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.

1 comment:

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

    Which of course feature modern people wearing fancy (day glo) dress.