I attended a panel at a Con not that long ago which was advertised as addressing the subject of ‘historical fantasy’. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Some of my gripes were quite legitimate – the manifestly poor preparation and the frequent off-topic digressions – regular blights upon many of the panels that are served up to the hapless punters these days. But it later struck me that I might have been a bit harsh in my judgement, in one area.
You see, I have a particular idea of what historical fantasy is, and my definition may well be narrower than that of most people. Let’s take a look.
I tend to limit my definition of historical fiction to fiction that is broadly based on known historical events, or on the life of an historical figure, even where details or subplots are made up.
If the story takes place in an historical time but the events and characters are mostly invented, then that to me is historical fantasy. The fantastical elements of the story, such as they are, are drawn from the historical period in question, whether they be mundane things, that seem fantastical to us today simply by dint of their very remove, or actual fantastic things, that put flesh on the folklore or legends of the period in question.
If a story takes place in an historical time period, but creates gates to other worlds, brooking an insurgency of aliens or robots, it’s not historical fantasy any more, irrespective of the time it is set in, it’s just fantasy. That’s my view at least. From which you can guess the flavour of supposed ‘historical fantasy’ central to the panel that I was grumbling about.
Naturally, in my own writings I adhere to my own definitions. I’d consider my stories set in the time of the Russian conquest of Siberia, featuring motifs like Zlata Baba – the Golden Woman of the Ugra, the fortress of Serponov, and Saint Basil of Mangazeya, to be historical fantasy, but others might disagree.
So what well-known works would I consider to be proper historical fantasy? Some examples would be Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace novels, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, and Men Went to Cattraeth, by John James, which to my mind, is probably the finest historical fantasy novel ever written.
Cattraeth is based on a mediaeval Welsh poem, the Gododdin of Aneirin, and contains the most brilliant twist regarding the ulterior motive behind sending the three hundred heroes to their doom. To me, it’s pure historical fantasy though I know some critics regard it simply as historical fiction. James wrote several other historical fantasies including the fabulous The Bridge of Sand, where a small Roman force, lost in Wales, is cut down, one man at a time, by the magic of druids, and the high concept Votan and its sequel Not for All the Gold in Ireland, both of which I hated (The American Gods style trope underpinning the stories didn’t gel with me).
The thing I really like about Mundy’s Tros books, is how Julius Caesar keeps popping up at critical moments to complicate everything: he’s the Joker to Tros’ Batman. It’s one of the best uses anywhere of a real historical cameo, in an invented story.
The Anubis Gates, is typical of the works of Tim Powers set in historical periods, in that it ratchets up the weirdness: On Stranger Tides and The Stress of Her Regard are other good examples of Powers’ style. What I particularly like about the first two, is Powers’ literal representation of the principals of sympathetic magic, as understood by the alchemists of eighteenth century England. By way of cameos, at the climax of Gates, there is a fine one from Samuel Taylor Coleridge who dismisses the monsters all around as phantoms brought on by an opium-induced bender. Gates of course also has an SF element to it as the protagonists travel back in time to the historical period in question, so it’s borderline historical fantasy, even by my own tenets, but then again, it features the poet William Ashbless, so I’ll forgive it almost anything.