Friday, August 17, 2007

Why historical fantasy?

It's a question I've asked myself a few times while I've been writing. What's the appeal of historical fantasy?

For years there, I've been addicted to fantasy and sci-fi, and my first forays into the realm of writing were all of those genres. But when I dreamt up my Flavian novel (which still doesn't have a decent title), I hadn't actually planned to add in any fantastical elements, but they wove themselves in nevertheless.

It could just be the combination of two things I love that hooks me, but since I didn't consciously decide to add in anything of the paranormal, I decided to look a bit deeper.

So I thought about my two favourite fantasy series: Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Prydain, and I realised what sets them apart from, say, The Wheel of Time is that their links to the authors' sources of inspiration are very strong and evident (I suppose you could say that about WoT, lol, but I'm talking in terms of mythology). LotR feels like a proper myth, as do the CoP, because they both make use of what's already in the "source material".

Which brings us back to historical fantasy. As someone who reads a lot of Celtic hf novels, I realised that most of them work the fantasy elements around the beliefs of the people back then, in the same way Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander grounded their stories in the myths of Scandanavia and Wales, respectively. Things like reincarnation, the Otherworld and second sight are treated as real because that is how they were seen. Whether the modern reader believes in them or not, these things were as real to the ancient people as cattle raids and warrior feasts. They blend seamlessly together in mythology, and so, too, into fiction today, which is why, I think, so many novels set in Celtic times have paranormal elements mixed in.

There is, too, a definite hint of mystery to the Celtic people themselves, due mostly to the nature of their sources - from classical writers who were invariably opposed to them. Therefore there will always be that debate whether or not the Druids really did make human sacrifices, to give the most obvious example.

That said, I've never really been fond of these New Age-y, misty-eyed novels, where the Celts are these tree-hugging, ethereal, oh-so enlightened people. By all accounts, they tended to be a very earthy, oftentimes aggressive society, which I've tried to incorporated into my own writing.

Then again, it could just be because people have blended history and fantasy since they began telling stories. History is as much a part of folklore as any myth or fairy tale. After all, that's how figures from Queen Maeve to Imhotep, and likely a certain Arthur, became semi-mythical beings.