Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Historical Fact About Historical Fiction

Although I mainly write fantasy, I've loved historical fiction since I was a child. Why wouldn't I?  I was obsessed with knights and, although my favourite place to find them was in the legends of King Arthur, I took the real thing seriously too and learnt quite a bit about the middle ages.

Later, I began reading historical novels, progressing from Geoffrey Trease to Rosemary Sutcliff and later to Mary Renault, among others.  I was always very firm, though, that I wanted stories about history, not just costume stories set in the past. That is, stories that showed me a different era, its different culture and values.

It's sometimes said that historical fiction began in the 19th century with Sir Walter Scott, which seems unlikely on the face of it. There have always been stories set in the past, right back to the oldest surviving fictional work, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Written in its earliest surviving form around 1800 BC, it was set about seven hundred years earlier.

The same can be said about Homer's works, believed to have been "written"* around four hundred years after the events they describe took place. Or didn't take place, but the thing that prevents the Iliad and the Odyssey from being historical fiction isn't that the Trojan War might never have happened. It's the fact that Homer makes no attempt to portray late Bronze Age Greece, instead presenting a society very much like the one he lived in.

The same was true of the mediaeval romancers, from Chrétien de Troyes to Thomas Malory, whose stories were theoretically set in 5th century Britain or the 8th century Frankish Empire, but were actually an idealised picture of the writers' own times. Very idealised, in fact. For the most part, the romancers seemed to be giving a vision of how their society should have been, rather than how it was.

That isn't history. The Greek word historia originally meant inquiry or investigation. Early authors wrote "investigations" into various topics, but the word took on its current meaning when Herodotus undertook to investigate the root causes of the war between Greece and Persia. His criteria for what constituted historical events may have left something to be desired (he identified one of the earliest phases of the quarrel as Zeus's abduction of Europa) but his approach was essentially sound: to understand the present by first understanding the past.

Later Greek and Roman historians, such as Thucydides and Tacitus, developed the discipline further, but mediaeval "history" devolved into little more than a recital of events, real or imagined. It was in this climate that the word history was co-opted to refer to any tale: it's still histoire in French, and was reduced to story in English. History as we know it wasn't really reborn until the Renaissance** and took a quantum leap in the 18th century with Edward Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Nevertheless, there was historical fiction long before Scott, particularly in two widely separated cultures. The Chinese novel reached the beginning of its classic period in the 14th century, and two of the earliest great works were unmistakably historical in theme. The Water Margin told the story of a group of outlaws a couple of centuries earlier, while The Romance of the Three Kingdoms went back a thousand years further. While these novels' motives seem to have been partly to illuminate their own turbulent times by presenting parallels from the past, they portrayed history in ways that the epic poets and romancers of Europe hadn't attempted.

The other haven of early historical fiction was Iceland between the 12th and 15th centuries, where some of the earliest European novels were written in a culture whose literacy rate wouldn't look too shabby today. Some of the sagas retold the old legends of gods and heroes, but most were set in 10th century Iceland and explored the processes, a little reminiscent of the taming of the Wild West, by which the anarchic settlers gradually coalesced into the Icelandic Commonwealth with the world's oldest parliament. One or two, such as Ari's Saga, dealt with more recent events.

Genuine historical fiction occurs elsewhere now and then. Quite a few of Shakespeare's plays are certainly historical and arguably (Richard III, for instance) fictional. On the other hand, while many of the Gothic novels of the 18th century are set in the past, this is largely no more than a conveniently dramatic setting.

Scott wasn't quite the first modern historical novelist, but he was the one who made it fashionable. He was followed by, among many others, Marryat, Blackmore and Stevenson in Britain, Fennimore Cooper in America, Hugo and Dumas père in France, and authors in many more countries. By the 20th century, historical fiction was well established.

As in ancient times, setting a story in the past doesn't necessarily make it historical fiction. The Hungarian critic and philosopher György Lukácz argued that Scott was the first true historical novelist because he treated the historical period as socially and culturally distinct from his own time. Though I'd argue that this could also be said of the Chinese and Icelandic works mentioned, it does rule out many works, notably a large proportion of costume romances, which aren't particularly interested in exploring the period, as well as many recent "historical" TV shows where the characters are little more than modern people in fancy dress.

