If history is stuff that happened, and fantasy is stuff somebody made up, then what’s historical fiction? History, historical fiction and fantasy: what gives?
‘History is easy’ people say. ‘You look at the records and you know exactly what happened.’ If that were the case, a certain US President wouldn’t have gotten into trouble for the presentation of ‘alternative facts’ that many chose to believe over ‘official records.’ What goes into the records if often incomplete, or, like statistics, requires context and interpretation. And if the official record comes from a totalitarian state, then nobody ever got massacred or run over at a protest by a tank.
All history books should come with a warning sticker: ‘subject to interpretation.’ If they weren’t there would be nothing for historians to argue about, revise or re-interpret.
Good history requires three things: solid research, sound interpretation and the acknowledgement of bias. You might say ‘removal of bias’ but it is very difficult to remove all bias for or against a subject. One person’s freedom fight is another person’s terrorist. What have the Roman’s ever done for us…?
So if all history is flawed, so is all historical fiction. These days it is a ‘respectable’ and widely read genre. Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory sell by the millions. Historical fiction authors interpret, filter, and join the dots by imaginative leaps to tell the stories of real people they don’t know.
It’s been going on since the Old Testament, the Talmud, the Koran and other significant texts that are supposedly historical documents but which have been edited and re-edited. Often, as in the case with the Bible, heavily edited and re-interpreted according to the political and religious agenda of the commissioning editors.
There are many historical novels where you question the accuracy of the ‘history’ parts. Authors may or may not carry out thorough, quality research. They may choose to emphasise or ignore certain parts, to suit their purpose.
When it comes to character, this is an imaginative exercise. The historical person’s written words or reported quotes appear, but the interior monologue is pure speculation. The reader cannot judge whether the historical novel is ‘accurate’ even if they do the same hours of research from the same sources as the author. Experience, agenda and bias get in the way of interpretation. Historians have this problem themselves. It’s good for a reputation-building bust-up with one’s peers, I suppose.
It’s no different from reading multiple biographies of the same person and discovering a totally different character, ascribed with wildly different personality traits and motivations.
Getting on with it
So why is historical fiction more ‘respectable’ than fantasy? If it’s because the author can describe Elizabethan needlepoint or Jacobean bread-making, that’s just the product of many hours in the library (or the Internet). The portrayal of Ann Boleyn as a floozie or a Protestant martyr (as in David Harewood’s play) is still a matter of interpretation.
Historical fiction is just that – fiction. It might have the real Battle of Bosworth as it’s setting; 1485, there you go, I learned something accurate. That may be the sole historically accurate fact in the whole fiction. I learned one true thing. I may also now believe 150 other untrue things, mistaking them for history when actually the author made them up. Historical fiction is entertainment. It won’t necessarily make me a more knowledgeable person. It might. It might leave me worse off. There’s vast amounts of speculation dressed up in bonnets and crinolines. I probably don’t know which parts.
‘Just because they wrote it a letter doesn’t make it true’
Famous people, important people, ambitious people; all have one eye on their legacy when they commit anything to paper. You can beg for an alliance with your ‘best friend’ right up to the point you stab them in the back. You can claim to be a devout follower, just to keep your neck off the block. Who really knows, other than the subject themselves, what someone really believes?
All of which is a round about way of saying that historical sources can, themselves, be unreliable narrators. The Sliding Scale of Historical Doubt and Uncertainty is available from no good retailers. Sadly.
Which has what to do with fantasy fiction?
The fantasy and sci-fi genres are honest. The author declares ‘I made this up.’ It’s lore and ‘history’ that never really happened. So what? It’s primarily entertainment. It may contain a huge slice of satire (Gulliver) or political commentary (1984, Farenheit-451) that other genres can’t tackle. The speculative genres always hold up a mirror to our societies and values in the time they are written. They are an invitation to enter the world of the imagination, to question received wisdom and learn about values along the way. Take it or leave it, but don’t pretend your latest Plantagenet Princess is a placid damsel in distress or Lara Croft in a French Hood. She was probably neither. Probably.
Chapter One: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.‘