Fantasy and history – one thing leads to another

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Having written on Friday about fantasy as a place where we learn some history, and about Robin Hood and the spectrum from history into fantasy, I got to see it all connect together over the weekend. Not only did I watch Disney’s Robin Hood (that’s right, the good Robin Hood), but I watched it with children, taking their first steps into understanding history.



I spent Saturday at my brother’s house, helping entertain my nieces, the terribly serious Princess and the unstoppable Ever-ready. The Princess is nearly five years old, Ever-ready two and a half, and thanks to their parents they’ve both acquired a taste for the fantastic.

After a busy day of playing and visiting the library, we settled down together to watch Disney’s Robin Hood, at the request of both girls. No sooner had the music started than they were enthralled, watching Robin and Little John run through the forest, excitedly telling me about the characters – who was good, who was bad, what animals they were and what they were doing.

For the first time all day, Ever-ready sat still.

Bedtime stories too

Bedtime showed the power of fantasy as well. Ever-ready’s choice of stories was The Reluctant Dragon, adapted from the story by Kenneth Grahame. The Princess chose Starcross by Philip Reeve, a space-faring steam fantasy – she has excellent taste. Both stories showed just how powerfully fantasy can capture children’s imaginations.

Watching the wedge

Watching them enjoy these stories, whether on screen or the printed page, I could see the thin end of the wedge of history slipping into their minds. They know what a knight is. They know how Victorian ladies dressed, and that they were expected to behave differently from men. They know about bad Prince John* and King Richard’s absence on crusade. They might also suspect that space is full of Moobs and that outlaws disguised themselves in Lincoln green, but we can correct that later. For now, they’re learning, and part of what they’re learning is a love of the past. Skipton castle is one of their favourite places.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the relationship between fantasy and history isn’t just the former feeding off the latter, it’s fantasy breeding a passion for history. And as a fantasy author and history graduate, I think that’s a great thing.

So how about you – do you have a passion for history, and was it fuelled by fantasy? Or maybe the other way around? I’d love to know.


* Having done my masters dissertation on John, I actually think he has an unfairly bad reputation by comparison with the rest of his family. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be viewed badly – he was responsible for several political murders, including that of his nephew – but that the rest of them deserve it too. I mean look at Richard. The guy was in England for five months out of a ten year reign, neglecting the country that funded his middle eastern killing spree – total dick.

8 thoughts on “Fantasy and history – one thing leads to another”

  1. As far as I can tell the most historically accurate recent portrayal of John vs Richard II was in “Maid Marian and her Merry Men.” There is reason to believe that the writer of that show had some interest in historical matters also.

    1. They certainly managed some of the more convincing screen peasants I’ve seen. And the second best Robin Hood on screen, maybe third after Errol Flynn. Certainly better than the Scott/Crow mess.
      She’s back, and this time she’s wearing a hat.

  2. I’m an Ancient History & Archaeology graduate me. And while not an author – it’s probably fair to say that I blinking well addicted and largely preoccupied with fantasy (in one form or another) and have been since I was 7 or so. I entirely agree with all points you make above (except perhaps some of the stuff on John & Richard – but that’s not my period and it’s not really what the post is about – so I’ll ignore that til next time we are together in a pub).

    One point to add that might be worth adding:

    History actually is a Fantasy. It’s a story which we have pieced together from thousands, probably millions, of sources, multiple media and cold hard artifacts and structures. Very little of it, very little, is universally accepted as provable fact. Almost all of it is open to being changed or modified by anyone who can put a valid academic argument together. In point of fact I’d like to make the assertion that Historians are nothing but storytellers – just storytellers who try to tell stories that are to some extent verifiable. Luckily – not all Fantasists are Historians though – that would be severely limiting.

    I think the two disciplines are extremely complimentary : )

    1. Very well argued sir. I suspect it might depend a bit on what we mean by ‘fantasy’, but like science fiction, that’s often just the thing we’re pointing at when we say it. And I’d never argue with the historians as storytellers bit.
      Think I’m going to have to point Jon, my history teacher friend, in the direction of your comment, see what he thinks.
      As for John and Richard… No, you’re right, one for the pub. Or possibly another post actually about that. I feel a Robin Hood week coming on.

  3. When I was at school, I was fascinated by history if it was old enough – and sadly most of what I had to do in secondary school was too recent for me. At university I delightedly took courses on Romans and Greeks – and yes, I was brought up on their myths as well as classic fairy stories and Narnia (which was quite modern at that time). It was only when I started getting involved in the Ars Magica RPG that I became drawn into the study of the 12th & 13th centuries in Western Europe. Ars takes what we think the people of the time did and the stories we think they told and builds a game out of that, which strikes me as a very good use for history and a great way to infiltrate it into minds.

  4. There is some interesting food for thought here and I would certainly agree that history is formed of significant elements of fantasy and that storytelling is an important part of understanding it. Are historians fantasists? In a way, but I would argue that they are certainly not ‘nothing more than’ storytellers.

    Historians are fantasists in the same way as scientists are fantasists. They both attempt to construct viable models of their chosen subject, and both use the rigorous analysis of the available data/evidence to do so. Both (should) accept that their theory can only ever be viable until a better one is found. Few ever agree upon when this latter point has been reached.

    So far, so much akin to storytellers. Yet there is a crucial difference, and that lies in their purpose. The purpose of the storyteller is entertain, or perhaps to reveal what they feel to be the truth but lies outside of the brute materialism of ‘what actually happened’. The purpose of the historian or scientist is to construct a model as close to objective truth as possible and they are (should be?) beholden to make it clear when and how far they are departing from what is verifiable as strictly accurate. Storytellers have no such obligation.
    [ak! Comment too long… Splitting into two sections!]

  5. [continued]

    The problem comes when you realize that the lines often blur. Yet when they do its even more important to keep the distinction in mind. A historian may feel justified in misinterpreting their evidence in order to reveal what they believe to be a greater Truth. When they do that they have become storytellers. Not that being a storyteller is a bad thing, but purporting to be one when you are in fact the other is a bad thing. Its not always easy to spot when the lines have been crossed, which is why I don’t want to let the similarities between historians and storytellers overcome the distinction.

    Which has helped me understand my problem with (some) historical fiction, love it though I do. It never claims to be anything but fiction, but its so easy to forget that and I just want to keep stamping it with big red health warnings. Some ‘historical’ fiction (I’m looking at you Gibson… Ridley… You too) wanders so far from the evidence that its historicity is nothing but a veneer on a totally made up story. I suppose you have to weigh the cost in misunderstandings versus the gain in increased interest.

    1. Very nicely put. I think that point about intention is absolutely crucial. A film maker who presents something utterly warped as if it were truth is trying to play at historian without any of the rigour, and that’s where people’s views of the world get warped.

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