Types of historical fiction

I'm at the Historical Fictions Research Network conference this weekend, presenting with Tony Keen on our ongoing project looking at screen representations of Roman Britain. While sitting here listening to very interesting papers and wishing I wasn't going to miss the panel on counter-factual history, I got to thinking about the distinct types of historical fiction and how they relate to each other.

Defining what historical fiction is probably seems like a pretty simple job - it's fiction set in the past. But several of the works being discussed at the conference aren't technically historical fiction, but science fiction. Alternative history stories draw on history but are set in alternative worlds where things turned out differently, like The Man in the High Castle, set in a north America where Germany and Japan won World War Two. Another SFF form of historical fiction becoming popular is retellings of real events with fantasy elements added, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I wonder if there's another category that should be included under 'historical fiction' as well. In our project on representations of Roman Britain we'll be thinking, however briefly, about the Wall in Game of Thrones. I'm also looking at a new project on Classical reception in the works of Terry Pratchett, and have been discussing whether the Discworld novels set for a substantial section in a fantasy version of an ancient world (primarily Pyramids, and to a lesser extent, Small Gods, parts of Eric, and The Last Hero) belong in a different category to the Classical references found more generally in Pratchett's work. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series behind Game of Thrones) presents a pseudo-medieval world rooted in real medieval practices and including events, most notoriously the Red Wedding, based on real medieval incidents. These are works set in a secondary fantasy world, but clearly drawing on specific periods of real history. (We could even throw in pseudo-medieval retellings of the stories of King Arthur based on medieval literature rather than Anglo-Saxon history, though that's something else again). Aren't these also forms of historical fiction?

This ties in to our understanding of ancient literature as well. I have often pointed out to students that the Homeric poems are works of historical literature, though they are clearly also what would in modern terms be fantasy (I am sure the Greeks did not regularly encounter talking horses or battle rivers). For the most part, these of the type that puts fantasy elements into historical events, though the ancient definition of 'historical events' (e.g. the Trojan War) is a bit different from the modern one! Secondary world fantasy and portal fantasy are rather rare in Greco-Roman literature, perhaps because real world fiction so often included fantasy elements, though underworld narratives might be considered an exception there. 

The biggest advantage of writing secondary world fantasy inspired by history rather than historical fiction with fantasy in it, of course, is that the author is released from any need for historical accuracy. All historical fiction takes liberties with history, but in this century, there is an expectation that it will be reasonably, largely, accurate to the current interpretation of what happened (this was not the case when either the ancients or Shakespeare were writing, of course!). I think Martin has actually discussed this though I can't remember where - but writing fantasy inspired by history gives the author so much more freedom to ignore potential objections from modern readers who are inclined to complain about inaccuracies in historical fiction. It also, of course, introduces doubt as to the outcome and allows the author to surprise the reader with events like the aforementioned Red Wedding.

In terms of reception, the clearest difference between these and more traditional historical fiction is that people are less likely to learn all they know about a period of history from these stories (though it might still happen!). But in terms of the way the author uses their material, they clearly exist in the same general sphere. And even audience/reader reception may be similar in some ways, for although the events may be different, where aspects of an historical culture are clearly represented, something of that representation is bound to stick in the reader's mind and colour their idea of that historical period.

This isn't a comprehensive summary of types of historical fiction, and one step further on from historically inspired fantasy must be historically inspired secondary world computer games like the Fable series, though the 'history' might become increasingly set dressing more than anything else in those cases. But it is perhaps a neglected area in research on historical fiction which, if it embraces alternative history (which is, essentially, secondary world fantasy or science fiction) should surely embrace historically inspired secondary world fantasy as well.


  1. Another subgenre you might want to consider is what is commonly called "secret history". It's very similar to things like Strange & Norrell, but rather than adding magic or dragons to the Napoleonic Era, for example, it takes history exactly as we know it, and supposes a supernatural, extraterrestrial, or conspiratorial reason for the way things turned out. Witches backing up the RAF in the Battle of Britain, say. Tim Powers writes a lot of these. Jealous psychic vampires inspiring and feeding off of the Romantic poets and later the Rossettis, or the role of the supernatural in the strange career of notorious spy Kim Philby.

  2. Good point! I'm not familiar with many examples, but it's a really interesting area - like the vampire Nazis in True Blood, but more complex?

    1. I'm afraid I don't know enough about True Blood to say one way or the other. The examples at Wikipedia are mostly crap and I'm having trouble coming up with good examples besides the ones I mentioned before. The various Assassin's Creed games come pretty close, where things like the American Revolution or the plot against the Medicis are actually part of the millenia long struggle between the Assassins and the Templars. Basically, any story where the dates and major events are as the history you know records them, but there were other things going on in the background that are the real reason things turned out as they did. You could have a supernatural reason for Caesar's famous luck (or his loss of it) or some piece of alien technology that let the Spartans hold Thermopylae for as long as they did.

    2. Of course, there are mundane examples, too. The Flashman books, for example, where so many of the big events of the 19th century are actually the result of Flashy seducing women or nearly wetting himself in terror on the battlefield. And just today I saw mention of a new novel where the premise is that Barbarossa didn't drown in Turkey, but rather his guards concocted that story to cover up their screw up that got him killed.

  3. There's the Shaara books of historical fiction, where it's done in novel format, and while the author can work their own dialogue or interpretation of character in, they're also keeping to history and fact. The father started with The Killer Angels, which viewed the American Civil War battle at Gettysburg through the eyes of some of its commanders. His son followed years later with other books telling military history in novel format.

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