Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.
Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University
I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.
The Macrotext of Historical Fiction
The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.
History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.
There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe
The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.
Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.
We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.
Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.
Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.
You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe
Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.
Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.
Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.