“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge – myth is more potent than history – dreams are more powerful than facts – hope always triumphs over experience – laughter is the cure for grief – love is stronger than death” ~ Robert Fulghum
Lost and Found: I’m a sucker for a good historical fantasy, but I’d been feeling like I hadn’t read a good one in a long while. That all changed in the last few weeks, since I found a series of books, The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb. I’m on book three, and I’ve been told there is another trilogy in the same world, featuring some of the same characters. Huzzah! As each book ends, I take a look at my existing TBR pile, consider what to read next, then download the next edition of Hobb’s work. I’m totally lost in her historical fantasy world, and I’m delighted.
It’s more like wandering than being lost, I suppose (and remember, “Not all who wander are lost.” ~JRRT). In reading Hobb, I am wandering through the recesses of imagination, exploring ideas of my own. Her writing is so compelling, her characters so well-realized, that I have mostly been able to turn off my writerly internal editor. Her work still makes me think, not just about my own work, but life in general—probing my perception of the world. I’m more than entertained, I’m enlightened and stimulated to further and deeper examination of my thoughts and feelings. By getting lost in her historical world, I find myself anew. Now that’s powerful writing!
The History Behind the Historiography: One of the things the series provoked me to ponder is the why behind my love of historicals. As far back as I can remember I’ve loved imagining myself living in another time. One recollection of the early kindling of my ardor was a trip my family took to Mackinac Island (in Northern Lake Huron), and my first tour of the restored British fort there. I must’ve been about seven or eight. I stood on the wall walk, sighting down a cannon barrel across green hillsides to the blue straits beyond, imagining being surrounded by hostile French and Indians.
In the fort’s bookstore (yeah, pretty sure that’s a modern addition), my mom bought me a copy of Young Voyageur, by Dirk Gringhuis. I tore through the account of a young British boy sold into indentured service to a crew of French-Canadian voyageurs. My heart raced as Danny hid in an attic during the famous massacre at the fort, begun under the guise of a La Crosse match between Ottawa and Chippewa braves. I could picture the very spot! Pure preteen exhilaration. From 18th Century Michilimackinac, I was on to Middle Earth, Narnia, Arthurian Britain, and 19th Century India. And my love lives on, unabated.
The Legend of the Legend-Makers: One of the things Hobb points out about her quasi-medieval world is the importance of minstrels and scribes. Since the small folk of our not-too-distant past were mostly illiterate, and there were no other sources for news, the job of passing along important cultural information fell to traveling singers and mummers. And all that was put into record, from a noble’s vainglorious accounting of his deeds, to the land deeds and marriage agreements of freemen, had to be written by hiring a scribe. Wherever folk gathered, from the courts of the mighty to the neighborhood taverns to the wayside inns, minstrels and scribes were welcomed and heeded. Storytelling and publishing for the masses were born. Just as does our news of the day, the singers sang of what had happened, in part to pass it along and in part to help make sense of it—to show the audience how the stories affected them. But, of course, minstrels had an overriding goal–to entertain.
And, as everyone loves a good story, and stories are often made all the better by ever-so-slight modification—adjustments that with time and frequent retelling turn into outright embellishment—so too are legends born. If a warrior won the day, soon enough he had won the day nigh alone, and with one injured arm tied in a sling. We have a hero, ladies and gentlemen! And of course all would then love to hear the details of his motives, including the smoldering eye contact he made with that besieged nobleman’s wife after the battle. You get the idea. Thank goodness our modern mass news sources have gotten away from such sensationalism and puffery.
“To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.”
~Roy P. Basler
To Yore Place, Then to Mine: It’s said that myths and legends exist to explain the unexplainable, that they cement the basic structures of societal belief, and reconcile difficult dichotomies, such as good versus evil and existence versus nothingness. What better way to illustrate such difficult subjects than to see what has gone before? “How did our hero fare in this difficult circumstance? What happened to our heroine when she dared to go to that strange place?” Seeing the hero through dire straits makes facing our own circumstance seem a bit less difficult, which is comforting and alluring. “Well, if they can get through that. Our lot is jolly when laid out beside theirs.” Give me more. I want to get lost in the days of yore.
I have always been comforted by stories from the past, but nothing could compare to what I felt when I started to dig through history, mining for details for the creation of my fictional world. As some of you may know, my work leans toward the historical rather than the fantastic. Once I had picked out my era and setting—a place and time that sent a shiver down my neck in imaging living there—I couldn’t get enough. One of my biggest writing hurdles has been to refrain from piling on the world-building details. I want so badly to convey my tingling feeling over being immersed in my setting, but too much and I’ve cluttered up the story. It’s a delicate balance.
“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” ~Machiavelli
Stripping To Be Romantic: There is a lot of romanticism in historical fiction and fantasy. We are offered a safe distance from which we can view a familiar world, but as it once was–dangerous and exotic. Legend and myth evoke a sense of mystery, often tinged with a sacred aura. We view well-known archetypes on a glorious stage, our preconceptions lushly painted by history’s continuum of minstrels and scribes, painters and poets. Not that a legendary feeling can’t be created in other genres. There is, for example, often such an atmosphere created in sci-fi or in dystopian fantasy. Heck, Star Wars is a perfect exemplar of legendary romanticism.
In many ways, starting with a historical setting strips the process of story craft down to fundimentals, to be built on an existing foundation. Also, utilizing the window of history creates a safe distance and a legendary atmosphere for my tales. But for me there is more. I wanted the glorious painting but without the constraints of the existing stage. It’s why I write historical fantasy. Of course all history is fantasy–seen as we wish it to have been, and distorted by the lens of legendary storytelling. But I bent it a bit further. By building my own world, I was freed from history’s confinement, but (hopefully) left with our fond collective reminiscence. My setting is stripped of technology, modern convenience, and of our minute division of expertise; a place where safety is an uncommon luxury. I sought to build a world where the characters’ roles and conflicts are at once familiar and foreign, exotic and relatable.
By using history as a lever, I aspire to create an ease of passage into story. I’m hoping to take readers to a place that offers both comfort and exhilaration. A place that might even throw an occasional shiver down their neck.
What say you? Do you feel the romance of the past? Do you think history is a help or a hindrance to being transported into story? Does historical fantasy convey a legendary feel to you, or do you roll your eyes at us geeks?