Daily Archives: August 17, 2012
Posted by Brian
For the month of August, I thought I might take a closer look at some of the intersections between history and fiction and what we can learn from them. In a very real way, most fiction claims to be some form of pseudo history–we are telling the tale of what we want our readers to believe are real people in a real world, and often the very best authors are the ones who can make us think all this really happened. In that sense, I think that fiction almost always has something more to learn, within reason, from history.
Ages. Eras. Times. Dynasties. Etc. Etc. For many of us , talk of specific times gone by is the default way to add gravity to just about any story idea or situation. They refer to a self-contained demarcation of the past that often centers on some larger idea or theme that tells us that it was like “back then.” Used well, they can help us break down a larger mass of undeliniated history into chunks that we can comprehend, appreciate, and admire. Used poorly they can make us lose focus on the stream of human action and experience in favor of an artificial, often sterile construct.
It does seem that any world of fantasy or science fiction worth its snuff must have at least four or five “ages,” at least vaguely defined. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is of course the most famous. Historians scramble onto this wagon too and hang on for all their worth, though they also may use other, less inspiring words like “Periods” to describe the same idea. I’ve always chuckled at my colleagues in the American historical profession in particular. We have divided a mere 200 years of history into all sorts of exclusive, specialized times as if a decade or so really mattered in the long run of human history that we should give it its own name. We talk about the “Jacksonian Period,” the “Gilded Age,” and the “Founding Era” as if they were some how all separate from each other.*
Why do we do it? For the simple reason that we can’t just “think about all of history,” even the short history of the United States. We have to break it down into more manageable pieces, and the use of labels gives us something to hang our intellectual hats upon. Viewed that way, these delineations are good and useful. To students of the “Jeffersonian Period”, that term means something specific and using it reminds us of a significant amount of information in a very short space.
The same is true of fictional “ages,” though here we are often more concerned with the “feeling” of the age than a specific period of time. When Tolkien writes about the First Age and the rebellion of the Noldor, we are not only supposed to walk away with an idea of the battles and politics that made it what it was, but with a profound feeling of sadness for what Feanor’s arrogance cost the Noldor. When we watch the transition from the Third Age into the Fourth, we not only catalog events, we feel the sense of loss in the new beginning of Aragorn’s reign.
The best historians–of real and fictional history-are the ones who take advantage of both aspects. Their books are the ones that cut the deepest and seem to us to matter the most. This ability to unpack the greater meaning of even small events and place them in a much larger context in such a way that we not only acknowledge their importance but we feel it is one of the main differences between “and then” history/fiction and the sort that seems to really live and breathe.
So what could be wrong with such a wonderful tool? It comes when we forget that it is just that: a tool. All of our delineations through history, however much sense they may make, are artificial. They don’t actually occur in the actual past in any real, measurable sense. No one woke up on January 1, 1850, got smacked in the face with a brick that read “Welcome to the Civil War Era!”, and promptly forgot everything that had happened up to that point. January 1, 1850 probably felt quite a bit like December 31, 1849, in fact. Life moved on, birthdays came and went, babies were born, people passed away, etc. No one knew that a massive war that would leave 650,000 dead and another 1.5 million wounded and maimed was in the offing, and they certainly didn’t live their lives in some supernatural sense of ominous dread because of “what was coming.”
And therein lies the rub: We all too often have a tendency to divide history into these artificially created, self-contained sections and we then interpret each one entirely in light of itself. Real life just doesn’t work that way. If we want history to show through in our fiction, and feeling to show through in our history, we need make sure that we are telling the story of the people in our world, not just what we would like it to be, including our scheme of divisions.
*Once we catch up to where China is right now–with about 6000 years of history–perhaps we’ll have something to talk about.
Other Posts in the History and Fiction Series