False History, Real Power
I’ve always loved history; the story of our species’ activities, decisions and beliefs over the vast span of time and continent is riveting, compelling, and wonderful to know. Understanding history is essential to understanding art, literature, culture, and human beings in general. No artist, in my opinion, can be ignorant of history and successfully depict human societies in any real or convincing way. This is as true of the science fiction and fantasy author as it is of anyone else, perhaps more so, as they must frequently invent new history that, in their world, serves all the same functions as real history does in ours.
Few understand this or use it better than Tolkien. When Rohan rides to help Gondor, it’s a nice story; if you know of the relationship between Rohan and Gondor, their shared history, and their challenges, it becomes an even better story. If you know that Aragorn is the heir to Isildur, that’s fine; if you understand the significance of Aragorn as the last of a thinning bloodline that traces all the way back to the doomed kingdom of Numenor, the pathos of his duty and quest becomes that much more powerful. The Silmarilion, while not a read for everyone, establishes a mythic and historic baseline that colors the whole of Middle Earth; it has resonance in every song the elves sing, in every major conflict that develops, and in every cultural behavior of every people in that world. Even if you haven’t and don’t plan to learn about the history of Middle Earth, you are experiencing its power from the moment Thorin and company sing “Far Over Misty Mountains.”
For the rest of us writing fantasy or science fiction, we can take a lesson from Tolkien that is important to remember: Your world should be bigger than what happens on the pages. Just like you should know your characters like they’re real people, you should also know the history of your setting. All of this falls under David Eddings famous quote about writing 1000 pages about a world before you can write a story set there. This sounds like work, and it is, but if you’re a lover of history, it’s great fun, too. It’s an instance where you can take your understanding of history and try to apply some of those same concepts or, if you like, mess with them. It’s the most thorough kind of ‘what-if’ building you can do.
Take, for instance, the existence and study of magic – elemental forces contained within the fingertips of a special few. How does that change the course of history? What kinds of things does it result in or not result in? What kind of world is one where magic exists? I consider this pretty closely in my world of Alandar, which grows and changes with each passing year as I continue to flesh it out and establish its history. In The Iron Ring, my first novel set in the world, we visit the world almost three decades after the ages-long prohibition of free sorcerous study began to be relaxed. What was once a medieval world of simple people ruled over by the magical elite is beginning to shift. A middle class is being born. Sorcery is being used by the common people with greater frequency. Businessmen and entrepreneurs are taking the once-restricted arts of alchemy and thaumaturgy to new heights, a Reniassance of sorts is developing, and all of it goes back to a war. In this war there were pivotal historic figures (Landar Marik the Holy, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner, the Mad Prince Banric Sahand), famous battles (Atrisia, the Sack of Tasis, the Siege of Calassa), and events of contention still debated into the modern day (Who really killed Perwynnon? Why did Landar Marik abdicate? Did Banric Sahand really sign the Treaty of Calassa?). This, I hope, should give my world a sense of presence, of legitimacy, and of gravity. It lets me understand my characters better, and hopefully lets the readers understand them better, too.
The trick is, of course, finding a way to tell them about all this without boring them to tears. Some people, as you know, don’t really like history all that much. That, of course, is the ultimate challenge of the fantasist – to bring someone into a world without barraging them with facts like they’re studying for an exam. It is a challenge I believe I have done well at, but I could always do better. For inspiration, I need only gaze at the great world-builders: Tolkien, Martin, Herbert, Jordan. They are the framers of my own personal history, the teachers of myth that shaped my own understanding of the art, and beside whom I hope one day to be mentioned without sarcasm or irony.
Posted on December 14, 2012, in Alandar, and Random Thoughts, Critiques, Theories and tagged Alandar, fantasy, history, Middle Earth, The Oldest Trick, Tolkien, world building, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.