The fantasy of history in the history of fantasy

by Jeff

Everything I have written so far on this blog adds up to the suggestion that Fantasy is not really defined by elves, dragons or magic, but rather by the use of the ancient past as a vehicle for stories. At this point, however, it should be quite obvious that a further qualification is needed: if the past matters so much, then what is the difference between Fantasy and History? Are they any different? Of course they are. But in my view, a simple scale opposing fact to myth is a gross and insufficient measure of their demarcation.

By History, I do not mean the real events of the past taken in themselves. I am referring rather to what we write about them. In other words, here I am considering History as both human knowledge and human product. This is where the comparison with Fantasy as literature is relevant.

While it is tempting to equate History vs Fantasy with other similar couples such as Fact and Fiction, or Truth and Falsity, my aim is to try and refute this by arguing that in fact History and Fantasy overlap in many ways:

History is not ‘truth’. History is an empirical inquiry, based upon careful analysis of relevant documentation, but histories may still end up wrong, manipulated or extrapolated. In this case, the mere concession that History still has to be somehow ‘truer’ than Fantasy already disqualifies a strict binary Fact vs Fiction argument. A better way to express this is to say that History has claims that Fantasy has not. More on that later.

Fantasy can be presented as History. This was Tolkien’s modus operandi, stated in no uncertain terms in Letter #156: “Men have ‘fallen’ — any legends put in the form of supposed ancient history of this actual world of ours must accept that […].” His facsimile of the Book of Mazarbul [1] found by the Fellowship of the Ring in Moria plays beautifully into this as well. History as its own game can be inviting, because the relationship between invention and truth has always been intricate. On the one hand, we all take for granted that with History, you should invent as little as possible while accepting that it is never possible to avoid fiction altogether. It is an act of reconstruction, after all. On the other hand, Fantasy can range from putting medieval-like worlds on other planets to faithful historical portrayals with but a few original twists. There is no clear line to be drawn.

As a matter of fact, religions benefit in exploiting this imperfection of History. Mythical events with a convenient lack of supporting historical documentation enable religious faith, as one believes their truth without question; they will remain Fantasy literature when taken as a healthily escapist and deliberate exercise of creativity. In other words, myths are either tools for shaping culture and genuine beliefs about the world, or effective devices for uncommitted storytelling. This is why Fantasy uses the same language as History.

Fantasy is already part of History. This follows from the previous point and is supremely significant. Ever since long ago, if not for as long as mankind has had stories to tell, ancient myths and History have been made to coincide.

This has been done countless times in the specific context of the Christianization of pagan mythologies (insofar as Jesus as a miraculous figure is considered an historical character from the point of view of those involved in these conversions). It is common knowledge that, for instance, the Arthurian legends started out as Celtic myths. In the poem Beowulf, Grendel is linked back to Cain (lines 99–114). Snorri Sturluson, in his Edda, states that Thor was the son of a Trojan King. He ruled Thrace for a time and was elevated to divine status after traveling the world and vanquishing berserks, giants and dragons. Odin was also written down by Sturluson as a man of elevated status who prophesied he had to go to the North, to Sweden. On his way, he sets his sons as kings in Saxony, and later leaves the thrones of Norway and Sweden to sons as well. This humanization of pagan gods gives them a license to co-exist with Christian history as seen in the Middle Ages. In his book on Norse mythology [2], John Lindow explains (p. 22):

The idea that gods derive from humans whose actions are reinterpreted and deified by later generations is called “euhemerism”, after the Greek philosopher Euhemeros (fl. 300 B.C.E.), whose claim to have discovered an inscription showing that Zeus was a mortal king elevated to deity was generalized into a theory that has had considerable currency down into modern times.

We may witness also the vast literature involving the myths which underly the foundation of nations. This is the primeval purpose of an epic, in fact. Virgil, Homer, the Finnish Kalevala, this is what they were all about. France had La Chanson de Roland, some have argued. This genre can be so powerful that Tolkien lamented that England lacked any equivalent. He set out to solve this in the early Book of Lost Tales, which became later The Silmarillion but without this English mariner named Ælfwine (or Eriol in Elvish).

As should be now thoroughly obvious, contemporary Fantasy feeds from all of this, but without any cultural, national or religious commitment. It is rather an individual and deliberate invention of a mythical past for its own enjoyment. It is a universal form of storytelling taken to new heights and whose precise features are contextual. Elves and dragons dominate post-Tolkien Fantasy precisely because of Tolkien, not because the genre requires it (and the word magic is just a lazy cop-out for anything extraordinary).

This relativity illustrates the difference between History and Fantasy. As I mentioned above, History is based on, and perfected by, documentation, understood as any interpreted token of the past (writings, drawings, markings, etc.). These tokens are empirical, their derived knowledge is collective and, outside academic circles, it may display various shades of cultural commitment (the national or the religious kind, for example).

Fantasy now has nothing to do with this. It is a pure pleasure of the mind, a highly evolved and involved form of storytelling for its own sake. All eras have had their own brand of Fantasy, and today’s is just one more added to the History of the written word.

[1] See also J.R.R Tolkien. Artist & Illustrator, by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. [Amazon]

[2] Norse Mythology. A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, by John Lindow, Oxford University Press, 2001. [Amazon]