History, fantasy and our relationship with the past

OK, so it turns out that last week’s cathartic return to Braveheart hasn’t cleared it out of my system. Because there’s more to the issue of how we portray history than just accuracy versus story. That more complex relationship has been niggling away at the back of my brain all week, and Friday night seems the natural time to let it out.

I just want to understand you

Our relationship with people in the past is a bit like that between a teenage boy and the cute girl sat next to him in science class – he wants to get closer to her, but however hard he tries he’s never quite going to understand what she’s thinking. The things she’s experiencing are just too different from him.*

Puberty aside, it’s the same with us and the past. Until Doctor Who** turns up and lends us the Tardis, we can never directly experience those times. So we try to bridge the gap in understanding through this thing called history, where we reconstruct our own version of that experience, trying to wrap our heads round it in terms that are meaningful for us.

Facts or feelings?

Academic history tries to do that reconstruction through facts. There’s still speculation, and some projection of modern values and understandings onto a different world, but fundamentally it’s about cold, hard objectivity.

But life isn’t just about facts – ask that kid in the science class. It’s about feelings. They are as important to building meaning and understanding as any amount of information. And this is where historical fiction comes in. Through a looser adherence to facts, it tries to evoke the feelings of the era – the real lived experience of people in that time.

Neither approach is necessarily more meaningful than the other – they’re just different.

And on to fantasy

In a sense, fantasy fiction is one step further along the same scale of relationships with the past, from historical fact past historical fiction into worlds that aren’t real at all.

What’s that you say? Fantasy isn’t history? True, but history isn’t the same as the past anyway. And fantasy often takes elements from history and helps us to imagine and understand them.

Like Kevin Costner, but with fur and charm
Like Kevin Costner, but with fur and charm

Just look at Robin Hood. There’s a scale of deviation from the historical facts – from the reality of the Folvilles and Cotterels*** and other such gangs running round 14th century England; to the myth of an imaginary bandit still rooted in the real setting; to the figure of blurry legend floating through several centuries; to Kevin Costner taking on witches, or that Disney fox singing oo-de-la-li; to full on fantasy versions of the aristocratic outlaw wilderness man like Tolkien’s Aragorn. Each step further away from concerns with historical truth, with understanding those people on their terms, brings us closer to understanding them on our terms. However we do it, we’re developing some understanding.

You say history, I say fantasy, lets call the whole thing off

I’m not really sure what conclusion to draw from any of this. The relationship between history, fantasy and our lived experience is a complex one. And if I’m not trying to understand it in black and white terms like ‘historians good, Gibson bad’ then I want to explore those grey areas.

Anybody else got any thoughts on this? Because I’m all out of insight for the evening.

* I’m not saying that gender identity is an absolute. My views on human nature are much more focussed on nurture. I’m just saying, puberty’s a difficult time, girls get menstruation, boys get wet dreams, they’re not seeing life through the same lens.
** Have you seen the mini-episode they put out this week? It’s a nice piece of Moffat cleverness, rather satisfying.
*** Pretty sure those names are mis-spelled. Sorry. It’s been over a decade since I left academia, and I don’t have the appropriate essays to hand.

Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.


Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?