History, fantasy and our relationship with the past

Posted: November 15, 2013 in cultural commentary, reading, watching
Tags: , , , , , ,

OK, so it turns out that last week’s cathartic return to Braveheart hasn’t cleared it out of my system. Because there’s more to the issue of how we portray history than just accuracy versus story. That more complex relationship has been niggling away at the back of my brain all week, and Friday night seems the natural time to let it out.

I just want to understand you

Our relationship with people in the past is a bit like that between a teenage boy and the cute girl sat next to him in science class – he wants to get closer to her, but however hard he tries he’s never quite going to understand what she’s thinking. The things she’s experiencing are just too different from him.*

Puberty aside, it’s the same with us and the past. Until Doctor Who** turns up and lends us the Tardis, we can never directly experience those times. So we try to bridge the gap in understanding through this thing called history, where we reconstruct our own version of that experience, trying to wrap our heads round it in terms that are meaningful for us.

Facts or feelings?

Academic history tries to do that reconstruction through facts. There’s still speculation, and some projection of modern values and understandings onto a different world, but fundamentally it’s about cold, hard objectivity.

But life isn’t just about facts – ask that kid in the science class. It’s about feelings. They are as important to building meaning and understanding as any amount of information. And this is where historical fiction comes in. Through a looser adherence to facts, it tries to evoke the feelings of the era – the real lived experience of people in that time.

Neither approach is necessarily more meaningful than the other – they’re just different.

And on to fantasy

In a sense, fantasy fiction is one step further along the same scale of relationships with the past, from historical fact past historical fiction into worlds that aren’t real at all.

What’s that you say? Fantasy isn’t history? True, but history isn’t the same as the past anyway. And fantasy often takes elements from history and helps us to imagine and understand them.

Like Kevin Costner, but with fur and charm

Like Kevin Costner, but with fur and charm

Just look at Robin Hood. There’s a scale of deviation from the historical facts – from the reality of the Folvilles and Cotterels*** and other such gangs running round 14th century England; to the myth of an imaginary bandit still rooted in the real setting; to the figure of blurry legend floating through several centuries; to Kevin Costner taking on witches, or that Disney fox singing oo-de-la-li; to full on fantasy versions of the aristocratic outlaw wilderness man like Tolkien’s Aragorn. Each step further away from concerns with historical truth, with understanding those people on their terms, brings us closer to understanding them on our terms. However we do it, we’re developing some understanding.

You say history, I say fantasy, lets call the whole thing off

I’m not really sure what conclusion to draw from any of this. The relationship between history, fantasy and our lived experience is a complex one. And if I’m not trying to understand it in black and white terms like ‘historians good, Gibson bad’ then I want to explore those grey areas.

Anybody else got any thoughts on this? Because I’m all out of insight for the evening.

* I’m not saying that gender identity is an absolute. My views on human nature are much more focussed on nurture. I’m just saying, puberty’s a difficult time, girls get menstruation, boys get wet dreams, they’re not seeing life through the same lens.
** Have you seen the mini-episode they put out this week? It’s a nice piece of Moffat cleverness, rather satisfying.
*** Pretty sure those names are mis-spelled. Sorry. It’s been over a decade since I left academia, and I don’t have the appropriate essays to hand.

  1. glenatron says:

    I think its a really interesting area and there are writers like Guy Gavriel Kay, Mary Gentle and Tim Powers who do fascinating things on the borders of fantasy and history- GGK is writing stories that are in a world like ours but a little different so he can take events across a longer period ( the Reconquista, the An Wei rebellion, the building of Hagia Sophia and reign of Justinian and Theodora ) and craft them into beautiful, elegant stories that have perhaps an essence of the history and certainly made me research into the topics they covered. Mary Gentle and Tim Powers are often sneaking fantasy into the boundaries of history so that the existing record is unchanged, but mysterious and dramatic events are revealed from the shadows. I really enjoy both approaches but I think what makes them work is really great writing and strong stories. The basics are always what matters.

    • I really need to find the time to read Kay – quite a few people have mentioned him recently, and it sounds like just my cup of tea.
      I like that distinction you draw between history slightly changed and history with hidden stuff added. It’s not a distinction I’ve thought about much, but there is a different experience reading things that are in a secondary world, however close to ours, and reading ones that say ‘hey, this could have been happening during all of that!’

  2. […] History, fantasy and our relationship with the past […]

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