The Fantasy of Historical Fiction

medeaI write fantasy.  Oh, it’s shelved under “General Fiction” at book stores, and reviewers catalogue my work as “historical fiction set in Antiquity”, but it is fantasy.  Trust me.  I wrote it so I should know, right?  But, I expect you’re going to want an explanation on how I arrived at this.  Okay, here it goes:

Nothing I write is truly historical; nor is anything written as fiction prior to, say, the Enlightenment.  It is an echo, myth wrapped in the fleece of fact: in 525 BC, the army of Cambyses of Persia met the army of Pharaoh Psammetichus III at Pelusium on the Egyptian frontier; in 334 BC, Memnon of Rhodes defended the fortress-city of Halicarnassus from the scourge that was Alexander the Great; and in 1169 AD, Shirkuh ibn Shahdi of Damascus fought a battle against King Amalric of Jerusalem for control of the dying Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt.  These are all facts insofar as we can verify them through personal accounts, official chronicles, and the like.  Where is the fantasy, then?  Where is the myth?  Like the Devil, it’s in the details.  In the building of the world around these thin facts.

Not even the most adept author of fantasy creates his or her world whole-cloth.  Middle-earth, the Hyborian Age, Narnia, Westeros . . . all of these are constructed from the bones of our shared history, from the cultural details, superstitions, martial urges, and even the topography.  Fantasists carve up the past into puzzle pieces, reshape them, and put them back together in a manner pleasing to their art.  What most people don’t understand is that writers of historical fiction do the very same thing.  Honestly, do you think Leonidas of Sparta would recognize himself or his nation if he were to read Pressfield’s excellent Gates of Fire?  The answer is an unequivocal and resounding NO.  He would no more recognize himself than Caesar would, or Cleopatra, or Attila the Hun, or Memnon of Rhodes.  Because what authors of historical fiction do, in reality, is to craft a fantasy world and fantasy characters from the exact same materials as Tolkien or REH or Lewis or GRR Martin would use.  We, too, carve the past into pieces, but we tend to put it back in much the same order as we found it.

Why the segregation, then?  Why am I off in General Fiction rather than with my brothers and sisters in Fantasy/SF?  Mostly, it has to do with perception.  Historical fiction set in Antiquity is perceived to be in some way different from heroic fantasy – perhaps it has a more respectable pedigree and none of that fanciful magic to obfuscate its genealogy.  But, wait . . . have you ever read Gates of Fire?  The narrator, Xeones, dies in battle, makes it to the shores of the River Styx, and is selected by the god Apollo to go back and tell the tale of Thermopylae.  Later, we see Apollo help young Xeones out of a tight spot.  No, some might say, that was nothing but an hallucination!  No, friends – that was magic.  Magic as clean and subtle as the sorcery you’d find in JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.  Antiquity is rife with sorcerers and mages, monsters and foul beasts; what we dismiss as myth and superstition was once the reality of mankind.  And we tend to forget that.

I write fantasy.  Historical sword-and-sorcery, to be precise.  I research events, places, people, and cultural details.  I craft stories from our shared heritage.  I take what I need in order to make the worlds I’m creating come alive.  And those worlds bear a striking resemblance to our own.  But, never forget this: my visions of ancient Egypt, or ancient Greece, or medieval Cairo are not “historically accurate”.  They are all (hopefully) well-constructed fantasy worlds where sorcery and swordplay intersect with familiar tropes from history.  If readers ascribe a sense of realism to my fantasy worlds then I’ve done my job equally as well as those who have come before me.

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2 thoughts on “The Fantasy of Historical Fiction

  1. This is an interesting viewpoint to take, I think it can be easy for us to confuse elements of fantasy fiction with historical fiction but it’s important to establish a separation between them!

  2. This is a fantastic post — but I almost might go the opposite way. After all, what you’re writing, what any historical fiction author is writing, is no different (aside from the style of prose vs poetry) from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. This is the ORIGINAL historical fiction, and I think it does these stories a disservice to dismiss them as Fantasy. In fact, it’s always felt to me like following undiscovered threads of truth and bringing them back into the light. Something, I’ll admit, that can be, and often is done in Fantasy also, but which is granted a little bit more legitimacy if it’s classified as something else.

    Of course, this comes from my creative writing background, which involved a lot of noses in the air at “genre” and forbade “fantasy” from the short stories we brought in for workshop. Fantasy to fans of fantasy is a great thing. Fantasy to those outside that bubble is almost a dirty word, even now, with the successes of GRRM and the LOTR films, to bring it into popular culture in ways it hadn’t permeated before.

    The way I see it, if Homer felt the gods were living and breathing in the bronze age, and laying hands on their heroes, then who am I to say they weren’t? Who are any of us to argue with the man/men/entire culture which listened to the same epics as an oral history? A Cultural Memory?

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