When you set aside the fantastic from epic/high fantasy you can surely conclude that you are reading a story that is not modern, but set in a time long past. Today, fantasy fiction is pretty much presented in three different facets—High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy and Historical Fantasy—but sometimes mixes some of the three. Urban Fantasy is usually set in the “real world” in contemporary times, but the other two facets, High and Historical Fantasy primarily takes place in a setting that is far from modern.
High Fantasy is predominant in the use of Anglo-Saxon history, holding strong to the Medieval period for its entire setting, but in a secondary world. Historical Fantasy takes a historical period in the mundane world and adds elements of the fantastic. From this point forward, when I talk about fantasy, I will be talking specifically about High (Epic) Fantasy and Historical Fantasy, as these two sub genres are the keystone of fantasy fiction.
Fantasy is a kind of mosaic of different inspirations from various histories and cultures, with the flavor of magic, adventure, and fantastic creatures—like a recipe of many ingredients to form an imaginative story. Most writers of fantasy are people fascinated by history in one way or another; with a good handful of them being historians themselves, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Judith Tarr, and Sara Douglass, just to name a few.
Think about how history is presented to us. Whenever a historian writes a non-fiction book about a prominent historical figure or event they construct it into a story in a way. They do not have any way of knowing for sure what Cleopatra was thinking, or why Alexander the Great did a certain thing, or how George Washington acted when he was a kid. The historian is taking recorded facts about an individual or event and piecing it together into a cohesive narrative, often speaking as if they were there and are certain that every account that they are reporting is accurate. But, at the end of the day, it’s all constructed; it’s not entirely true in a sense. Likewise, paleontologist piece together fossils and bones and try to illustrate and describe the appearance of long-extinct creatures and convince us of their survival habits, but they cannot be 100% certain.
The power of the human imagination can take a historical figure like Bishop Nicholas of Myra and turn him into Santa Claus, or take an affair between Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and romanticize it, or be inspired by Vlad III Dracula to bring about the iconic character of Count Dracula. A lot of people probably obtain most of their knowledge of Julius Caesar from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which was a fictional dramatization based on the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. Creators of fiction, in great sums, have an almost natural urge to be inspired by historical persons and events. It seems to be mankind’s desire to write, read and watch stories of mankind in any shape or form—even in the form of fantasy.
Guy Gavriel Kay is widely know for his fantasy books inspired by historical persons and events, transforming real historical periods within secondary worlds and bringing life to fictional characters inspired by people of the past. He said, “I do as much research as I can in a period of history, and then I do a quarter-turn to the fantastic. …that quarter-turn to the fantastic is under-penned by respect for the actual period and the actual people that I’m using as the inspiration for my novels.” Kay’s strategy is to craft stories out of real settings, letting some of his characters be fictional representations of figures in history. He stays away from retellings of history; in his own words: “…not wanting to project my imagination on to the real lives of real people.”
Robert Jordan noted the use of bits and pieces of historical cultures in his Wheel of Time books; such as the ancient Celts, the Shogunates of Japan, and 17TH century France. In regards to the city-state of Mayene in his books, Jordan said, “Mayene is based culturally on the cities of the Hanseatic League, as well as Venice and Genoa when those cities were world commercial powers and city-states in themselves.” These were just a few of many things he took and used as influences on his fantasy world.
In regards to his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin said, “…although I've drawn on many parts of history, the War of the Roses is probably the one my story is closest to.” He also said, “I like to use history to flavor my fantasy, to add texture and verisimilitude, but simply rewriting history with the names changed has no appeal for me. I prefer to re-imagine it all, and take it in new and unexpected directions.” In an interview with Time Magazine (online) back in April of 2011, Martin speaks a little more about his work and briefly on how history is related in fantasy fiction—click here to read it.
In my next post I’ll continue the discussion on history in fantasy, expounding on more authors and books that pull inspiration from history.