Friday, August 18, 2017

The Importance of Historical Novels

Today I’m delighted to welcome Octavia Randolph—the author of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga, now six bestselling volumes and counting—who in her guest post discusses the role of the Scandinavians in what is now the United Kingdom (and the fight against them) while exploring the deeper relevance of historical fiction as a whole. 

Take it away, Octavia! And don’t forget to read down to the end of the page, where I tell you how to find out more about Octavia and her books.

The title above is a mildly provocative statement. But those amongst us who enjoy reading (and writing) historical fiction believe that good examples of the genre do far more than entertain. Well-written historical fiction can hand us a telescope to peer back into our own or another culture’s past. In a day when world history is given short shrift by many school systems, reading Dumas’ The Three Musketeers may be the only way to glimpse the dizzying complexity of seventeenth-century French political and social intrigue. Carefully researched historical fiction can educate and, even more excitingly, provoke speculation through original conclusions to historical puzzles. In Mary Renault’s brilliant The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea, she takes the classical hero Theseus and presents a wholly believable character whose strengths and flaws allow us to understand and even anticipate the heretofore inexplicable aspects of his behavior. His abandonment of the princess Ariadne on the island of Naxos is transformed from the disgraceful act of an ingrate (she has after all, helped him to triumph over the minotaur—in Renault’s book, a man, not man/beast) to an utterly correct and necessary action allowing both Theseus and Ariadne to come to their fullest potential.

Another way we know historical fiction is important is the firestorm of controversy it sometimes elicits. Isn’t there something remarkable about the fact that seventy years after it was written Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was still powerful enough to provoke a response such as Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone? Described by its author as an “antidote,” The Wind Done Gone is a retelling of Mitchell’s story, using many of the same characters—Art imitating Art.

Let’s turn now from the broad canvas to the intimate personal narrative, such as Jane Mendelsohn’s I Was Amelia Earhart. This slender book takes us inside the aviator’s mind, up to and including her experiences on the South Sea island where she and navigator Fred Noonan make their way after ditching their plane. With sensitivity and deftness it allows the reader imagined access into Earhart’s thoughts, and provides a form of emotional closure to the mystery of her disappearance. As in Renault’s books, solutions to unanswerable questions have been proposed, and the reader in encountering these solutions and examining their ramifications may find previously opaque eras or personalities resolving into sharp and even indelible focus.

My own fiction deals with a time seemingly far removed from our own. Late ninth-century Britain was largely composed of competing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms—people who knew Christianity, enjoyed good ale, composed epic poetry, and forged wondrous weapons and jewelry. Suddenly, and with increasing frequency, marauding heathen seafarers from first Norway and then Denmark began decades of terrifyingly violent predation upon the mostly agrarian Anglo-Saxons. Most of the predation was carried out by a people the Anglo-Saxons called Danes—they were in fact from the same areas of modern Northern Germany and Denmark that the Angles and Saxons had come from a few hundred years earlier. That is very meaningful to me as a novelist, that connection; and the ability to see in repeating cycles of invasion a mirrored view of one’s own history.

The Vikings originally wanted treasure, but later they also wanted something more precious—land. They wished to settle and live in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms they had toppled. Decades of warfare, appeasement, negotiation, and intermarriage of Saxons and Danes ensued. A new nation was slowly being forged—a process that, as we know from world history, is rarely comfortable for its participants. The examination of conflicting values, divided loyalties, and the thrust of opposing religious beliefs and practices are timeless and universal human themes and make a rich ground for the novelist’s imagination.

Original source material augments and fires that imagination. The primary document of the period is an invaluable record known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was begun in King Alfred’s (849–899) time and documents the known history of the nation year by year from the year one. It was continued right up to the twelfth century. We have in a precious single manuscript the saga Beowulf, which tells us much of Anglo-Saxon mores, warrior life, the roles of women, and much more. We have physical evidence—artifacts such as the magnificent Sutton Hoo Treasure, the burial goods of King Redwald, who died about 625. We have other grave finds from many Anglo-Saxon burial grounds and occasional finds such as weapons retrieved from rivers and bogs.

I’m also a great believer in looking at the artifacts and landscapes of the era whenever possible. Studying one beautiful brooch or fragment of embroidery or a pattern-welded sword or a cluster of clay loom weights in person conveys information and spurs the imagination in a way that no amount of looking at photos can.

And this is where, in the combination of reading and looking, you can make the informed imagining that is perhaps not documented but is more than likely. For instance, we know that in both pagan, that is earlier, Anglo-Saxon society and Viking society, the tribal leader—who was always a war chief—also served as a religious medium between his people and the gods, served as a priest in ceremonies and sacrifices. Sometimes sacrifices to ensure good harvest or success in battle would entail the sacrifice of animals and possibly even humans. That’s what we know. What we can see are finds of spear points, seaxes, swords, helmets, and other war gear—all tremendously valuable, precious even—which have been purposely bent or broken or otherwise rendered unusable, then deposited either into rivers or in shallow pits dug in bogs. This is where the informed imagining comes into play: these may be weapons that were sacrificed as thank-offerings for victory or weapons that have been “punished” for failing their owners. In historical fiction we have the luxury of drawing these sorts of conclusions, which is one of the reasons I prefer writing fiction to writing history.

This brings me to the unasked question: why do we write historical fiction? I mean, it’s set in history; we know how it turned out! The task is to show the utter inevitability of what happened, as in the books of Mary Renault, or how it almost did not happen or that it actually happened differently and the story has been altered either deliberately or through accretion over the years, such as Donna Cross’s Pope Joan, about a ninth-century female pope. History, as has been famously noted, is written by the victors. And in the form of historical fiction, which is sometimes referred to as “mirror history,” it can show an alternate history—as in a book built on the premise of what if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo.

But the real point is that even if you are writing about a time period or actor very well known, there is always deeper questions to be answered: the “understory.” The understory in The Circle of Ceridwen is: Who is My Enemy?

For more about the understory, see my “The Story within the Story.” And don’t forget to check out Octavia and her books at Many thanks, Octavia, for this fascinating discussion!


  1. Absolutely loved the article.
    I write historical fantasy novels, so you may imagine that I fully agree with you that there is always space, even in history, for more questions and possibly more (diverse) anwers.

    I do believe that history can teach us a lot about ourselves. Because sadly history seems indeed to repeat itself and if we pay attention, we will see what she's telling us. That's why I think that when we write historical fiction (even in my case, where fantasy is important) we should try to be as accurate as possible. It always pays off, in my experience.

    I mean, I was reading your paragraph about the Dane ivasion of Great Britain and I had no doubt about the connection with our experience of today.

    Thanks so very much for sharing this. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. Thank you for you kind and well-reasoned remarks, Sarah! Fiction is indeed a tremendous tool in helping us explore our past - and imagine how things might have turned out differently..!


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