Historical fiction is usually associated with periods substantially in the past, but arguably it can be set within living memory. The best-known historical novel by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, was set little more than sixty years before its publication, and Hugo's Les Misérables was a good deal more recent. Historical fiction can certainly be written now about World War 2, and perhaps a good deal later. Perhaps your attitude to that will depend on your age, but it can be disturbing to have events you clearly remember described as history.***

Whether you set your historical novel in Pharaonic Egypt or in the 20th century, though, it must be approached with the curiosity and analysis — the investigation — of a historian. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of people in nice clothes acting out a modern story. Which can be fun, but it isn't historical fiction.


* It's unlikely Homer actually wrote his work down. Writing disappeared in Greece after the fall of the Bronze Age palaces, since its main function was for palace records and accounts, and was probably not re-introduced till after Homer's time, via the Phoenicians. The only oblique reference Homer makes to writing (in Glaucus's story of Bellerophon) suggests he'd heard of it but had no idea what it was.

** I'm referring here to the European study of history, which is what most concerns us in the English-speaking world. The discipline flourished in other parts of the world, such as China and the Islamic Empire.

*** Such as the recent "historical" Doctor Who stories set in the seventies and eighties. Puh-lease.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Happy 450th, Shakespeare

Four hundred and fifty years ago today, arguably the greatest writer ever was born. Or it may have been four hundred and fifty years ago yesterday, or tomorrow. Births weren't normally registered in the sixteenth century, only baptisms. Shakespeare was baptised on the 26th April, and three days would have been the expected gap, unless there was a serious risk of the baby not surviving, in which case it would have been done at once. Shakespeare also died on the 23rd April, offering an attractive symmetry. It's St George's Day too, a fitting day for England's favourite author to be born.

Whatever, a decision has been made and ratified by tradition that today is Shakespeare's birthday. Rather like the stray dog or cat you pick up from the refuge — no-one really knows when they were born, but you pick a birthday  for them. After all, the important thing is to celebrate that they were born, not necessarily to do it on the right day.

William Shakespeare was born what would today be described as an upper-middle-class boy in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father, John Shakespeare, had improved himself from a tenant farming family to become a local businessman and a major figure in Stratford's local politics. His mother, Mary Arden, came from a significant landowning family, which automatically put her on a higher social standing than anyone in trade.

Little is known about how this boy came to be an actor and playwright in London, except that his father ran into serious financial problems when William was in his teens. This was presumably the reason why he never went to university, as he almost certainly would have otherwise, a fact used to taunt him as an adult. The lack of information has given rise to a number of absurd conspiracy theories, which I discussed a couple of years ago.

When Shakespeare began writing, playwrights weren't highly regarded, being generally dismissed as hacks — plays were often produced without even mentioning the author. Christopher Marlowe began to change things (it's one of the great what-ifs of history how Shakespeare and Marlowe might have pushed one another even further and higher if Marlowe had lived) but it was largely thanks to Shakespeare that the generation of playwrights that followed him were clearly recognised and acknowledged.

After his death, his friend and colleague Ben Jonson described him as not of an age, but for all time, a remarkably prophetic comment. His works have been translated into almost every major language on Earth (and will eventually, we're told, be available "in the original Klingon", a parody of Hitler's insistence that Shakespeare was a German writer) and it's been said that one of his plays is being performed somewhere at every moment.

Shakespeare isn't to everyone's taste, of course, and I'd suspect mind-control if any author were. Still, I believe many people who dismiss him might not find him difficult or boring if they'd first encountered him through a really good production or film version, rather than being made to study him in school. Even many of the language problems vanish if good actors are using the lines, as Shakespeare intended, to entertain instead of as revered icons.

Shakespeare is the greatest single influence on me as an author — such an all-pervading influence that I often forget all about him when asked to list my favourite authors or my greatest inspirations. Of course, I write nothing like him. I don't write plays in iambic pentameter, nor do I use Elizabethan or Jacobean language. The world I'm writing for has very different values, and my characters think in ways very different from his.

