Fantasy and history – one thing leads to another

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.

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.