The Importance of Historical Novels

An Informal Exploration

The title above is a mildly provocative statement. But those amongst us who enjoy reading (and writing) fiction set within a given historical period believe that good examples of the genre do far more than entertain. Well written historical fiction can hand us a telescope to peer back into our own or another culture’s past. In a day when world history is given short shrift by many school systems, reading Dumas’ The Three Musketeers may be the only way to glimpse the dizzying complexity of 17th century French political and social intrigue. Carefully researched historical fiction can educate, and even more excitingly, provoke speculation through original conclusions to historical puzzles. In Mary Renault’s brilliant The King Must Die and Bull From the Sea, she takes the classical hero Theseus and presents a wholly believable character whose strengths and flaws allow us to understand and even anticipate the heretofore inexplicable aspects of his behavior. His abandonment of the princess Ariadne on the island of Naxos is transformed from the disgraceful act of an ingrate (she has after all, helped him to triumph over the minotaur – in Renault’s book, a man, not man/beast) to an utterly correct and necessary action allowing both Theseus and Ariadne to come to their fullest potential.

Another way we know historical fiction is important is the firestorm of controversy it sometimes elicits. Isn’t there something remarkable about the fact that 70 years after it was written Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was still powerful enough to provoke a response such as Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone? Described by its author as an “antidote”, The Wind Done Gone is a retelling of Mitchell’s story, using many of the same characters – Art imitating Art.

Let’s turn now from the broad canvas to the intimate personal narrative, such as Jane Mendelsohn’s I Was Amelia Earhart. This slender book takes us inside the aviator’s mind, up to and including her experiences on the South Sea island where she and navigator Fred Noonan make their way after ditching their plane. With sensitivity and deftness it allows the reader imagined access into Earhart’s thoughts, and provides a form of emotional closure to the mystery of her disappearance. As in Renault’s books, solutions to unanswerable questions have been proposed, and the reader in encountering these solutions and examining their ramifications may find previously opaque eras or personalities resolving into sharp and even indelible focus.

My own fiction deals with a time seemingly far removed from our own. Late ninth century Britain was largely composed of competing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – people who knew Christianity, enjoyed good ale, composed epic poetry, and forged wondrous weapons and jewellery. They also lived under the legal code that would become English Common Law. Suddenly, and with increasing frequency, marauding heathen sea farers from first Norway and then Denmark began decades of terrifyingly violent predation upon the mostly agrarian Anglo-Saxons. Most of the predation was carried out by a people the Anglo-Saxons called Danes – they were in fact from the same areas of modern Northern Germany and Denmark that the Angles and Saxons had come from a few hundred years earlier. That is very meaningful to me as a novelist, that connection; and the ability to see in repeating cycles of invasion a mirrored view of one’s own history.

The Vikings originally wanted treasure, but later they also wanted something more precious – land. They wished to settle and live in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms they had toppled. Decades of warfare, appeasement, negotiation, and intermarriage of Saxons and Danes ensued. A new nation was slowly being forged – a process that as we know from world history, is rarely comfortable for its participants. The examination of conflicting values, divided loyalties, and the thrust of opposing religious beliefs and practices are timeless and universal human themes, and make a rich ground for the novelist’s imagination.

Viking attacks followed a predictable pattern – small bands of men sailing during the good weather, in Summer, striking quickly at more or less unprotected coastal targets, and then fleeing home with the booty. But in 865 this pattern changed; something called the Great Army landed in southern England, and stayed. These men were serious about settling, and conquering as much land as they could. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fought back, were often defeated in a series of mostly small skirmishes, and resorted to buying off the enemy with silver. Appeasement never lasted for long; the Danes were hard to make treaties with as they generally had few acknowledged leaders and so a peace treaty made with one was not honoured by another, and so forth. One by one the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell, until by 872 there were only two left, Wessex and Mercia.

It’s an interesting story, but where is the compelling hook? In periods when power hangs in the balance between nations, it is as usual in the individual. In the case of English history, a young man who became King of Wessex in 871 at age 23. His name was Ælfred and he is the only British monarch to be awarded the honourific “the Great”. Ælfred was a stunningly effective leader; if he had been less so we might be holding this conversation in a language much closer to Danish. Would that be a bad thing? Not necessarily – but it certainly would be different.

