Guy Gavriel Kay and the Ethics of Historical Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay and the Ethics of Historical Fiction

Recently Darwin Catholic had a very good post about the ethics of historical fiction prompted by the movie Amadeus and the problems with historical fiction that intentionally gives readers a false vision of real people or events.

Of course, any fiction is “not true” in some sense, definitionally. And an author who is writing about real historical characters or events will necessarily fictionalize: Combine people, arrange meetings that didn’t take place, make up details that aren’t known. None of these bother me in the least.

I think what it is that bothers me is when an author takes a historical person or event and intentionally represents it differently than it was in order to write some other story or convey some other point—using the established cultural meaning of a real person or event to lend color to his fiction.

Historical fiction has a fair amount of power. We often remember characters from books and movies better than we do anything we read in a history book. As such, it strikes me a problematic when historical events are treated as cultural short hand for some big idea rather than being portrayed in human terms.

And that, I the end, strikes me as the danger with knowingly inaccurate historical fiction, it runs the risk of obscuring from us the real human events and dramas that people experienced in the past. And when we don’t know what really happened in the past, in a certain sense, we no longer know who we are or how we got here.

I think Darwin’s analysis is sound about the danger of deliberately inaccurate historical fiction.

I was struck by the quote he pulled from an interview with Mark Helprin:

Mark Helprin does not let too much of the outside world into his fiction—certainly not impersonal facts. “Research kills a book. It makes a book like a historical romance,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle. “An Italian who fought in the First World War or was a historian of the period” who reads his novel, “A Soldier of the Great War,” “would probably become apoplectic,” Mr. Helprin said.

It’s an interesting contrast to the approach of one of my favorite novelists, Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay’s novels are perhaps best categorized as historical fantasy. With the exception of his first trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, which is high fantasy in which characters from our world travel to a magical realm similar to the Pevensies traveling to Narnia, Kay’s books are set in magical worlds that are clearly not our world—often they are marked by having an extra moon, and usually there are magical creatures and other indicators to create an otherworldly setting. And yet his worlds have clear historical parallels. Tigana is set in a world that is very like Renaissance Italy, A Song for Arbonne is set in a parallel Medieval Provence, The Sarantine Mosaic is Byzantium, and Under Heaven is Tang Dynasty China.

Kay is kind of the anti-Helprin. He does extensive research on his target milieu, but doesn’t let the liberties he takes become a stumbling block to the reader. Kay has neatly avoided the ethical conundrum by making it clear that however strong the parallels, his novels are fantasy and not history. And the fantasy setting gives him the leisure to play with history in a whimsical way, cleaving as close to his source material as he likes and straying from it where it makes a better story. Some of his characters have clear historical parallels: El Cid, Justinian and Theodora, Alfred the Great. But Kay doesn’t have an obligation to be accurate and so his portraits are free to reimagine history.

This freedom, incidentally, allows Kay to explore religious themes in ways that are new and fresh. The three religions he creates for The Lions of Al Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, and he Last Light of the Sun are clear parallels to the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; but because they are not the same, Kay is able to look at things in a new and fresh way.

Anyway, I guess this wasn’t a full-fledged post. Just a little nod to Darwin and Kay, a little tangent I wanted to follow that seemed a bit much for Darwin’s comments.

I do have this ambition to write a series of blog posts about Kay’s works. Do some close reading, explore some themes. A different kind of extensive blogging project.  Something like what Literacy Chic is doing for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books. Who knows someday it may even happen. Though in the comments to my Billy Collins post Manny reminds me about how remiss I have been about my Waste Land project. Guess I should get back online with that before I go hounding after a new thing, huh?



Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.