Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Magic of Historical Fiction

(There may be many other reasons to love historical fiction, and seeing how it’s so incredibly popular, there must be. I've touched upon a few, so tell me if you agree or have anything to add!)
Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It took a lot of restraint for me to only pick one Literature course at the university. The first class went on and on about historical fiction and its appeal, in the context of Shakespeare's plays. It's a topic I happen to have been wondering about for a long time now. It's been maybe a year since my obsession with fantasy gravitated completely onto historical fiction.

For the past three months, I have been obsessed (and that is still an understatement) with the Iliad, in its original form and as a retelling and reimagining. I suppose that we cannot call the Iliad strictly history; to have Pallas Athena actively and literally intervening on the side of the Greeks is naturally impossible. But that's the thing about history. None of us (ordinary people) really know what happened, and it is this guesswork and mulling over the true truths and made-up truths that adds its foremost magic to historical fiction.

We all want a taste of the past. I certainly do. Looking through old family photos and imagining the lives of all the generations before is my favourite pastime. I love trinkets - the seashells that my father and I found at the beach, my mother's wedding jewellery, an old greeting card - everything is made up of memories and because memories are rare and easily lost, they are important. A book retelling history makes rare memories accessible. A good historical novel lets you remember a past you never lived and that's a charm that no other fiction possesses.

History, as most of us learn it, is dull. History from museums is fact. History from novels is life. While historical fiction may not mention every political action taken by great leader, it’ll mention his favourite colour. Historical fiction turns boring details into colourful stories. It makes you realize that remembering dates and the names of a myriad treaties is good, but accuracy and origins (as my Shakespeare professor said) are immaterial when placed next to the emotions attached to and invoked by history: these are feelings that we rarely find in an information-oriented classroom setting, feelings too undefined to be taught but worth experiencing. Historical fiction will make you love the past and quite possibly, thank God you live in the present.

In the past, or at least the distant past, life had an altogether different meaning. An incomprehensible simplicity and an unlikely danger. For all the aforementioned sluggishness of text-book history, the past was difficult and exciting! Look at all its pop culture representations if you doubt me, Achilles and Henry VIII and Spartacus. That's the obvious reason to love historical fiction!

5 comments:

Delia D said...

I love historical fiction although I don't read as much as I would like. I always try not to get stuck in one genre (and sometimes succeed) but this one and horror are high on my list.
I'll go check out your top ten favorite historical novels. And take some notes. :)

Jason C. said...

Weird, historical fiction is one of those genres that I have managed to avoid and yet, it seems like the type of literature that would appeal to me a great deal. In fact, I actually started reading "Joanathan Strange" recently and while a slow read, the author's use of lanague and diction should be applauded for its accurate verisimilitude of a 19th century novel. As a fan of brevity, it's massive length and extensive footnotes are slightly off-putting but I'm curious to see where the story goes. Your ringing endoresement of the novel has given me more incentive to continue reading it.

Priya said...

Delia - I do try to keep my reading eclectic too, but you know how it is. Since you mentioned horror, you should definitely try The Werewolf of Paris, which falls into both genres.

Jason - The book is a bit too long, I agree. But Clarke plays really well with the archaic kind of language, for me there wasn't a dull moment in the book. I look forward to reading what you make of it.

Midnight scribbles said...

I absolutely love historical fiction. It is my favourite genre of books. And I must say once you get hooked there's no looking back!

Priya said...

Sabeeha - Recommendations, please! Nice to see you here after a long time. :-)

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