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Dominique Nightingale, Fantastic History or Historical Fantasy


I was nine when I fell under the spell of Homer’s Iliad. I can still remember Hector’s last prayer to Achilles: “I beg you, by your life, by your knees, by your parents, do not let dogs devour me beside the Achaean ships...” Most of my reading since -and indeed writing-, has been an attempt to recreate that first coup de foudre. Just as we may seek our first love again and again -we have a type of lover, so I had found my type of book. I had no idea then that it combined two different genres. “Hector of the shining helmet” belonged to a flamboyant world of gods and warriors, far away from mine. Fantasy, you might say. But there was a real city, a real war of Troy. It was history too. Even now when they have long separated, both genres give me the same feeling of strangeness, the thrill of the exotic, something out of our direct experience, that is. And perhaps more compelling than all, I get with them a tangible sensation of time opening out, the way space opens out in science-fiction.

“Once upon a time”, this is the ritualistic way we go off in fantasy. Although it is precisely dated, the world of history is nothing like the world we see immediately around us either. It is the opposite of a TV soap, mercifully free of jeans, second hand cars and neighbours’ gossip. It escapes, if it’s successful, the horrid triviality of everyday life. It is for all those who share with Walter Scott the feeling that “life could not be endured if it were seen in reality”. Be it “east of the moon, west of the sun”, or simply east or west a long time ago, what both fantasy and historical fiction give us, is the story of a distant unfamiliar land.

Take two classics of the genres: Tolkien’s Hobbit and Robert Graves’ Claudius. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” That’s it. A weird made up name, and we know we are into the favourite territory of fantasy, the unexpected. But then equally with “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other...” The unusual ring of imperial speech is surprising enough. But the last thing we expect , once we are in ancient Rome, is a man like us suddenly stepping out of the period costume with the familiar sounding: “This-that-and-the-other “. Familiarity itself has become odd.

Distance-closeness: It is an ambiguity we enjoy as much in fantasy as in historical fiction. Fantasy is the natural habitat of the hybrid: the human/animal hobbit, the god Monkey, the semi-divine Greek hero. In history too, a Roman emperor can be as homely as “Clau-Clau” or “poor uncle Claudius”. But we never want to forget he is alien, someone who consults the sybil in a cliff cavern, offers a sacrifice to the memory of his father, and whose first day at the theatre means witnessing the death of at least four gladiators. He is after all “Claudius the god”.

Although both off the beaten track, the worlds of fantasy and history obey different rules. In fantasy, the writer’s imagination is the limit. Wizards, elves, talking dragons, everything is possible -or is it? To grab us, fantasy has to make us believe. And we tend to believe what we have already seen, or at least heard about. Tolkien’s creatures are part of our heritage. Even in the most futuristic fantasies, as in Jack Vance, we have an impression of deja vu. But it’s not enough. In order to seduce us, the best fantasies have to make sense. We have to want to believe. There is an inner logic, an emotional truth which leads us all the way from The Hobbit to the end of the Rings, through an alternative world where magic seems the most direct way to express hopes and fears.

The very act of conjuring up the ghosts of our past is magic enough in itself. But with historical novels, we have to believe. This is representation of reality. We feel justified in gasping at the most ludicrous adventures, the most bizarre monsters. If they often seem impossible -and who could believe an invented Caligula?-, they are nevertheless true, or near enough the truth. The peculiar thrill of history is that we can find a reality wilder than our wildest dreams. Indeed, to feel Flaubert’s frisson historique, we need to be out of our depth, on the grand canvas of world shattering events, under the shadow of the great and powerful.

What Tolkien reinvents with Sauron and Shelob, Robert Graves reconstructs with Tiberius and Livia. In both cases, we enter a place that dwarfs us, as it does their heroes, Claudius the anti-emperor, and his fantasy lookalike Bilbo, the anti-adventurer. Being misfits, they are ridiculous. “I feel magnificent” he(Bilbo) thought, “but I expect I look rather absurd. How they would laugh on the Hill at home”. And when Claudius meets his first love, Camilla: “I’m supposed to be an utter fool and the more I read, the more of a fool they think me... You’re the first one I have met who hasn’t laughed at me.” Both are casting an utterly sane look on an insane world. The forests of the hobbit go on for ever, caves are deeper, doors greater, nights darker than normal, spiders are gigantic. But Claudius’s Rome too has a threatening, quasi-mystical presence, where things, as Tolkien would say, “are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome”. It’s a Rome full of night ambush and daylight games, triumphs and processions, poison and sword-fights, fire and famine. It’s the City with a capital C, not only a powerful physical presence, but “the glory of Rome”, a force that drives and dominates all.

Rome the eternal city, Middle Earth reminiscent of our past, these are not just big worlds echoing each other. They are chaotic places within which the borders of history and fantasy often vanish. “So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible.” Wars are the apocalyptic backcloth of dragons, orcs and elves, the same black background against which kings and queens are silhouetted. For a reluctant emperor, “there were no moments of tranquillity”. It is conflict which haunts us, the gruesome combat of good and evil. In this, Tolkien’s final battle, underpinned by his vision of the first world war, may seem to us more frighteningly real than Claudius’ invasion of Britain. When it comes to heroes and villains, the emotional truth of fantasy continuously merges with the historical one. “Poison is queen”, what could apply to Snow-White’s stepmother, refers to Augustus' wife, Livia, or rather fantastically, to a painting of Livia’s face done one hundred years before Livia. “Livia was unique in setting no limit to her(..ambition)”. Most inhabitants of fantasy and history are there indeed because they are set out of our limits, in an extra dimension of humanity. They are unique, and yet we often recognize them as archetypes who resurface throughout time. Just as ubiquitous as the poisonous queen, the warrior queen passes from Boudicca to TV fantasy star Xena, through many incarnations. Like Gandalf, they seem to unfold and grow to superhuman stature. They scare us out of our wits. They give us that dizzy feeling of an outer time in which they live, as there is an outer space -they have all become surreal. It is the closest we get to a sense of eternity.

From “I Claudius” to “Claudius the god”, the deification of humanity -together with its demonization- is an exercize common to fantasy and history. Each period however, reshapes its gods. After the epic, the heroic, the romantic, we are, it seems, in a realist mood, where historical fiction and fantasy stand resolutely apart. But their divide is not necessarily so clear in our minds. I had the eerie experience recently, reading Norwich’s Byzantium for the first time, to find in the Lombard princess Sishelgaita’s single-handed charge against the Byzantine Varangian Guard an almost exact replica of my own fantasy queen Cheon of Weltanland’s heroic stand against the Namzen armies.What fascinates me even more is to see such crossline between dream and reality stirring afresh a new generation. My ten-year old son who typically has to be extracted from the computer by minor surgery and tied down to a book, couldn’t put The Hobbit down. He found the myth of Medusa more entrancing than Goosebumps, and a Tudor day at school as exciting as a Warhammer battle. His favourite computer game has now gone from fantasy “Command and Conquer” to historical “Colonization”. It seems to me that our history and fantasies, which have been fabulously intertwined since we sat around our fires at the cave mouth, will continue to be so via virtual reality and beyond, for yet a long time to come.

Published in Solander, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society. Dominique Nightingale's first book, a fantasy for children was published in 1978, in France. She has had another fantasy published in the US, Cheon of Weltanland. She's currently planning a historical novel set in the Ottoman Empire.

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