In Praise of Historical Fantasy
I’ve worked on a lot of historical fantasy projects over the years: the AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook, GURPS Vikings, GURPS Middle Ages 1, d20 Eternal Rome, Colonial Gothic, and a host of articles for various gaming magazines and web sites. Sometimes a project starts as historical fantasy and extends into contemporary fantasy and conspiracy theory, like my Dark Osprey book on the Knights Templar. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, of course, is set in a fictional Old World that had a lot in common with 15th-century Europe.
I could go on at length about how I came to prefer historical fantasy, starting with Enid Blyton retellings of the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, Saturday morning rescreenings of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and summer holidays spent visiting Roman villas and medieval castles across the south of England. But I’ll try not to, because that’s not the point I want to make.
It could be argued that almost all fantasy is historical fantasy. The ratio of history to fantasy varies, of course. Some fantasy settings take only the trappings of medieval Europe: castles, walled towns, and styles of weapons and armor. Others, including a lot of my own work, try to recreate the historical setting more or less faithfully, and layer in the types of fantasy elements that the people of that time and place really believed in: in the case of a Viking setting this includes trolls, draugr, one-eyed wizards who talk in riddles, and ways into the realms of Asgard, Alfheim, Jotunheim, and the rest. This is the style of fantasy I personally prefer, but that’s just me.
My first experience of this kind of fantasy came in about 1980. By then, I had been playing D&D/AD&D for about three years: I had resisted starting a Traveller campaign because I was an archaeology student and a fantasy and folklore fan whereas most of my college gaming group were studying physics and consumed science fiction like termites in a sawmill. Their own AD&D campaigns featured things like gigawatt lasers, time and dimension travel, and one memorable guest appearance by Slippery Jim deGris. In a medieval fantasy setting, I felt I could keep things under control, but if I had run Traveller for that group, there’s no telling what they might have talked me into allowing. Pistols that fire point singularities? The mind reels. Sorry – reminiscing again. Back to the point.
Playing Bushido (shortly after watching the miniseries of James Clavell’s Shogun) gave me a window into another culture, another place and time, and I was enthralled. I started to write my own RPG set in the world of Irish myth and saga with the working title Fiana, but it never got beyond a couple of playtest sessions.
As I continued to study, and read, and play, I came to realize that medieval (or “generic”) fantasy had a far stronger basis in history than simply castles and knights. Tolkien’s Middle-earth was grounded in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age showed a grasp of inter-war archaeology that surprised me, and the worlds of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels were, if not historically-based in the same sense, still a window into the decadent London Scene of the late 60s and early 70s.
The point – and I promise, I do have one – is this: fantasy is most accessible when it gives the new reader, or player, something familiar to hang on to rather than plunging them into a world that is completely original. Original fantasy worlds can be disorienting at first, and while they may have many virtues from a literary standpoint, accessibility is not necessarily one of them. Professor M.A.R. Barker created a dazzlingly original fantasy setting for Empire of the Petal Throne and his world of Tekumel still has loyal fans, but AD&D settings like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms proved themselves much friendlier to neophytes and enjoyed much greater commercial success. A little later Skyrealms of Jorune presented players with very original and thought-provoking SF races and cultures, but its very originality made it harder to play in: a player would start out knowing far less about the world than his or her character did, and it took a lot of quite determined study to figure the setting out. Skyrealms is rightly regarded as a classic, but comparatively few people have ever played it.
While history makes fantasy more accessible, an injection of fantasy can make history a lot more fun. I came to appreciate history fairly late in life, after more than a decade harboring resentment against the teachers who had made it so deadly dull – for me, at least. Would the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been so successful if they had eschewed the supernatural and striven to recreate the real story of the Golden Age of Piracy? Would they have been as much fun? While I’ve read some very entertaining history books about Caribbean piracy, I have to say I doubt it.
Compare, for example, the Patrick Bergin Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. They were in production at the same time but took very different approaches. The Bergin film paid scrupulous attention to historical detail: the producers employed a historian who was well versed in the contemporary theories about who and what the Hooded Man might really have been, if he truly did live in Norman England. The result: no Sheriff of Nottingham, few if any of the expected story vignettes (although it has to be said that only the Errol Flynn version really satisfies on that score), and the film comes across as earnest but rather dull. Costner embraced the big-budget historical romp, and for every offended scholar who stayed away many more regular folks came, watched, and enjoyed. Likewise, Clive Owen’s well-intentioned King Arthur movie got bogged down in historical (semi) reality – and as an archaeology grad I have to say it showed an impressive level of research in everything except its treatment of the Picts – but it took away a lot of what makes Arthur Arthur in most people’s minds.
More recently we have seen movies like National Treasure, the seemingly unstoppable Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course the Game of Thrones omni-media juggernaut which owes at least some kind of debt to England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses (I’m waiting for someone to make a Game of Thrones version of Kingmaker). And then there’s the rise of the contemporary urban fantasy genre in fiction, which uses the most familiar setting of all: not historical fantasy, I admit, but it does support my point about the importance of accessibility in a fantasy setting.
Although the exact proportion of history to fantasy is a matter of personal taste, it seems to me that they really do play well together. Fantasy without history can be confusing, and while I would never say that history is dull – except in school – pure, unadulterated history suffers from an image problem.