Skip to main content

Unlocking History through Fantasy

When examining the meaning of fantasy literature, such as "The Darkness That Came Before," by R. Scott Bakker, one has to first overcome a significant problem with the genre as a whole -- it's relationship to history.

Fantasy, as it's often written and enjoyed, is meant as escapism. Fantasy literature often plucks the most romantic and dramatic elements of the popular conception of European medievalism, adds a dash of magic and monsters, to erect the vague skene in front of which the traditional stories of disguised princes, princesses in peril, and wandering wise men appear. A reader goes to this world with idea of entering a fictional space separate from the 'real world.' The details of actual history serve to ground the story, help support the suspension of disbelief, not educate the reader about life in castles.

So how can such cavalier appropriation provide any actual insight into the past?

Fantasy does have a value to serious inquiry into historical periods. Firstly, when a writer such as R. Scott Bakker weaves elements of actual history (in The Prince of Nothing's case the First Crusade of 1096-1099) he or she is encouraging curiosity in that time period. Even a very casual reader will recognize the descriptions of the Holy War of the Three Seas as paralleling the Crusades, with the Thousand Temples' new and fiery Shriah Maithanet standing in for Pope Urban II, the Fanim states instead of the Seljuq Muslim Empire and a beleaguered and crafty emperor Xerius for the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. These parallels are obvious but they're not exact. Bakker crafts the culture, language, and religion of the factions in his novels with elaborate care and ingenuity. The effect is one of suggestion. While the novel may certainly be appreciated on its own merits, a reader often finds himself distracted with a simple curiosity: what was this period really like?

So, on a very basic level, fantasy does lead readers with a very cursory knowledge of a certain historical period into greater knowledge, deeper insight. If the work of fantasy is well done, then it doesn't suffer much in the comparison, only benefits from association. If the fantasy is mediocre, then this hypothetical reader will still be enriched by the discovery of actual history.

But this is a very thin reason for reading fantasy, and poor apology for its short-comings. By this line of thought, fantasy becomes useful only in its relation to some other historical period, the choices an author makes enslaved to often deadening questions of accuracy and verisimilitude. What sorts of weapons did the Crusaders use? What kind of food did they eat and did the writer get it 'right' in volume X?

What I find compelling is something's significance or lasting importance. From that standpoint, historical fantasy often loses out if merely judged on its relationship with some actual historical period. However, I do think historical fantasy has a lot to say about the time period in which is produced. Bakker's Holy War fantasy might not have all that much to offer for scholarship of the High Middle Ages, but it has plenty of value for commenters on today's culture. What does it say about our time period that a description of a Crusade embraces so many separate view points, focusing on the each characters' complicated political machinations? What sort of critique does this story offer a modern world riven with ethnic and religious conflicts, where the struggles of great powers are simultaneously cloaked in secrecy and routinely revealed in Wikileaks?

To take an extreme example, the movie Avatar pounds the viewer over the head with parallels with the colonization of the American West and Imperialism in general. I don't think anyone would want to use the movie to learn about First Nations but it might still be interesting for some future historian as an example of the dominant contemporary culture coming to grips with the legacy of that conquest.

The use of science fiction and fantasy tropes to cloak painful truths in appealing allegory has a long tradition, one that might say more about the period the work comes from than the one it borrows from.

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 

SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

"A Breath from the Sky" Story Announcement!

I am thrilled to share the news my story, "Promontory," will appear in an upcoming anthology of unusual possession stories published by the incredible Martian Migraine Press. The anthology, "A Breath from the Sky,"puts together a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and twenty other atypical stories of possession. Judging from the cover and the list of impressive authors, I'm anticipating pure awesomeness. "Promontory" is a possession story and one of my more overtly horror tales, so I'm overjoyed that it found a host, er, home here. I am sharing the Table of Contents below, as well as a link to the announcement on the Martian Migraine website to provide a sense of what this collection will be about. The cover is amazing, the other authors selected for the collection are amazing, and I have to say, having a story appear alongside a classic tale like HP's "Colour Out of Space," feels pretty darn amazing. I hope to provide more information abou…

In Defense of Brevity

As a writer of short speculative fiction, I am also a reader. I was a reader first and my love of the genre leads me to want to write short fiction. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is read contemporary's work. If nothing else, you're likely to be entertained - there's a great amount of stupendous short fiction available out there for exactly nothing. But it also tends to helps to develop craft. 
Long-time readers of this blog know I write up recommendations of a few short stories each month I really enjoyed. "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Carl Wiens" was my favorite story of the year. The first line of this story pretty much sums it up: "The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history," but I also enjoyed "The Girl Who Escaped from Hell" By Rahul Kanakia and "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," by Brooke Bol…