The Primacy of Story

Over at the Black Gate blog, there’s been an interesting discussion (aka blog followed by blog rebuttal) regarding the importance of historical authenticity in epic fantasy.

Author Daniel Abraham began the discussion with his post “Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing,” where he argues that those that would defend problematic elements of sexism/racism/etc. in pseudo-medieval fantasy by stating that it is more “historically accurate” are really making a very poor argument.

…The idea that the race, gender, or sexual roles of a given work of secondary world, quasi-medieval fantasy were dictated by history doesn’t work on any level. First, history has an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from. Second, there are a wide variety of secondary world faux-medieval fantasies that don’t reach for historical accuracy and which would be served poorly by the attempt. And third, even in the works where the standard is applied, it’s only applied to specific, cherry-picked facets of the fantasy culture and the real world…

“Theo”, over at the Black Gate blog, rebuts this hypothesis and asserts “The Primacy of History,” essentially making the case that more historical accuracy is called for in faux-medieval fantasy, not less, and indicating that juxtaposing the usual positions of power within the milieu is not only ahistorical but detrimental to fantasy as a whole.

…The examples are significantly limited. For example, there was no medieval period outside of Europe. Forget jousting with laser lances, it’s blatantly ahistorical to even populate a medievalesque world with a predominantly non-Caucasian people. As for the ubiquitous strong, independent, proto-feminist, it is as absurd for her to ride around on a horse swinging a sword as it would be to have her spending the course of the novel waving signs, brandishing coathangers, and demonstrating on behalf of abortion-on-demand and suffrage in front of the king’s castle. Actually, it would arguably be much more credible, since there is more chance that a medieval woman would be literate, promiscuous, and cognizant of Cicero’s theory of government than she would survive five minutes of armored combat…

I think Abraham makes many compelling points in his essay. It is, on the face of it, a ridiculous notion to ascribe “historical” accuracy to a piece of fantasy fiction–especially fantasy that does not even purport to take place in our world. Even if the historical arguments being made are right (women and people of color were denigrated, patriarchy ruled by violence, etc.)–just because it happened in medieval Europe does not mean it must be that way in another world. That’s often the point of setting it in another world.

This is fantasy fiction we’re talking about, not historical fiction. It lives in the land of “what-if”. Even if, as Theo says, “those of us who study history either professionally or on an armchair basis tend to be impressed by the way in which the historical patterns tend to repeat themselves”, there are still many paths that the course of history could have taken had one element or another been slightly different. A path less traveled that would have altered those grander historical patterns. As Abraham rightly says, “history has an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from…”

That’s not to say that because it’s a fantasy, anything goes. I do agree with Theo in his assertion (shared with Abraham) that

…they ignore ‘the central cultural fact of the time’ which is the ‘the importance of God and the church in medieval Europe’. But this is an indication that more authenticity is needed rather than less, particularly psychological and relationship authenticity…

It does make for a very shallow story to simply yoink one of the more troubling assets of a historically-inspired story and then try to cram another less troubling one in its place. Good storytellers can take that central premise (“what if it’s like X but instead of Y it has Z…”) and make a plausible setting that incorporated and explained that aspect. And, many times, the elephant in the room is the primacy of the Church in medieval life. It affected the economy, politics, psychology, and sociological proclivities of everyone in the setting.

That’s one of the reason why I’ve really come to love Robert Jordan‘s “The Wheel of Time” series so much. His “White Tower” really serves as a unique stand-in for the Church, even though it is essentially matriarchal. Throw in the idea that the “original sin” of breaking the world is carried as a taint by men (and not women) who wield The One Power and you have an intriguing, and perfectly plausible, juxtaposition of roles in a medieval setting. The influence of centuries of power (and Power) being placed in the hands of women tells on the society he has created and sets up some very interesting gender dynamics that he successfully (most of the time) navigates.

If you take away the anti-feminist hyperbole, and the strange (and somewhat troubling) assertion that you can never populate a medieval world with non-Caucasians, what Theo really seems to rail against–and rightly so–are shallow, “Mary Jane”, treatments of medieval societies that ignore the cultural contexts which shaped them.  And he’ll get no argument from me about that.

What it all boils down to is not “historical” accuracy. Frankly, to make that the primary concern places unnecessary constraints on the form. What is needed is the same thing that has always been needed in good writing: verisimilitude.

Good storytelling demands that the author create as plausible a world as possible around his or her characters. A plausible world “rings true” to the reader. It guides the characters in their thinking and their actions. It fuels the power of the story. History can serve as inspiration but it need not be the box into which the story must fit.

The only primacy for the fantasy author is that of Story.

About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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4 Responses to The Primacy of Story

  1. Clamps says:

    Black Gate is such a terrible site.

    • Shedrick says:

      I actually quite enjoy the site. They offer a wide variety of viewpoints and have several bloggers that I read regularly. I do tend to differ in opinion with Theo’s posts more often than not, but I can’t deny that those posts usually get my wheels turning.

  2. Shedrick says:

    Oh, I don’t know. If he tries to hide it, he doesn’t try very hard. I suspect it has more to do with keeping his various outlets separate.

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