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

"The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY" is now available!

My new story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," is now available in the current issue of the Electric Spec magazine. I'm very proud that this story is getting published at Electic Spec for the simple reason I've been reading the magazine for years, dreaming of the day I might get a story published there. Well, it's finally happened.

The story of "Yuru-chara" is pretty simple: a young girl wakes up to discover that her old virtual friend, a seven-foot-tall yellow monster named Tama Bell, has come to life. While navigating through waves of other virtual creatures released through a world-wide hack, the young heroine tries to come to grips with her responsibility to her forgotten friend and the losses inherent to growing up.

I hope that you enjoy my story and that you give the other stories a try. They're awesome!

Thank you for your continued support.

New Story Acceptance!

As mentioned last week, I do have a bit of happy news to share. I am excited to announce that my story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," will appear in the next issue of the Electric Spec Magazine at the end of the month. I am tremendously excited about this for a few reasons:
Electric Spec is simply awesome. I've been reading this magazine for awhile and never been disappointed by a single story. To have one of my stories selected is beyond humbling. I can only give an earnest thank you to Lesley L. Smith for choosing the story.I love this story dearly. It has one of my favorite protagonists and shows in the clearest way I've managed where I'd like to go with my fiction. Electric Spec also gave me the chance to reflect on this story and its meaning in a guest blog which I am sharing below. Without being spoilery, this blog expresses some of what resonates about "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," with me. Guest Blog at Electric SpecAt the moment, I think the…

Solemn Treasures

In Gilead, the transcendent novel by Marilynn Robinson, a 76 year old man confronts his impending mortality and the sense he cannot provide for his young son after he is gone. He had not expected to meet his son's mother in the twilight of his life, not expected to have a son. If he had, he tells his son in a lengthy letter forming the substance of Robinson's novel, he might have set something by for him. Some sort of savings or investment. It pains him to think that when he is gone, all that he can leave are a few words.

What words.

As mentioned in a previous post, I set myself on the task (is that really the right word here? maybe endeavor would be better) to read as many of the 'great novels' of this young century as I could. After reading Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall-" which was also fantastic by the way - I made my way to Gilead. One of the many quietly strange things about this novel is that it's actually the second novel from Robinson. Her first…