Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
History in Fantasy

Fantasy as a genre is almost inextricably bound up with history and ideas of history, reflected and reworked more or less thoroughly according to the needs, ambitions and intentions of individual authors. Its roots can be regarded as lying in the swashbuckling historical adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, H Rider Haggard and others; in the backward-looking romanticism of the Preraphaelites; and in academic Classical and medieval scholarship. To many writers and readers, a fantasy novel should be set against a quasi-historical (very often quasi-medieval) background, and the boundaries between historical novels and fantasy can be thin. The influence of historical writing upon fantasy is dynamic, and indeed a number of modern fantasy authors have been trained as historians (including Judith Tarr and Katherine Kurtz), and a number, like Tarr and Pauline Gedge, write successfully within both genres. In addition, characters and archetypes drawn from literature (e.g., Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote), quasi-historical figures (e.g., Arthur), genuine historical figures (e.g., Alexander the Great) and legendary heroes (e.g., Cuchulain) continue to provide material and inspiration for writers in certain subgenres of fantasy.

HIF, while predominantly associated with medieval imagery, is not restricted to a single historical era, nor to the Western European tradition. Fantasy novels have been set against backgrounds drawn from or reflecting the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, 19th-century Britain, and World War II. Cultural backgrounds include the history of Korea (Judith Tarr), Japan (Jessica Amanda Salmonson; Peter Morwood; C J Cherryh), China (Barry Hughart; Kathryn Grant; Stephen Marley), Russia (Morwood), India (Margaret Ball), and 19th-century North America (Karen Joy Fowler [1950-    ]). Other authors have used fantasy to explore themes drawn from historical experience – including colonialism (Colin Greenland), emigration and exploitation (Karen Joy Fowler; Guy Gavriel Kay) and cultural Anthropology (Rosemary Kirstein).

It is possible to identify four fluid and overlapping categories of the use of HIF. The first comprises novels set largely in a genuine historical context and often drawing upon actual historical events, but blending these with fantasy tropes. Thus Barbara Erskine and Anya Seton (?1904-1990) have used the idea of Reincarnation to explore themes of personal commitment and political responsibility in parallel modern and historical contexts. Judith Merkle Riley has blended psychic healing and precognition with authentic 14th- and 17th-century backgrounds. The standard of research in such novels is usually high and the books are often marketed as historical.

The second category is in many ways closely linked with the first. It consists of "what if?" Alternate-World novels, adding a major new element to a historical period. Tarr, in her The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, uses the complex politics of the late 12th century as a background, but postulates the existence of an additional player in the shape of an elven kingdom, whose existence further complicates the ecclesiastical problems of the time. In The Dragon Waiting, John M Ford postulates a late-15th-century England in which Earl Rivers survives the accession of Richard II, in which Vampires exist and are politically highly active, and in which Henry Tudor never becomes king. The Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett has a background based on 19th-century England, but is predicated upon the survival of the Angevin empire and upon the development of a strong tradition of magical, rather than scientific, research.

Novels which seek to create their own internal, coherent, invented history for an imaginary world or kingdom form the third category. The works of J R R Tolkien are pre-eminent here. Tolkien, a medieval scholar, borrowed largely from early literature, but transformed it to create his own unique mythology, history and culture on a scale unrepresented elsewhere: indeed, in many respects the creation of the background took precedence over the narrative; other writers upon whom he has had a profound influence have largely worked the other way round (see Fantasyland). Imaginary histories have been created to make political points or to explore social and gender roles, but more usually the "historical" material is there to provide an exciting problem for the characters to solve. Some authors have attempted to generate histories over a series of novels, often by writing "back" events: the results in terms of the creation of a cohesive sense of history are highly variable, and the impression created is often more one of a sequence of episodes than of a genuine history.

Many fantasy authors borrow historical events and ideologies, and transform them to provide the basis of a new world. This is the largest of the four categories, and ranges widely in style and depth of borrowing, from the adoption of a simple generic Fantasyland, usually although not necessarily quasi-medieval (often highly inaccurate), to the appropriation of a specific historical practice, event or detail to lend resonance to an imaginary world, as with Kurtz's painstaking borrowing of medieval liturgy.

History is a rich vein for fantasy authors. Inevitably, degrees of accuracy vary, with consequent results for the conviction and success with which a given background is presented. The use of historical imagery has never been free from romanticism and idealism. The forms of borrowing have tended to vary over time as writers reflect their own contemporary political and social concerns. Current trends to depict early cultures as feminist havens (see Goddess) or to explore the idea of child abuse as a major issue for communities living at subsistence level sit uncomfortably against a medieval background. Some modern fantasy writers tend to see the past as a better as well as a different country. [KLM]

see also: Anachronism; Celtic Fantasy; Chivalry; Egypt; Gaslight Romance; Golden Age; Gothic Fantasy; Fantasies of History; Land of Fable; Nordic Fantasy; Oriental Fantasy; Romanticism.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.