Friday, June 10, 2011

The Relationship Between Fantasy, Myth and Historical Fiction

I have been doing a lot of reading lately. And obviously I've been doing a lot of writing. But I want to ask you a question, my followers, because I feel that if you were not interested in mythology, you would not really be reading my blog. I mean, let's face it, it is mythology city over here. SO.

When does Historical Fiction, influenced by myth, become Fantasy?

We have Homer, and Virgil, both of whom wrote epics which included elements of mythology -- gods and monsters and more gods and lots of divine hands floating about, messing with fates and destinies -- and we don't call them fantasy. We call them history and literature, and archaeologists over the years have gone looking for evidence that these people lived and breathed in our past. Agamemnon, Odysseus, Theseus, Aeneas. You all remember the guy who claimed to have found Odysseus' palace on the island of Ithaca, a while back, I'm sure. And obviously we have to question these things and take them apart, but what turns a work of historical fiction, based on these same people and characters, into fantasy?

Is it the inclusion of the gods as living breathing people? Margaret George does this with her book on Helen of Troy (though she really did not need to).

Is it the inclusion of visions and prophecy, signs from the gods? Mary Renault uses omens and signs in her books on Theseus quite well, and Theseus even has a vision of himself fighting for Athens at the battle of Marathon in the future. I would also argue that many ancient cultures leaned quite heavily on these kinds of things, and NOT to include them would make the novel historically inaccurate to the extreme.

Where is the line?
Let's discuss!


  1. There are a handful of exceptions, but I think a novel crosses the line into fantasy as soon as a god/goddess/otherwordly being shows up in the flesh. However, depending on how it's written (and who wrote it), the book might still be shelved in the fiction section.

  2. Historical fiction isn't supposed to break known history.

    There are reasons of craft why you might distort things a bit: you might merge several real minor characters into one, or you might accelerate the real timeline because the rules of good story telling demand it.

    You can spend a lot of time working inside the gaps of recorded reality. I think of it as, "What's the most interesting thing you can't prove didn't happen?"

    Pretty much every character in ancient times believed in the gods and acted as if they were totally for real. And that's just fine for historical fiction.

    But when you move into the definitely impossible, such as various gods appearing as characters, then you've moved into Fantasy, or Mythology, or possibly an Alternate History story, and they can all be lots of fun.

    Mary Renault crossed the line a couple of times when she inserted easter eggs. One of her actor characters dreams of playing Hamlet. Another character prophecies the Apollo space programme.

  3. That line is tricky because if the character believes in magic and the gods acting in their lives, then we must SEE that. But as long as we see that it is a character's "interpretation" of events, rather than reality, it's historical fiction. Once magic and/or gods act outsides of perception, it's fantasy. Hope that makes sense!

  4. I'm so glad all three of you commented!

    There are definitely exceptions, which I think is part of my confusion-- like Margaret George. I think more than anything it depends on the author and how the author is branded. Someone who is branded as an historical fiction writer can get away with inserting a god and writing a book about a character from mythology and still shelving it in general fiction next to her other books. Someone who writes primarily fantasy, is going to wind up with their book in the fantasy section, even though it's more historical than not.

    Gary and Vicky: I think what gives me trouble, personally, about your definition, is that we cannot disprove that the gods existed. We can say they no longer exist now, we can say that we don't believe in them personally, but your question "What's the most interesting thing you can't prove didn't happen?" would absolutely, in my opinion, include divine participation in the world. We can't know, but we DO know that the people of the time-- like Vicky says below, believed in the gods acting in their lives-- what if they were just seeing things that we no longer have access to? And why are we limiting what their experiences might be with the underlying condescension of "those gods don't exist in the world" if we really are working from the head of someone who believed the opposite? Someone who, POSSIBLY, even KNEW the opposite.

    I feel like this is a very Christian Conceit-- that books with a divine hand belonging to a Judeo-Christian God, will be thrown in as general fiction (I'm thinking of the book Eve by Elissa Eliot, which has both God and Lucifer in the flesh, for example), but books with a divine hand belonging to other gods, are shunted off into fantasy. I guess there is no religious equality in fiction? But does it honestly make a well-researched book less historical?

  5. I think most historians and Classicists these days are pretty happy calling Homer and Virgil fantasy - I certainly do. If anyone objects, there's a talking horse in the Iliad, which pretty much settles it!

  6. Ha!!
    I suppose the best way to frame Homer as history (I don't think Virgil would make the cut this way), would be to tell the story from the perspective of someone raised on it AS history. Someone in early Classical Greece would certainly consider it to be an historical record. Even Herodotus addresses the events played out in the Iliad. Not so much the gods, I'll admit that.

    So, does this mean if the movie Troy were a book it would be historical fiction? Because there are no gods? (Assuming that the rest of the story were historically accurate).

  7. I agree with Vicky: if your character believes in those things then you have to show it as part of their worldview. That doesn't make it fantasy though. My favorite author, Donna Gillespie, does this very well in The Light Bearer and Lady of the Light. They are historical fiction because even though there are visions and mystical what-have-yous it's in the context of the MC's worldview, which is a historically accurate worldview. (There are lots of discussions with the other characters about differing worldviews too, so it's very interesting all around).

