One of my favorite writers of historical fiction often wrote specifically about his island nation among the volcanoes and the ice. Haldor Laxness won a Nobel Prize for his astonishing fictions, that take as a backdrop life among the shepherds and peasants of historical Iceland. Two books that stand out as potentially very interesting to readers and writers of genre fiction are Iceland’s Bell, a dark comedy and pastoral story about a wife-beating shepherd, a beautiful, elfin woman, and the pages of books that were stuffed in the shoes and the walls of the starving common folk. The sheperd’s peripatetic comic pastoral becomes this far-ranging journey across Europe in a period of time where the modern world isn’t even close to coming together, and could fall apart at any moment, and the identity of a people is being lost to poverty and indifference. Another amazing work by Laxness that contains multitudes is Independent People, that begins with the curse of a witch and ends with the curse of a witch, and in between a stoic shepherd pushes back against the brutal elements with his own sense of right and wrong, a morality that consumes his family and his future worse than the witch’s curse. These tales are structured like Icelandic epics mashed with modern novels. They carry a past and a future simultaneously, a history of Iceland and an argument about what the little island nation had better learn before its too late – what all of us had better learn about love and interdependence and a darkly comic cosmic indifference.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I minored in history. My professor of the history of the Old South explained the difference between an antiquarian and a historian thus: An antiquarian will know lots of facts and figures and data; a historian will interpret the information to seek what it means. For this reason, I have always considered historical fiction inextricably linked to the work of historians. As historians are inextricably linked to the work of fantasists, the transitive property holds that historical fiction is an important part of the world of fantasy fiction. The past is a ripe field for the imagination, and full of stories.
Great post. I greatly appreciate the points you bring up here.
Modern, living authors are continuing to turn to history for inspiration. The thing is, history changes with the decades. Reading westerns, just as an example, fifty years ago is a story of white men dominating the difficult landscape, and coming to peace with it. The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy, a revolutionary document in the genre of westerns, tried to deal with the violence that men do to the people, place, and animals all around them and find some kind of peace in it. These days, it’s hard to read Westerns without the ideas of white supremacists polluting the water. White men came in and murdered a lot of people to take their land. That it seemed empty and uninhabited had more to do with the diseases that wiped out thousands if not millions of Native American lives as a sort of vanguard to the actual contact with the white humans that came after their diseases swept through. To write compellingly about history in the American west means dealing with the racial ideation that polluted their world, and continues to pollute ours.
Essays and criticism on Cormac McCarthy's The Road - Critical Essays
Our relationship to history is a fraught one. We carry our preconceived notions of reality, as readers and writers, inside of our judgment of books and characters. History doesn’t have to be plausible, but fiction does. To truly study history, we almost have to abandon those ideas, and embrace ways of thinking that are not natural to us. One of the limitations of historical fictions versus non-realist work is that we don’t really approach the characters as intellectual equals, when we should. When the villagers in The Scarlet Letter demand the A upon Hester Prynne, we are pre-made as modern individuals to see her as the noble martyr, and them as morally repugnant hypocrites, without even understanding the sense of helplessness against a harsh universe that drove their fear of such misbehaviors, even into the horrors that they committed. We simply don’t empathize with the villagers. But, to bring to life, and to comprehend, history and where we came from, we must challenge ourselves to take people seriously, even when they are on the wrong side of our version of history.
Cormac McCarthy Papers : The Wittliff Collections
Even such Ur-texts as The Illiad, The Odessey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh seem to be acts of historical invention in their own time. Telling the story of “where we came from” is one of the fundamental stories that drives narrative forms, because it seems to speak to where we ought to go, and who we ought to be. The past tense is a standard mode. Nearly all fiction is driven by a sense of the past, hopefully one that bridges to a future.