History, It’s Not What You Want It To Be

As I mentioned yesterday, I read Hild on my trip home (you can see the review on my Goodreads feed to the right) and while poking around to see if any historians had taken issue with it (none have that I can find),  I stumbled across this blog post.

“But it’s also going to be a discussion of historical fiction and how historical fiction is also speculative fiction and shares much more with science fiction and fantasy than may be immediately apparent….And to move back to my other point about historical fiction being speculative fiction: in the absence of working time machines, we can never truly know everything about the past.”

They are NOT the same thing.

“Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.”

SciFi is about what might be. Fantasy is about what never was.

History is about what was.  Historical fiction writers (good historical fiction writers), base their work in a world and eras that actually existed. They know it existed because they have done the research. And while we may not be able to know *everything* about our more distant past, the historical and archaeological record provide a great deal of information.

Sure there are crap “historical fiction” writers that write about 18th century women who own businesses, carry swords and freely carry on with attractive gentlemen, but they are looking for the easy way out and show the problem the public has with approaching history, which is the idea that it can be whatever you want it to be.

Unfortunately, that creates a distrust in history itself. “Well, you don’t really know.” When yeah, we do. “You don’t really know George Washington would have been against political parties.” Yeah, we do.

You think reshaping history to suit one’s fantasies is not a serious issue? Where do you think propaganda comes from?

America was founded as Christian nation!

No, it wasn’t. Not only are the many of the Founding Fathers’ antipathy toward the Christian church and the possibility of it dominating a country’s government well documented, “God” only appears once in the Declaration of Independence where it is called “Nature’s God” (so if anything, the U.S. was founded as a Pagan nation!…I keed) and is equated with the very vague term of “Creator.” The divine does not appear at all in the U.S. Constitution. Notably, “Christ” appears in neither. Moreover there is 1797 Treaty of Tripoli which was voted in unanimously by Congress while containing Article 11: “As the government of the United States is not, in any sense,  founded on the Christian religion…” Sure, Christianity as a provider of founding general principles was *discussed* by some in the Federalist Papers, but all attempts to inject as a controlling force into Federal and State law were rebuffed. Many Founding Fathers were Christian, but they understood the dangers of letting a religion rule the people and set up the wall of separation between church and state to protect the rights of all.

So as you see, despite it being classed as a “liberal art,” History is a science which deals in provable facts in the contemporary historical records and in the acid test of the Archaeological record. Do historians fill in the gaps in those facts sometimes? Yes, but with hypothesis and theories drawn from existing evidence. They do not make it up wholesale.

A historical fiction writer may fill in the dimensions and details of  a distant culture or a real person from the historical record, inject fictional characters minor roles and add minor events such as private discussions that might have taken place, but they are basing those characters and their story in the real world that was.

So unless you want to class ALL fiction as “speculative fiction” Historical fiction is not speculative.

As an addendum, the sad truth is too many people learn history from fiction (films, TV and fiction books) rather than non-fiction. Altering it to suit a desired narrative eliminates history’s vital role in our lives, here and now: To teach us the mistakes of our past that we may avoid them in our future. So while we understand the need of certain mediums to compress events to fit in a certain time frame (films for instance), the Arts have a duty to the people to get the essential facts right.

See further comments in the Footnotes.

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3 thoughts on “History, It’s Not What You Want It To Be

  1. You’re right of course, thats why we have so many people discribing themselves as ‘history buffs’ and what they actually mean is ‘I watched the Tudors’. Historical fiction does owe the reader something, not, I think, mythical ‘truths’ but definitely objectivity. I have a huge problem with 21st century mores being given to 12th century characters. Applying our attitudes to everything from slavery to religion, to people who saw the world in a totally different way. Sorry, rambling a bit here, I might need some sleep.

    • That was my biggest problem with Kingdom of Heaven, which I otherwise enjoyed: The big speech about pluralism Balin gave from the walls of Jeruselem before the attack. No. That was not even the most progressive attitudes of the time. Still Saladin rocked.

      Teaching people about the attiudes of different eras is the most difficult thing in presenting history because in that way, history can be an alien world. Abraham Lincoln once wrote that he did not believe that Caucasians and Blacks were intellectual equals, but he still believed that ALL human beings deserved freedom as a basic right. You can imagine how the revisionist “The Civil War was not about slavery!” crowd snaps the first part of that one up. But the truth is in that time and place, finding someone who was not at least a litle bit racist in how they viewed other ethnicities was like trying to find snow in Death Valley. How one can be racist and yet still believe in freedom and equality of treatment is something a lot of modern people have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

      People today struggle with comprehending how powerful an influence the church was in medieval life.

      And how women were viewed…a lot of Americans do not realize how strong the pushback was against women’s sufferage. Women in the U.S. were imprisoned, beaten and totured for standing up for their rights. They were viewed as being clinically insane and/or trying to destroy American culture (an accusation still leveled at people working for the qual rights of minorities). The sexism of former cultures was so deep and pervasive, that most costume dramas gloss over it or create exceptions for it. Seriously, if all the women who long for corsets and bustles had any idea what life was really like for women back then (for instance medically as Augustick and I discussed a while back) I doubt they would be quite so enamoured with that past.

    • It’s like something my Greco-Roman professor once said, “I love reading about the past, but knowing as much about it as I do, the brutality of these cultures, I would never want to live there.”

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