Still, Shakespeare is the touchstone for everything I write. I might not create the same characters as he did (I would hope not) but he was one of the greatest character-makers of all time, and understanding why his characters are the way they are can be illuminating for my own characterisation.

The English language itself wouldn't be what it is without him. So many phrases and sayings we use as a matter of course can from his plays — in one fell swoop, a sea-change, or star-crossed lovers, just to pluck out a few at random. It's a fair bet that every one of us, at some point, uses at least one Shakespearean phrase every day.

So, happy birthday, Shakespeare, and here's to you. Whether or not today really is your birthday.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Yes, There Was Fantasy Before the Eighties

A couple of weeks ago, and completely out of the blue, I was contacted through my website by the organisers of Pulpfest, a convention due to take place this summer in Columbus, Ohio, asking if they could use one of my articles for their programme.

For a few years, I've contributed articles to the excellent Fantasy Faction website, many of them about classic works of fantasy and their authors, and the article Pulpfest were interested in was the one I wrote about Fritz Leiber and his series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Since Fantasy Faction were fine about the article being reused, I was delighted to give permission.

During the exchange, we talked about how so many fantasy readers now seem unaware of the genre's rich history — part of my motivation for the Fantasy Faction series in the first place. It seems to be a common misconception that fantasy started with Tolkien, then nothing much happened till the 1980s.

Now, the 1980s were without doubt a wonderful explosion of fantasy, which in the decades immediately before had been regarded largely as a poor relation of science fiction, but the new works that began emerging certainly didn't come from nowhere. Fantasy has a long and illustrious history.

You could argue, of course, that fantasy has been around since the dawn of literature. The oldest extant work of fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is full of gods, magic and immortals, as are the slightly later great epics of Greece and India. Were these regarded as fantasy at the time, though? It's very difficult to say exactly how Homer and his audience, for instance, thought of the gods who took human form at Troy or the monsters Odysseus fought on his way home. It's likely that they wouldn't have seen these elements as completely impossible, but such tales of wonder would certainly have been regarded as something other than normal life.

Magic and the supernatural have abounded in epics, romances and fairy tales told since then, all across the world, from the Welsh Mabinogion to the great Chinese novel Monkey, or The Journey to the West.  No doubt many of these were written and received with the same mixture of acceptance and scepticism as Homer's works.

Possibly the first culture to define fantasy as a genre was mediaeval Iceland. Contrary to popular misconception, the Icelandic sagas weren't traditional oral tales, nor were they in verse, nor were they mostly about gods and heroes. They were highly sophisticated literary novels, serving the population with by far the highest literacy rate in Europe at the time, and most typically historical fiction examining the birth of the Icelandic Commonwealth in the tenth century.

However, a minority of sagas were retellings of the old legends (most famously the Volsunga Saga, essentially the same story that Wagner used for the Ring Cycle) and the Icelanders had a name for these: "lying sagas". The word lying didn't have quite the unpleasant and disapproving meaning it does now, but it did define these stories — as opposed to the "true-seeming sagas", which covered both fact and realistic fiction — as deliberate fantasy.

Fantasy continued to flourish through the centuries that followed. At least two of Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, are unmistakably fantasy, while others have supernatural elements. Both Hamlet and Macbeth, for instance, would be defined today as magic realism.

Eighteenth-century fantasy ranged from Gulliver's Travels to the new Gothic genre, which eventually evolved into horror, to William Beckford's wonderful Arabian Nights extravaganza, Vathek.  It was in the nineteenth century, though, that fantasy as we know it today began to evolve, along with the science fiction of Shelley, Verne and Wells. George MacDonald wrote a series of fantasy romances, some for adults and some ostensibly for children, but it was William Morris, artist, poet, socialist and wallpaper designer, who really laid the foundations of fantasy in a series of novels at the end of his life, in the 1890s.

Morris's approach was essentially similar to the mediaeval romances, but he completely abandoned any pretence of real geography. Although he occasionally mentioned Rome or Jerusalem, the stories were essentially set in a mediaeval world of his own invention. He sent his heroes and heroines — the heroines are usually the stronger characters — on magical adventures to the world's end or exploring enchanted islands, and threw the supernatural at them from all sides.

