Writing Fantasy as if it is History

People interested in Fantasy and especially the aspect of worldbuilding probably have encountered expressions like “his writing has a great sense of history” or “you should describe the world as if it is history”. I’ve seen it applied to both Robert Howard and Tolkien several times, but it tends to show up in many diverse places. There is something about these expressions that sounds very profound to me and I have feeling that I understand what people are getting to when they use it. But what does it actually mean? How do you write your fantasy as if it is history?

The most obvious answer to that question would be to write a big and comprehensive history book that deals with the great rulers, powerful dynasties, and big battles between the great powers of the world. But that’s almost certainly not what people mean by that, and it would also be completely impractical. Aside from being a huge amount of work, how would you bring any of that into your story so that your audience learns about it? And even more important, that they care about it? And when we turn to Robert Howard’s Conan stories, which are regularly getting praise for the sense of history they contain, we actually don’t find any of that. The most we get for almost all the countries are names, as well as the names of maybe one or two major cities. Occasionally the name of a ruler who is currently plotting against Conan, but that’s all the present, not the past.

Some weeks back I was reading some articles about the Conan story Beyond the Black River by people with a very strong interest in historical fiction, which directed my attention to another perspective on the subject. In that tale Conan is some kind of “military advisor” who is using the skills and knowledge he learned as a boy in a barbarian tribe to teach and supervise civilized soldiers who are trying to claim new territory for settlement from the local barbarians. Then the natives are getting restless and Conan is really the only one among the good guys who is capable to deal with true savage warfare. The story has been described as being a fantasy adaptation of tales from the American Frontier, but it could also be a fantasy adaptation of the Romans crossing the Rhine or the Vikings crossing from Greenland to the American mainland.

It’s not the classic history book type of history that deals with kings and generals, but much more similar to the currently very popular kind of history that examines how people lived and what they were dealing with at the lower levels. It’s about how things were normally instead of the exceptions when extraordinary things were happening. Especially when it comes to early (colonial) American history, there seems to be a very high interest in the personal stories of interesting individuals that have been preserved, even if their deeds are completely irrelevant when you take a more global view spanning centuries. Part of it is probably necessity because at the time there were no big kingdoms, powerful kings, or many huge battles. But even the tales of a hunter who became an important translator for solving a few specific conflicts between locals and settlers can get very exciting because they are windows into the world of those people involved, to which we otherwise have very little access. When we write down such tales of our own ancestors, we usually refer to it as History. But what it really is is Ethnography. A description of the culture and everyday life of specific groups of people. Not necessarily of an entire population, but also of more specific groups like the American frontier men. Or the Skandinavian sea merchants, or the Roman legionaries on the German border. I think that this is the true sense of history. The feeling that these people we see in the story could actually have lived and that they have a complex and fascinating culture, even if we only get a very short glimps at them.

Another thing that regularly appears in various Conan stories and which makes them different from most other adventure tales, is that his stories regularly intersect with what are important “big history” events. We only see what Conan does and encounters, but the people he fights against or for are generally involved in some pretty big business. There are big things happening in the history of the world, but instead of seeing them in the big picture from above with the kings and generals, we usually get a look at them directly from the ground where you can see only a very small piece but with details usually invisible in Epic Fantasy. Think of the opening of the movie Gladiator. We see the Roman general Maximus in a major battle against German tribes. We are not told what the battle is about. Why the German warriors are attacking, why the Romans are in the area, or how long the campaign had already been going. And once Maximus is betrayed and has to flee, we never learn how that war between the Romans and the Germans turned out. But during this early part of the movie there is a clear sense that this battle is not some random border skirmish that happens once every few weeks and is of no consequence in the greater picture of things. This is something important. A decisive battle in a very important war. The Emperor himself comes to the front to see Maximus in person because he has very big plans for him, based on his leadership during this campaign. We are getting a clear sense that there is an important war going on and that even more important things lie ahead for the future of the Empire. But we don’t actually see any of that. Because it’s not relevant to this particular story of Maximus being betrayed, believed to be dead, and becoming enslaved to be a gladiator. And from that point on his future in the higest ranks of the Empire becomes irrelevant to Maximus. This is a deeply personal story, but it takes place in a location and time where big historic things are happening. We are getting a sense of history, without actually seeing it.

The other writer next to Howard who often gets praised for creating a sense of history is Tolkien, and The Hobbit is perhaps the best example to see that. For Bilbo it is a completely straight adventure tale. Go places, encounter monsters, return home rich and wiser. But for the dwarves it is an important episode of their history. It’s not just a single adventure but a big turning point that completely changes the power structure in the region. But the tale is Bilbo’s tale and so when the big battle between all the regional powers takes place it’s done in three or four paragraphs because Bilbo was mostly sitting this one out and had nothing really to do with it himself. But you know that his individual adventure takes place before the background of big historic events.

It is examining the situation and changes of a fascinating time through the events that happened to a few interesting, though also not really special individuals. Individuals who are not the big masterminds behind the big events or who single handedly decided the outcome of large scale conflicts through their actions. To create a sense of history, you don’t need to go into detail about politics and battles. It really is about creating an atmosphere of the protagonist being surrounded by people who have a real culture, and also a past and a future.

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