I don’t write about Ælfred except as a peripheral character; to me it is more interesting to see things from the point of view of a more passive observer than the prime actor. So my narrator is a young woman, who can relate what she witnesses. But it is the late 9th century, when so much hung in the balance, that I find intensely interesting.

So much for the setting – what about the actual, and factual framework on which to hang a story? What do we know about the Anglo-Saxons – this vitally important ancestor of ours – an ancestor to all of us who speak English as our first language? We have documents – because they were Christianized they had an effective means of writing, and Ælfred himself translated Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy from Latin to Old English so it could be widely read by his people. The primary document of the period is an invaluable record known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was begun in Ælfred’s time and documents the known history of the nation year by year from the year one and was continued right up to the 12th century. We have in a precious single manuscript the saga Beowulf, which tells us much of Anglo-Saxon mores, warrior life, the roles of women, and much more. And a handful of other fragments of poetry and wills and laws and ecclesiastical writings. We have physical evidence – artefacts such as the magnificent Sutton Hoo Treasure, the burial goods of King Raedwald, who died about 625. We have other grave finds from many Anglo-Saxon burial grounds and occasional finds such as weapons retrieved from rivers and bogs. We have very little architecture, for the Anglo-Saxons made full use of the mighty oaks they found and built largely in timber, but post and beam construction using massive members does leave post holes and several great halls – the homes of tribal chiefs – and other settlements have been recreated. They did build with stone, mostly churches which were overbuilt by later Norman structures, but we do have a few small Anglo-Saxon churches which survive.

How do we use these things? You certainly don’t need to try to reconstruct all of the events of the era from the brief mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; there are many fine history books that will stitch together the action for you far more easily, and more being published all the time. But what primary sources do provide is a feel for the era that can’t be obtained anywhere else – the rhythm, the cadence, the structure of the language, the emphasis placed on certain topics or persons – that a modern source can’t provide. I’m also a great believer in looking at the artefacts and landscapes of the era whenever possible. Studying one beautiful brooch, or fragment of embroidery, or a pattern welded sword, or a cluster of clay loom weights in person conveys information, and spurs the imagination, in a way that no amount of looking at photos can.

And this is where, in the combination of reading and looking, you can make the informed imagining that is perhaps not documented but is more than likely. For instance, we know that in both pagan, that is earlier, Anglo-Saxon society and Viking society, the tribal leader – who was always a war chief – also served as a religious medium between his people and the Gods; served as a priest in fact in ceremonies and sacrifices. Sometimes sacrifices to ensure good harvest or success in battle would entail the sacrifice of animals and possibly even humans. Other times objects such as food items or baskets of amber were buried, seemingly as a thank-offering. That’s what we know. What we can see are finds of spear points, seaxs, swords, helmets and other war gear – all tremendously valuable, precious even – which have been purposely bent or broken or otherwise rendered unusable, and then deposited either into rivers or in shallow pits dug in bogs. This is where the informed imagining comes into play: These may be weapons that were sacrificed as thank-offerings for victory, or weapons that have been “punished” for failing their owners. In historic fiction we have the luxury of drawing these sorts of conclusions, which is one of the reasons I prefer writing fiction to writing history.

Certainly one of the things to be considered when writing historical fiction is the amount and quality of evidence that remains. Especially in a distant era or for a people that were not literary – the Danes for example had only runes with which to write, a very imperfect method of recording things -or those who perpetually lost out to other dominant cultures and thus had their history obliterated or altered to reflect the conqueror’s viewpoint. Where is that information, what language is it in, what remains of the physical evidence, how easy is it to view, and so on.

This brings me to the unasked question of Why do we write historical fiction? I mean, it’s set in history, we know how it turned out! The task is to show the utter inevitability of what happened, as in the books of Mary Renault; or how it almost did not happen, or that it actually happened differently and the story has been altered either deliberately or through accretion over the years, such as Donna Cross’ Pope Joan, about a ninth century female pope. History, as has been famously noted, is written by the victors. And, in the form of historical fiction which is sometimes referred to as “mirror history” it can show an alternate history – a book built on the premise of what if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo.

But the real point is, even if you are writing about a time period or actor very well known, there is always the deeper questions to be answered – the “understory”. The understory in The Circle of Ceridwen is Who is my enemy?

If these and other aspects of the historical novel interest you, please drop me a line.

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