Morris certainly influenced later fantasy. His islands in The Water of the Wondrous Isles show a strong similarity to those in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, while Tolkien appears to have used The Well at the World's End as the plot template for Lord of the Rings (it even ends with a Scouring of the Shire episode). Beyond that, though, Morris set the template that fantasy is mediaeval, a perception that still persists, even against the clear fact that only a minority of fantasy settings are mediaeval.

As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, a number of authors followed in the footsteps of Morris and Macdonald. Lord Dunsany effectively created the fantasy short story as we know it, with tales of adventurers and thieves "beyond the fields we know" and "at the edge of the world". William Hope Hodgson created far-future fantasy (as opposed to far-future SF) with The Night Land, a flawed but still impressive epic. In the US, James Branch Cabell blended romance and comedy to create the light side of fantasy, along with his antihero Jurgen, the model for all those fantasy antiheroes who live by their wits. And, back in the UK, E. R. Eddison wrote the first fantasy epic as we know it today, The Worm Ouroboros. In place of the individual adventuring of Morris, Dunsany and Cabell, Eddison showed world-spanning political manoeuvring, a vast war and a desperate quest. Like The Night Land, it's a flawed book but well worth reading.

It was in the US pulp magazines, though, that fantasy really took off in the thirties and forties. Authors such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft (yes, he wrote fantasy too), C.L. Moore, Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Hannes Bok, Henry Kuttner and Poul Anderson — not to mention Fritz Leiber, the best of all in my opinion — took the Dunsanian fantasy short story and ran with it over the hills and far away.

Many were ambidextrous in fantasy and SF, especially those who wrote for John W. Campbell's magazine Unknown Worlds, and they tended to write stories that applied the rigour of hard SF to their fantasy worlds and magic systems. Perhaps the best example of that school is the series of stories Pratt and de Camp wrote about Harold Shea's adventurers in the worlds of mythology. Others, notably Howard, took the story of pure fantasy adventure to a new level and created the sword & sorcery genre — which Leiber, who stood somewhat between the two schools, proceeded to delightfully deconstruct and reinvent.

Back in Blighty, besides two Oxford dons with a taste for beer and tobacco, T.H. White and Mervyn Peake each created idiosyncratic fantasy like nothing before or since. As the fifties turned to the sixties and then the seventies, a series of fantasy authors began to emerge: Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Karl Edward Wagner, Anne McCaffery, Tanith Lee and many more. At the same time, Lin Carter and Ballantine began reprinting many of the older classics mentioned above, for readers looking for "something else like Tolkien".

In his 1973 book Imaginary Worlds, Carter pointed out an oddity: that, despite Tolkien's success, few fantasy authors seemed to be emulating him. That changed in the late seventies — around the same time that The Silmarillion was revealed to the world — with two epic fantasies. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks was cuttingly described at the time as an exercise in rewriting Lord of the Rings in your own words, although the series it spawned still has many fans. Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, on the other hand, was both recognisably in the same tradition as Tolkien and utterly different.

These seemed to open the floodgates, and fantasy began its rise to the point where now it's seen as a major genre by the entertainment industry. Authors such as Brooks, Donaldson, Gemmell, Eddings, Martin, Jordan and many others are now seen as the "old, classic" fantasy authors, and I've no wish at all to demean them. But fantasy is much, much older than the eighties, and any reader interested in knowing the roots behind their favourite would do well to investigate some of the authors I've mentioned. There are some great stories waiting for you.

Unless I win the lottery before summer, I'm not going to be able to get over to Pulpfest. I'm proud, though, to be helping them remind readers of some of the great classics of fantasy.

You can find links to all my Fantasy Faction articles on this page of my website, where I've discussed many of these authors in more detail.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Steal Away Published on Kindle

Steal Away
Nyki Blatchley
Cover art & design by Shannon LC Cate
Available on Kindle at
Amazon.co.uk £0.77
Amazon.com $0.99
Kari and Fai, teenaged lovers and sorcerers, have a problem. They're penniless, but they've hit on a plan to solve their financial difficulties. The Traveller, a foreigner who's turned up to lead the city's rebellion against the evil Demon Queen, must surely be loaded down with treasure. All they want to do is relieve him of a small amount.

