There’s a definite snobbery in the book world. My shelves are full of weighty tomes on 17th century peasantry and Early Modern political thought, but a recent visitor expressed surprise to find nestling among them collections of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, and one of my all-time favourites, John Wyndham. ‘What,’ she said sniffily, ‘has historical to do with fantasy?’
Rather a lot, actually, especially for those of us writing in the period before 1700. The differences are obvious – fantasy deals with things that can’t happen in the world we know, and historical with things that not only can but did – but there’s still a wide overlap in readership, and I would argue there are similarities in the writing process too.
For a start, we’re all ‘world-building’. The creation of that world is half the fascination for a writer, while inhabiting it is a large part of the enjoyment for the reader. Give me an analysis of today’s economy and I’ll be asleep in seconds, but give me the same information in a historical or fantasy novel, and I’ll be the one boring everyone else with it. I’m the sort of reader who adores the footnotes in a George Macdonald Fraser ‘Flashman’ novel, and thinks the best part of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the appendices. Yep, that’s right. I’m an ‘anorak’.
And why not? Those worlds matter to us, and we take every detail seriously. How can I write a love scene if I don’t know what my heroine’s wearing underneath – and just how difficult those buttons are to undo? Like many historical writers I’m also a re-enactor, because it’s the best way to find out what it feels like. For my latest novel ‘In the Name of the King’ I have fired cannon and a matchlock musket, and also own a beautiful rapier that is responsible for a spectacular hole in my ceiling. ‘Games,’ people say, and perhaps they are, but I know some of the very best research help I’ve had has come from re-enactors – and wargamers. If you want to know exactly who stood where at the Battle of Rocroi, don’t ask an academic, ask a wargamer who’ll clear his dining room table of orcs and trolls in order to show you.
And it’s not just fact. Most fantasy is meticulous in evolving its own belief system, and historical writers need to be equally aware of their own. When researching the judicial torture of one of my characters, I found the mechanics were disturbingly similar to those we know today (the ‘question d’eau’ is in fact ‘waterboarding’) but the thinking behind it couldn’t be more different. In 17th century Catholic France, torture wasn’t so much about extracting a confession as finding out truth, and pain was considered the purifying fire that would yield it. Beneficent as this sounds, the very dignity given to the procedure is chilling, where the court clerk might record an answer to a judge’s question as ‘Oh God, help me, Mary, oh Christ, oh Jesus, oh God.’ The words are there, beautifully and carefully written by a steady hand, but behind them the imagination screams.
It seems contradictory to talk about imagination in a historical, but it’s crucial to us too. Our choice of genre has much in common with writers of magical or post-apocalyptic fantasy, in that we’re escaping to a world where imagination is unfettered by modern reality. The greatest boon for me is leaving behind today’s technology, which could destroy half the literary canon at a stroke. Imagine if Juliet had been able to text Romeo ‘M wll nt ded babez, drnk potion, LOL!’ Forensic science is even worse, stripping away the ‘mystery’ of crime and reducing a study of humanity to an analysis of genetic code. ‘In The Name of the King’ deals in part with the true story of a hugely significant death explained variously as suicide, an accident, death in battle, and murder by agents of Richelieu, but today’s killjoy forensics would have solved it in seconds.
It’s not only technology we want to leave behind. Pre 1700 historical can (like fantasy) sweep away the entire structure of society, and give our villains a power unheard of today. Even where police and legal systems existed, the favour of a King could save a man and his enmity destroy him. My villains in ‘In the Name of the King’ have the favour of someone at court, which enables them to be very nasty indeed.
What it gives us, in fact, is a world of danger. Early period historical isn’t so much about game-playing and ‘dressing up’ as it is about ‘stripping down’ – about taking away the protections of our cushioned existence to live again in a universe where the only real goal is survival, and where a man could rely on little but his courage, his friends – and his sword. It’s no coincidence that the sword is such an icon of fantasy too, so that even a science-fiction based work like ‘Star Wars’ relies for its most memorable duels on the ‘light-sabre’, which is, in effect, a high-tech sword. Swords are at the heart of Legend, which is the common ancestor of historical and fantasy, and where the two genres finally meet.
Political complexities and the motivations of real people mean that a historical novelist can’t go as far as a fantasy writer and boil down the fundamental conflict to the clash of Good and Evil itself. Writing in the 1640’s I can’t even do away entirely with justice and legalities, because the warring princes of feudalism were already passing away to the new age of Absolutism. Yet my hero has still to walk the streets with a sword on his hip he must be prepared to draw at a moment’s notice, and even if he is becoming an anachronism in his own time he still stands for something I suspect will never die. The Jedi Knights were also remnants of an older age, so were Tolkien’s Elves, the ‘old values’ of honour and chivalry at the heart of ‘sword fantasy’, early history – and legend.
It’s a tradition to which I’m proud to belong.