History Rhymes: The Function and Importance of Historical Fantasy*

Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)

Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.

More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.

Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues.  The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.

When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained, 

I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t.  As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us 

accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.

Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.

Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays: 

Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader. 

Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.

Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies. 

Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019). 

Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
References

Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.

Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014. 

Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.

Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.

*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.