    I think to take it out of the historical fiction realm and plop it into fantasy you would have to add something that we know doesn't and probably never did exist (like unicorns), or take it out of the context of worldview and show that physical things were happening, even to people of opposite worldviews. I don't even think putting a physical god in a story makes it fantasy, if the MC's worldview suggests that this is possible, and as long as any characters who have differing worldviews doesn't see the physical god. After all, plenty of people to this day claim to have seen some version of their god. (We call them crazy, but their worldview supports it)

  8. For me Historical Fiction becomes Historical Fantasy as soon as any god, mythical creature or what appears as actual impossible magic or otherwordly influence takes place not just before the characters but also the reader.
    For example,
    If a viking warrior sought out a druid regarding a battle. The druid cast out a set a runestones and at the same time unknown to the warrior cast some black dust (coal or something) into the fire and it crackled and smoked ominously. The warrior might think he's witnessed some kind of supernatural omen.
    If in the story the reader is aware of the black dust then that's STILL historical fiction but if the READER AND CHARACTER aren't aware of it and there is no evidence of such action from the shaman by the narrator then it could be classed as an element of FANTASY.

  9. I think it's fair for Amalia to point out the double-standard with regards to Judeo-Christian mythology versus everything else. If something magical happens, it's fantasy, but if a miracle attributed to Jesus happens, it's not fantasy. A product of our times, to be sure, but still a bit uneven.

  10. I'm not convinced there's a Judeo-Christian bias, or if there is, I haven't noticed.

    If the Archangel Michael appeared in a contemporary thriller, and used his divine powers to affect the plot, I would certainly call that fantasy, or in modern Industry Speak it would be called paranormal, which term is merely a way of not having to admit that most books being sold at the moment are fantasy. Whether a bookstore would shelve it that way, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't go on the thriller shelf even if it was written by Robert Ludlum.

    Homer and Vergil wrote somewhat before modern publishing demographic labels were invented. It's probably more relevant to consider that neither Herodotus nor Thucydides mention Zeus descending from Olympus to affect the outcome of a battle, but both refer frequently to human mortals consulting oracles before making decisions, and some of those oracles say pretty cool things. This to me is the dividing line, and it's the same whether a Wiccan or neo-pagan writes of the ancient Gods, or whether a Roman Catholic priest writes a thriller with an archangel. In either case the plot element is paranormal.

    Keep in mind, these are all mere labels to target the people most likely to enjoy your book. I've been shelved in different stores under Historical Fiction, Mysteries, Thrillers, General Fiction and, weirdly, Australian Literature. A noticeable proportion of readers consider my work to be political thrillers, and think of the ancient setting as a colorful background. It's all good as long as people like what they read.

  11. That makes sense Gary-- The Oracle dispensing information vs the god descending from Olympus.

    I've definitely seen a lot more Judeo-Christian stuff shelved in general fiction than in fantasy/paranormal. I'll admit that could be a local phenomenon-- just like my local Target stores do not have a lot of fantasy outside of YA on the shelves. It is all general fiction/literary fiction, or Romance, but I hear that other stores stock things differently. That said, I found Gods Behaving Badly in literary fiction, and that has the Greek Pantheon wandering around Manhattan all washed up, so...

    Great comments, everyone! Thanks so much!

  12. Very interesting post, and comments. I would say more but I feel like everything I would say has already been said. Basically, I agree, haha.

    Well, okay, I will add a little: I think the genre changes mostly with focus. I don't think one appearance by a god/goddess in a book makes it fantasy, especially if the characters in the book genuinely believe that the gods/ goddesses are flesh and blood and wont to appear at random. This is even more true if the narrative is not expressly about the god or goddess appearing so much as it is what they have to say/ deliver/ do. However, if the focus shifts onto the god/ goddess and stays there, or if there are many appearances, or if they are doing something intensely pivotal to the plot that will not be resolved for chapters, then I think the genre there shifts more towards fantasy.

    I suppose my answer is that it depends on the focus and scope of the mythological aspects, but the mere presence of the supernatural is not quite enough for me to re-classify a book into fantasy if it's historical, because of the context of the cultures.

  13. Great comment, LT! That is definitely something no one else addressed so far, and I think you have a great point! If the gods are central players, I have no problem with that classification of fantasy-- but if it's about the human element, and the history, the line gets a lot blurrier. Thanks for contributing!

  14. Well History is not what it used to be. There was no line between fantasy/fiction and history/reality. Homer believed that the Olympian Gods were as real as the heroes, the war and everything else. Same thing with the founding myths of many cultures, from the founding of Rome (The Aeneid) to the Historia Brittonium.

    Not to mention that writers of "histories" (which included men like Shakespeare) had agendas of their own, mostly to legitimize/delegitimize a ruler or social order. Just look at the Christian Apologists or even the Bible.

    Simply put, modern distinctions do not apply.


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