The Traveller has several problems, struggling with intransigent allies and assassination attempts by his enemies. The last thing he wants to deal with is a pair of incompetent thieves, but this long night in the ancient city of Errish, perhaps their problems aren't so very different.

Steal Away was first published by the late, lamented magazine Golden Visions, and appears here in a slightly revised version.
"I think we should get out of here," said Failiu. She wiggled her toes carefully, examining the results as thoughtfully as an alchemist with an experiment.
"Why?" Karaghr glanced around the tiny room at the mould staining large areas of wall and the pile of rubble on the dirt floor where they hadn't bothered to clear the collapsed section of ceiling. Absently treading on a scurrying cockroach, he looked back at Failiu's naked form stretched out on the pile of rags they called their bed. That was much more to his liking. "It's all we can afford."
"That's only because we're not paying for it," Failiu pointed out acidly. "We can't actually afford anything." Flexing a leg, she scratched her foot thoughtfully. "Same as these fleas aren't paying to live on me. That wasn't what I meant, though, Kari. I meant we should get out of Errish."
"What?" Karaghr was so startled that he momentarily forgot about the view Failiu's contortions were giving him. "Why in Taliqi's name would we do that, Fai?"
Fai wrinkled her nose. "In Taliqi's name? If it weren't for what was done to us in his name, we'd be sleeping in nice comfortable beds."
"But not together," Kari pointed out. "We always had to do that in secret."
"We'd have a whole library of books on the High Arts, instead of having to make it up."
"And endure days at a time of doing nothing but chanting. Yuck."
"We could be having baths," said Fai wistfully.
"Washing's over-rated," said Kari airily. He'd rarely bathed in the first fifteen years of his life, and the couple of years he'd been in Errish hadn't endeared him to the habit.
"I'm sure the fleas agree with you." She sighed and stretched, distracting Kari from the conversation. "It makes sense, though," she added after a moment.
"Uh? What?"
"Leaving Errish. Kari, can't you ever think of more than one thing?"
"Of course." He knelt beside her, giving the grin he knew she always found irresistible. "I can think of lots of things I could do with you."
Fai giggled, and there was no more coherent conversation for some time. Eventually, though, Kari asked, "Where would we go?"
"Hm? Mmmm," she commented, as he lazily traced shapes in the dirty sweat sheened all over her.
"If we left Errish, where would we go?"
She snuggled closer to him. "There's the whole world."
"But we're in the greatest city in the world. I spent half my childhood dreaming about getting here one day. Anywhere else is going to be a disappointment after this."
"Well, maybe, but at least other cities aren’t going to be besieged and sacked."
He raised himself up on an elbow and stared at her. "It won’t come to that. People are just saying all kinds of thing, and..."
"And they're right, Kari. Of course the Demon Queen's going to take Errish back. You've studied the histories: in all the centuries she’s ruled her empire, how long has any rebellion against her ever lasted? She’s had a year to gather her forces, and they’ll be coming."
"Well..." Deep down, he knew she was right, but he was reluctant to give up his dream that easily.
"We could make for Jalkiya," she suggested. "Or go east, and try our luck in the Thaal kingdoms. Somewhere the fighting won't reach."
"Maybe." A few years ago, as a village-boy dreaming of something finer, such a proposal would have been irresistible. After experiencing the wonders of Errish, he knew the alternatives would be drab and uninspiring. "We've no money, though."
"Oh." She stretched. "We could make a living as itinerant sorcerers: there's always a demand for that. We learnt enough before we got thrown out, and we can fake the rest. Good enough for villagers."
Kari had to admit she was probably right. Their studies in the secret library of the Temple of Taliqi, as much a reason for their expulsion as the breaking of their celibacy vows, had yielded sufficient results to make them both competent sorcerers. Still, there was far more that they'd never managed to learn, and he sometimes dreamt of a chance to get more than that one brief glimpse of the blasphemous Kebrai Codex.
"Or..." She suddenly raised herself on her elbow, near-black eyes sparkling in the way that always meant she was about to get him into trouble. He didn't mind: trouble with Fai was a hundred times more appealing than safety with anyone else.
"Or what?" he asked, since her dramatic pause seemed to demand it.
"Or we could get some money before we left."