Robert E. Howard once wrote: “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction.” For my own part, I would agree – but with a single caveat. To me, there is no literary work half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fantasy. It is well known that some writers spend decades creating elaborate worlds wherein to set their stories, worlds with deep histories, complex politics, eerie religions, and civilization-shattering wars. They reveal these layers chapter by chapter, story by story, until the whole is laid bare. This, some say, is where the artistry of the genre resides – in the painting of a masterpiece on the blank canvas of imagination.
Other writers invest the same amount of time researching our collective historical past for their stories, learning the deep histories, complex politics, eerie religions, and civilization-shattering wars of the real world. And into the chapters and stories they winnow from history, they introduce magic. Gods made manifest; monsters given life. Thus, if traditional fantasy represents the Dutch masters, historical fantasy would be the equivalent of art restoration mixed with forgery. The historical fantasist does not start with a blank canvas; she works with an expanse that already has color, texture, patina – along with some scrapes and tears and lacunae. In those empty quarters is where the fantasy takes root and grows.
The world of our ancestors is perhaps the richest, most vibrant fantasy milieu ever. It is replete with blood and thunder, with pageantry and pestilence, with good and evil, and with a deep, almost pervasive belief in the mythic, in the supernatural. The Hyborian Age, Middle-earth, the Young Kingdoms, Westeros . . . these are but echoes of this frightening and magnificent world of the past. Of course, not every author agrees. “Fantasy is escapism,” some say. “All that cannot be. All the sweetest unfulfillable dreams and the sweaty sheet nightmares.” The historical past is not these things. It is grim. It is bloody. It is a tapestry of woe against which the life of you or I matters as much as a single grain of sand.
“Yes,” I reply. “But it doesn’t have to be.”
As far back as 1931, Robert E. Howard – whose work serves as a pillar of fantasy – saw the potential in the literary mining of history:
“I’ve been thinking of writing a tale about him for a long time. And Babur the Tiger who established the Mogul rule in India – and the imperial phase in the life of Baibars the Panther, the subject of my last story – and the rise of the Ottomans – and the conquest of Constantinople by the Fifth Crusade – the subjugation of the Turks by the Arabs in the days of Abu Bekr – and the gradual supplanting of the Arab masters by their Turkish slaves which culminated in the conquest of Asia Minor and Palestine by the Seljuks – and the rise of Saladin – and the final destruction of Christian Outremer by Al Kalawun – and the First Crusade – Godfrey of Boullion, Baldwin of Boulogne, Bohemund – Sigurd the Jorsala-farer – Barbarossa – Cour de Lion. Ye gods, I could write a century and still have only tapped the reservoir of dramatic possibilities.” (Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, August 1931).
Draw a thread of magic and the supernatural through this list and you begin to apprehend the awesome promise of historical escapist fantasy.
A Gathering of Ravens is pure historical fantasy. The world it inhabits is built from our own: the color, texture, and patina of its foundation is indistinguishable from 10th/11th century Western Europe. Its brush strokes, however, have been altered; threads have been drawn from its canvas and replaced by forgeries wrought of sorcery and myth. It is not just our world, but our world where the magic of the Old Ways – and the creatures that sprang from it – are fading, vanishing before the inexorable tide of Christianity. Where silence reigns in the once-mystical places, and where decay has begun its slow and destructive creep. Where ancient trees that once housed spirits are empty, now, rotted husks awaiting the woodsman’s axe.
I could have created this world whole cloth; digested and distilled history mixed with fancy into a secondary world where Denmark, England, and Ireland existed but under assumed names. That would have been easier, actually. But it also would have severed my connection to thousands of years of shared history. There is an innate sorcery to words burnished by time: the Danemark, Britain, Ériu . . . they resound with a weight of antiquity not commonly shared by words of recent make. From an artistic standpoint, this connection to a shared undercurrent of emotion allows the writer conjure more from a scene with less effort. Here, for example, I introduce the city of Badon (modern Bath):
Badon was an ancient city and its stones reeked of blood. Étaín could smell it: a metallic stench like wet copper mixed with the miasma of damp rot and sulphur – a distillate of the decay and violence which diverse hands had worked into the foundations of the city. A thousand years before Alfred the Great forged the West Saxons into a race of conquerors, the legions of Caesar had come into this land and driven out the native tribes, the Britons and the enigmatic Cruithne. Roman axes laid low the tree-garth of Sulis, fierce goddess of the waters, and Roman priests extinguished the eternal flame that had burned since time out of mind in her sanctuary. Cunning in the ways of stone, these Romans had raised walls of ashlar around the sacred spaces; they had carved a forest of marble dedicated to the healing goddess Minerva, and tamed the hot springs by diverting its mineral-rich flow into artificial lakes and fountains.
But as the wagon trundled through the muddy streets, a sulphurous yellow mist pooling in the low places, what Étaín could see of the Romans’ stone-cunning was not particularly impressive. The city’s walls were as ragged as a crone’s smile. Timber baulks shored up crumbling defensive towers, with palisades of rough planking and crude brickwork plugging fissures torn in the walls from the infrequent convulsions of the earth that shook the region. Huts squatted amid the ruins of Roman villas like scavengers, their broken columns supporting roofs of wood and thatch. Underfoot, a slurry of dung, mud, and chaff covered intricate mosaics; their fanciful and half-glimpsed designs bore the heavy tread of Time, defaced by hoof and by wheel and by hob-nailed boot, the spaces left by shattered cubes of glass and stone filled in with the filth of countless years. Herds of cattle meandered through the once-opulent arcades of the Temple of Minerva to graze in the overgrown ruin of some nobleman’s pleasure garden. And on a hillock overlooking the city, Étaín spied a massive fortification, a walled cathedral still partially sheathed in scaffolding. She apprehended this to be their destination, the haunt of the feared Hrothmund, lord of Badon.
Though it describes a real place – Bath in the heart of Somerset, England – the passage is actually pure fiction. It is inspired by the ruins of Roman-era Bath, but no such place existed as it appears in the example, above. This is the sorcery of historical fantasy: to take a jumble of ancient stones knitted together by the power of a name and restore them to life – but not just mundane life. No, the trick is to weave the enchantment of what never was into the fabric of reality, and to do it with all the elegance and prowess of a master forger.
I leave you with one final thought: even if you reject the argument that the historical past is the finest fantasy world in existence, it is the undisputed source of countless worlds. From the splintered kingdom of Arnor to the pitiless mountains of Cimmeria; from formidable Dros Delnoch to simmering Darujhistan; from Winterfell to Luthadel . . . every fantasy world is descended from the one our ancestors helped create: ancient Earth. A world of gods and monsters, whose deep histories, complex politics, eerie religions, and civilization-shattering wars provide, to paraphrase REH, enough action and drama enough to fill countless volumes of fantasy.
*First published at Falcata Times, 29 June 2017.