most obvious of watersheds wouldn’t necessarily have seemed so obvious at the time.  Take, for instance, the Roman withdrawal from Britain.  What could be more simple?  The Romans were here, then they were gone.  That must have been clear even to the people experiencing it.

Well, no.  For one thing, the “Roman” way of life had been changing for a long time: people drifting away from the cities, a severe economic recession, the legions populated almost entirely by barbarians – even a new religion.  The whole nature of the empire had changed – as early as the 3rd century, Britain had been virtually independent of Rome for some time, with its own emperor.

Very little really changed in 410 – “the Romans” didn’t leave Britain (there were very few actual Romans there anyway), and the way of life didn’t substantially change for a while.  All that actually happened was that the Emperor Honorius ordered the province to look to its own defence, so that, in effect, Britons stopped paying taxes to Rome and began paying them to local warlords instead.  Besides, it was all a temporary measure.  Once the Visigothic menace had been dealt with, the empire would reassert itself, and things would be as they always had been.

That didn’t happen, of course, but it would have taken time for awareness of that to sink in.  Meanwhile, parts of the province were being ruled by barbarians, but that was nothing new.  Barbarians were everywhere in the empire (the Roman general who faced Alaric and his Visigoths was actually a Vandal) and they were quite trendy, in any case – fresh and vigorous, in place of the rather stale Roman culture.  The locals learnt their languages and adopted their fashions.  They became English, but only gradually.

As far as Europe as a whole went, the Roman empire never really ended.  Charlemagne refounded it, and then his creation became the Holy Roman Empire.  Napoleon consciously tried to revive the great European Empire, as did Hitler and Mussolini.  Today, it takes a somewhat different form, with its centre in Brussels.

Wait a minute – did I mention an economic recession in relation to the Roman Empire?  Did they have things like that back then?  And economics certainly has nothing to do with epic fantasy, does it?

Yes, on both counts.  Fundamentally, economics is the production or acquisition of resources, and trading any surplus for more resources.  That’s been going on not only throughout history, but for a good deal of prehistory too.  There’s evidence of surplus production and trade in Europe even before the last great Ice Age.

Most history is driven by economics.  Going back to Roman Britain, the Romans weren’t there in the first place because they thought it was a cool idea to conquer another country; they were there because Britain was unusually rich in fertile land and minerals such as tin.

This is going to be true even of the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness, with their armies made up of fireball-throwing wizards and squads of dragon-raiders.  They’ll be, among other things, after control of resources or trade-routes, or simply lebensraum for their populations to expand into.  Of course, I’m not suggesting the author should treat readers to a lecture on these subjects, or even necessarily mention them.  S/he should, however, be aware of how the process is working, and maybe drop odd hints.  Without that, all we have is a bunch of aristocrats playing an elaborate and deadly game.

The fashion in the study of history nowadays is to see the effects of cultural and economic forces, rather than individuals.  This is valid to a large extent, as I’ve already suggested, but individuals can sometimes changes the course of history.  “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” it’s said, but that’s a retrospective view of when it does happen.  If Alexander or Napoleon, for instance, had been strangled at birth, many things would have been the same, but not everything.  It’s unlikely that another person would have had quite such a decisive effect on the world.

Individuals can certainly affect the way events are perceived, both at the time and in retrospect.  This applies especially to the reasons behind wars.  Most wars are fought for reasons of economic advantage, or collective forces such as conflicting religions (and often both) but that’s not always what starts a war. 

It’s long been recognised, for instance, that the Trojan War – assuming it happened in something like the way Homer described it – was actually fought over the trade-routes between the Aegean and the Black Sea, which Troy controlled and the Achaeans wanted.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the story of Helen’s abduction or defection should be dismissed.  If you’re trying to fire soldiers up to spend ten years fighting a war far from home, what do you say to them?  “Fight to protect our trade-routes,” or “Fight to stop them stealing your wife, as they stole mine”?

Many scholars, both historians and literary critics, have dismissed the idea that a war could be started by “one woman’s abduction,” yet we’ve just been through a century in which a world war (the first) was “started” by one man’s assassination.  In both cases, of course, there were far more extensive underlying reasons for the war, but it takes something specific to start it.

A good example is the splendidly named War of Jenkins’ Ear.  This was a war fought between Britain and Spain, starting in 1739, in which Britain was trying to break the Spanish monopoly of trade with South America.  What they actually declared war over, however, was the capture and torture of a British seaman called Captain Jenkins by the Spanish, during which his ear was cut off.  The action involved attacks on ports such as Porto Bello and Cartegena, which were what Britain really wanted, but the great symbol of the cause, then and since, is the image of Jenkins’ severed ear.

It’s certainly possible to write epic fantasy without drafting out extensive accounts of historical cause and effect, but the more thought the author puts into the history behind the wars and quests that form the story’s foreground, the more “true” it’s going to feel.

I’ve only made a few scratches on the surface of the subject, but I hope it inspires at least one writer to read more about it.  It doesn’t really matter if you choose to study the history of Europe, or China, or America, or anywhere else you like – the important thing for a fantasy writer is to get a feel for the way history works, and create a truer world.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. It's another element to consider when one is world building.