- by E. C. Ambrose
The October 2012 issue of Locus Magazine, a specialty publication for the science fiction and fantasy publishing industry, features a lovely interview with author Kij Johnson, who is known for fantasy, but has a background in history. She makes the observation:
“History looks a lot like fantasy. Fabulous people, doing things that we don’t understand, in a culture we’re not familiar with? That’s the heart of fantasy.”
Television viewers have a front row seat to to these parallels with the series “The Tudors” and “Game of Thrones,” based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels. Sex, violence, politics on a sweeping stage–both of these programs have them in spades. The boundary between fantasy and history is interesting territory for story-tellers in any media.I discovered the true implications of Johnson’s observation when I delved more into researching my own forthcoming historical fantasy. I didn’t set out with alternate history in mind, but rather to capture the flavor of a time and place without directly referencing that milieu. Martin’s series similarly draws upon the framework of history to create a rich and believable environment in which to cast his fantastical elements.
In my case, I finally made the choice to commit to history, embedding fantasy into the fabric of history. Many of the fantastic elements I write about were directly inspired by Medieval beliefs about magic and witchcraft, so this choice only enhances the book’s resonance, IMO.
But when I started to research the history and pin down that time and place, I discovered that the factual history of fourteenth century England is every bit as fantastic as anything I could invent. We have a scheming queen, rejected by her husband, conspiring with a lover to claim the kingdom through her malleable son.
We have the king’s (male) lover kidnapped and murdered, to the king’s eternal misery, and his own ultimate capture and probable murder by the enemy–only to face the great turn-about of the son’s rejection of his mother’s iron hand, going on to become one of the greatest monarchs in the history of England, Edward III.
And none of that is in my book. The first duty of the author of fantasy is to make it feel real and believable, to lose the reader in a story and make him care about what happens there. By drawing on history, we can make our work seem more relevant, true, but, as Johnson points out, history is still so very distant from the reader, it’s still a strange country, full of weird customs and disturbing morality.
In Elisha Barber, the first book of The Dark Apostle series, I’ve tried to synthesize new characters, people whose minds and actions I can infuse with my own understanding (rather than try to re-create many historical persons) into that historical undiscovered country.
‘The Tudors” has been known to take some liberties in the other direction, sliding away from the historical to tell a good story. And that, in the end, is the key. What does it take to bring your tale to life? Is it inspired by historical understandings, then launch in an entirely new direction, as “Game of Thrones” does?
Is it meant to capture a historical reality, allowed to deviate from facts to display some deeper truth? History and fantasy are strong companions, able to support and enrich one another–a fertile ground for fiction.