The Grand Symbiosis: Fantasy & History

On March 3, The Heir of Night’s (UK | ANZ) release day, I mentioned the relationship between epic fantasy and momentous events—and their often catastrophic consequences for the individuals and societies swept up in them. Sounds like history, doesn’t it?

It’s certainly hard to argue that the relationship between fantasy and history is not a very close one. There’s straight out alternate history; epic fantasy tends to draw extensively on the medieval period, while steampunk prefers the 19th century, which was the great mechanical and engineering age; and there’s a respectable number of fantasies that draw on the Greco-Roman era, with a notable overlap into the Arthurian cycle. Most historically informed fantasy draws on European history, but there are a few notable exceptions, such as the Empire of Tsuranuanni in Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts Empire series, C. J. Cherryh’s The Paladin, and Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, where the influencing historical periods are medieval Asian. Alternatively, Orson Scott Card’s drew on the history and folklore of colonial and post-independence North America for his Alvin Maker series.

Whether alternative worlds or alternate versions of this world, history serves as a motherlode that fantasy authors mine—not just in terms of the scope of events, but also the backdrop provided by culture and social values, as well as clothes, technology and weapons, and both legendary and real characters. Arthur has proven to be a very popular subject, but Alexander also gets a look in (e.g. David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince) as do figures such as Isabella of Castile, who strongly informs Iselle in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion.  So as an SFF author, it clearly pays to know one’s history—but be prepared to play with it as well, to bring in magic, or another speculative element, rather than just politics and economics, culture or religion, as the raison d’etre for events. (Because otherwise it’s straight-out historical fiction.)

One exception to the symbiosis of fantasy and history is urban fantasy, which draws on contemporary—again, usually western—urban society to provide backdrop and mores, technology and character types, in much the same way that other forms of fantasy draw on history. Yet even within those urban fantasy settings, such as Charles de Lint’s Newport or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods there is often reference to historical material, such as the forces that brought European mythic figures to North America.

I, too, mine the motherlode in The Heir of Night: not so much in terms of specific events—although examples of prejudice, civil and external conflict, as well as cultural displacement, abound in history—but definitely in terms of technology, weapons and clothes. I only like to take it so far however, because although historical context can provide authenticity, the joy of writing fantasy is that it is speculative fiction and allows the freedom to explore alternate ways of being, even in a familiar setting.