I’m not biased, am I? –You’d better be!
So why do people choose to write historic fiction instead of straight-out fiction? Or instead of fiction fantasy, where you don’t actually need to do the historic research and a few anachronisms may be expected, even encouraged? All right, strange question to begin a blog post that isn’t actually about historic fiction but rather the writing of history. I would posit that historic fiction and history books are not two distinct entities, but rather two ends of a spectrum whose middle ground is rather more trodden than you might expect.
The Powers That Be Still Decide What We Think Is Our History
Once, all written history was as trusted as absolutely true as an article on snopes.com. And those writings almost always had the “official seal of approval” of the state or the Church or whoever held the greater sway. If the illustrious powers that were in all their wisdom didn’t want you to hear about it, you didn’t hear about it. The bulk of European histories before the Renaissance were shaped by the unshakable belief that history was ordained by God: rulers and Popes and bishops and noblemen, of course, carried out the actions that led to historic events and trends, but it was God who put them on their thrones.
“But I know all that,” I hear you saying. Yet consider: how do we learn our history today? It really isn’t that much different than once-upon-a-time because most of the populace is a bit lazy, and even the critical readers among us–if they don’t have an interest in learning about a particular time and place–are going to fall back on the same sources as the non-readers: what they learned in school and what they see on the big screen. Look how many people believe that all the whites at the first Thanksgiving were Pilgrims–and Puritans at that–the way they were in their school play, or how many folks buy wholesale the conspiracy-theory depicted in the Oliver Stone film JFK.
And We Seem To Be Happy To Think That History Is Etched In Stone
Text books in school are always notoriously behind the times, but most parents and educators don’t seem to mind much: for one thing, books can be expensive, and it’s expected that they can’t always be current. For another, most of society is usually content if history class gets the general idea right, and along the way maybe teaches our kids a little something about the good guys and the bad guys and some skills in reading and remembering dates and writing reports. I’ve followed my niece’s primary and secondary school career in the cyber-age, and it’s surprisingly similar to when I grew up: you have access to information, but knowing what to do with that information is all the difference. You can only learn so much actual fact as a youngster. A student like me from the information dark ages of the 70’s who has been taught to read and think and argue critically is a hundred times better off than a student today who has all the information in the world at her fingertips through her laptop.
Information and education are NOT inter-changeable commodities. –Yeh, I said it, you can quote me.
And yes, I know you know that, but where did it all start, the idea that we could even question what our government or our church or Mr. Pendleton our sixth-grade history teacher wanted us to know about history? For the most part, we have Niccolo Machiavelli to thank, the guy who is somewhat-unfairly eponymous for the scheming, manipulating political villain. Before he pointed out in The Prince that history was created not by God or by God-appointed rulers but by fallible human beings with a variety of motivations, there was no (official) notion that there was more than one way to interpret history. Suddenly it was all the rage to depict the events of history being caused by ambitious, smart or otherwise influential persons, through charisma or manipulation or sheer luck.
Machiavelli Says. . .Consider the Source
Post-Machiavelli we are able even to have the concept of “historiography”–that is, not the study of history so much as the study of the ways history is depicted. History can be interpreted through a moral lens, where the good guy comes out on top, or events can be depicted to bolster up a particular ideology, or they can be construed to re-affirm the superiority of one nation over another. (No, really?) These are the bold strokes; there are far more subtle ones at play that have taken all of us in at one time or another. Even me. And I did my dissertation in this neck of the woods. (What follows is quite an original thesis; here’s stipulating the caveat that if you take it and run with it, I’ll call it plagiarism, thanks!)
Shakespeare’s histories, the next-gen of the ideas of Machiavelli, gave us in the guise of individual characters a whole pageant of these “theories of historiography”, though they weren’t known then by this name. Check out the first tetralogy of history plays–that’s a fancy way of saying the three parts of Henry VI followed by Richard III. You have Henry VI, the pious but weak ruler wandering around in his own medieval church pageant, and his practical, down-to-earth statesman and all-around good guy Gloucester depicting a more secular or humanist approach to governing, and in comes York (Richard III’s father) as the ambitious Machiavel. By the time you get to Richard III’s antics you see a control-freak so manipulative that he psychologically starts to cave in on himself–really quite a modern idea in the sense that I could only label it with blatant anachronisms drawn from Freud and Jung and Engel’s biopsychosocial ideas. (But hey, Oedipus Rex existed quite a long time before the Oedipal complex, right?)
Look At All the Amazing New Things We’re Learning About Richard III!*
Ironically, the injustices done to the image of Richard III as a notorious Machiavel at the hands of Shakespeare and others in relating his history illustrate the same sort of Machiavellian “singly-motivated” telling made possible by the originator of the archetype himself. We’ve long known that here is a history ripe for revision–but whether that revision will be in the hands of an artist (like me, and the idea for a new Richard III play now-fermenting) or a historian, it is quite simply waiting for one thing: a new motivation for the telling of the story.
So here we are, right back where we started. I write historical fantasies because I want to deliver a certain message, a lesson or a truth that I personally believe. Those who write historic fiction are generally drawn to a “truth”, a topic associated with a particular time period, and the way they can drive home that idea to the reader. Writers of fantasy, those who have a message, have a more wide-open field upon which to play, but they can still draw from specific time periods and places to handle subjects that mesh well with the events of that part of history. And those who write the history books, well. . .they, too, have an ax to grind.
All of us writers, though, will probably fall into just one or two theories of historiography, vindicating Machiavelli, but perhaps our consciousness of the fact is what will make all the difference. We each have our own truth. We each have a story to tell. Just look at all the ways we can choose to tell it.
*The skeleton in the parking lot has captured my imagination this past couple years, and the story continues to unfold: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leicestershire-21063882