Why History is just like Fantasy, and I’m Sorry but You’re Wrong if You Disagree: an Essay

Alright, folks. I would like to talk about my third major interest. So far I’ve divulged to you my love for both fantasy fiction, and good old ass-kicking. Now I’d like to discuss history. Specifically, I’d like to talk about how a good history and a good fantasy story are valuable and enjoyable for the same damn reasons.

I’ll preface my argument by recognizing that a lot of people have no interest in history. Well, you’re all wrong. Rather, you’ve been misled. I’m convinced that this distaste is the fault of poor teachers. You see, I’ve been blessed with good ones, and it’s likely the reason I enjoy the subject so much. History teachers (and teachers in general, for that matter) are best served by being weirdos. I’ve been taught by plenty of strange, eccentric instructors, and those are of course the ones that I remember. They’re also the ones whose material I remember best. One collected hand-painted figures of knights and castles. One had us reloading mock muzzle-loaders in a Revolutionary War reenactment. Another had us mummify one another in toilet paper, placing paper versions of our most treasured guts in jars. And the rest have been a bunch of clever, funny, and all-around different people.

That’s the thing about history. Just like its teachers, history is best when it’s different. It’s best because it’s different. It is the strangeness of history that makes it appealing to me, and to other people, I should think. Taught well, there is no subject that can fascinate like history. Shit’s crazy.

And that’s exactly why fantasy is the best of all genres. This is fact, of course. Ever since Howard and Tolkien decided the future of the genre by creating its two main branches–Sword & Sorcery and High Epic Fantasy, respectively–fantasy has been tied inseparably to the history of our own world. Both Howard and Tolkien wrote in worlds that were actually intended to be prehistoric versions of our own. Since then, we’ve moved towards the model of totally separate worlds for our characters to inhabit. But they’re all a lot like ours. The people and cultures that inhabit them are often straight out of our history, too.

George R. R. Martin’s Dothraki are obviously Mongols. His Seven Kingdoms? An admitted imitation of War of the Roses-era England. Joe Abercrombie’s Gurkhul is clearly based on the historical kingdoms of the Middle East. His Midderland is an island version of the Netherlands. Patrick Rothfuss’ Edema Ruh are gypsies. Tolkien and Howard both obviously drew from Celtic and Norse mythology and culture.

So does this make us writers of fantastic fiction unoriginal assholes? Yes. But it also gives us an opportunity to make our genre of choice sound really important and meaningful. You see, fantasy can let us look at our own world in a new light. In Lord of the Rings, we have the obvious anti-industrialization message that comes with Saruman’s destruction of the Isen valley. But it doesn’t seem too broad. You don’t read that and get pissed off because Tolkien is trying to push a message on you. Because you’re just as annoyed as the professor wants you to be. This isn’t Earth Saruman’s destroying–it’s Middle Earth, a place filled with creatures and people and plants that rely on us to protect them! Now that I think of it, Earth is like that too!

See what I mean? If you want, and you don’t have to, you can use fantasy fiction, especially alternate world fiction, to sell a message that would come across as heavy-handed in normal fiction.

But back to that thing about fantasy being different. I was always fascinated by medieval history, because Europe in the Middle Ages was a place that was just so different from our own time. Not in a pretty princesses and brave knights way, either. It was a rough, unforgiving time. The majority of people were poor peasants, often exploited by their noble lords. Men didn’t fight dispassionately with rifles, but with cold steel, face to face. And I’m not so naïve as to think that that’s a good thing, either. Battle was common, and it was awful. Kings ruled, and society was ordered by military prowess as much as by money and land.

The point is, I like fantasy and history for the same reasons. And history’s been letting me down. These days, it seems to be all about theory. Let’s theorize why Taft was imperialistic. Let’s talk about the social implications of Orientalism. We only seem to be asking questions about things that we already know, anymore. And I want something fantastic. I want the smell of five hundred year-old parchment. I want to see the scrawled words of someone who’s been dead for centuries–words that no-one has read for nearly that long. I want to discover the stories of the human past. And I want to create stories that ring true to those experiences, foreign, but oh so familiar.

So there’s my long-winded rant. I’ll try to think of something more exciting to talk about next time, after I finish my little action-writing series. But seriously folks. Read history. Read fantasy. You’ll live longer.