On Historical Accuracy and Realism in Fantasy, with Daniel E. Olesen

Today we have D.E. Olesen, author of the Eagle’s Flight, here to talk to us a little bit about realism and the importance of historical accuracy in fantasy. How goes it, Daniel?

It’s been two weeks of blue skies and clear sunshine, which is almost unprecedented for Scandinavia, so I would say it goes very well – at least until the universe decides to punish us for it with a massive deluge or something.

Well if it does, consider it karma for all those viking raids on Scotland.

Anyway. Lets get right down do it and talk history. I hear you’re a bit of a history buff?

I prefer the term ‘history hoe’. It encapsulates the unhealthy relationship better.

You’ve mentioned to me in the past that you prefer a more realistic and historically accurate approach to fantasy: preferring to draw from history rather than creating something entirely new. Why is it that you favour this approach?

Let me first specify I prefer this approach for myself; I’m happy to read what others can invent out of thin air. But for me, this approach comes with many advantages. I already read all sorts of historical texts and works, so I might as well put that knowledge to use. It’s also a great source of inspiration; truth can often be stranger than fiction, and reading about actual events has given me many ideas that I’d never imagine otherwise. Lastly, for a genre such as fantasy, immersion, world-building, and suspension of disbelief are often key. By drawing heavily on facts and realism, you ground your fantasy to make the suspension much easier – and when the fantastic does appear, it may do so to greater effect.

So do you feel that by providing a more realistic “base” for your story, you can enhance the reader’s experience?

Yes, within the context that I am already creating a secondary world based on our own. If I were writing “Alice in Wonderland”, trying to keep it realistic would obviously be to its detriment. In this case, any realism and detail adds depth to my world. It helps the immersion and establishes the authority of the narrative voice. Nothing makes the reading experience deteriorate faster than starting to doubt whether the narrator has a complete grasp on their own setting; for instance, having someone thrust a sword straight through plate armour is a clear indication that the narrator does not understand how plate armour works. For me, the only reason to have my secondary world deviate from our world is due to necessity (e.g. geography must necessarily be different) or because it serves a purpose for the narrative, causing changes that allow for a more exciting story.

On that note, let’s talk weapons. If we’re keeping things historically accurate, what do you think are the common things fantasy novels and TV shows usually get wrong? What should they be doing?

Big topic, but I’ll try to be concise. Film and TV, being visual media, naturally focuses on that when it comes to warfare. So to some extent it’s an artistic choice, sacrificing realism for aesthetics. We see this in personal combat and on larger scale. Small fights, especially with swords, are often long, choreographed affairs with clashes and parries. Real fights would typically be shorter, less elegant and more brutal, and the swords wouldn’t constantly lock to allow for menacing glares (you want to avoid nicking your blade against the opponent’s). For battles, it’s a common enough trope that films have no idea how tactics work – again, often for the sake of providing a better spectacle. It’s just sending two masses of soldiers against each other in all-out, chaotic combat. In truth, armies generally fought in formations and ranks, side by side. Fighting in the kind of scattered way depicted on the screen would usually mean instant defeat. Lastly, my pet peeve is when a sword makes a hissing sound as it’s drawn; this indicates the blade is scraping against the scabbard, which would damage the edge. A scabbard is lined with leather or other soft material precisely to avoid this, and drawing a sword should not make any sound!

As for literature, the spear is rarely used as much as it was in reality, where it was by far the most common weapon. Swords were the weapon of the elite and/or trained warriors. Because of this they would have been more scarce than we imagine, but it’s also this aura that makes them so popular in fantasy. A sword is among the most difficult weapons to learn, so to be facetious, if the fantasy staple of the orphan farm boy with a sword played by realistic rules, he’d probably be killed in his first fight. Another thing is the idea that bows are weapons for those lacking physical strength (e.g. rogues or elves depicted as weaker than humans). Drawing a real bow takes enormous strength, not to mention being able to aim and hit anything. And my pet peeve for this category is when a bow is “fired”. That term is only used for gunpowder weapons, as that involves actual fire. Bows can only be shot!

If we consider this from an audience perspective — where the majority of folks are not experts and are familiar with the spectacle of TV and movie battles — do you think there’s a balance to be struck between realism and spectacle?

Definitely, and personally, I can easily enjoy examples of the above. A good sword fight, well executed, thrills me as much as any other. I can easily be smitten by a good tale of a young hero picking up his father’s sword to avenge his family, right the wrongs of the realm etc. If it’s necessary to make a choice between the two, which is often the case in TV and movies, I’d probably also advocate in favour of spectacle. There’s an Italian saying, “se non è vero, è ben trovato” – if it isn’t true, it’s well told. An entertaining lie is better than a boring truth when it comes to fiction. But I do think that often, it is not needed to make a choice. Realism can be kept and even incorporated into the plot, allowing for new stories to be told to surprise and grasp the reader. Imagine our young hero picking up his father’s sword from his father’s dead hand to face the killers – and promptly getting beaten to a pulp because he has no idea how to wield it.

That’s a great point, and I suppose it partly ties into the Grimdark craze of recent years: injecting some gritty realism, but still keeping some of the “flourishes” of storytelling. What are your thoughts on this darker side of realism? The side that deals with issues like needless death, and PTSD?

I think it can represent both a saturation and maturation of the genre, all depending on whether this darker approach actually serves the story or not. If it doesn’t, it simply becomes a gimmick, a race towards writing ever bleaker stories, achieving nothing but giving more and more readers nausea. If it does, it can open up the fantasy genre to exploring new themes. In a genre so focused on martial prowess and war, these can easily become glorified. I think it is healthy for fantasy to balance this tendency towards glorifying war with pointing out its cost, such as the casualties of armed conflict or the consequences for the survivors, PTSD among them. It has taken our society a long time to come to terms with understanding that PTSD even exists, but we’ve known about it since practically always. Shell shocked soldiers in ww1 is a good example, but we even have Assyrian tablets describing soldiers haunted by the ghosts of the battlefield, unable to sleep or find peace. While I do not consider my own writing particularly dark in nature, I try to include these realistic aspects too in my books; for instance, my knowledge of that Assyrian tablet stems from my research into occurrences and depictions of PTSD before modern society, letting me write characters that might suffer from this using terminology and concepts appropriate to my medieval setting.

On the subject of medieval warfare, it seems like this is an area where an author could draw on a lot of historical influences. Do you feel that a cursory study of historical battles, tactics, sieges, etc. can help to lend depth to an authors story?

I think an author has two options. Either exclude these elements from having any influence on the story; it may be related to events taking place in the background, such as battles or the development of a war, but keep it vague and only as catalysts for the actual plot, propelling characters to make decisions etc. Or have at least a basic understanding of the time period you are emulating in your writing, including warfare. This will both let you cater to those readers that do study history (and make up a certain portion of your potential readership), and as I mentioned earlier, it can give you great ideas. For instance, sieges were far less static affairs than we often imagine. The defenders would make sorties and raids on the besieging forces, and it could involve a great deal of diplomacy. It was not unusual for the two parties to agree on a date of surrender if no relief force had arrived before then. One example of this is the siege of Stirling Castle in 1314, where the English garrison agreed to surrender to the Scots if no relief had come at summer solstice. It was to avoid this and relieve the castle that an English army showed up and met the Scots at Bannockburn, and we both know how that turned out.

Yes. Yes we do.

Freedom

As a final discussion, how about those stories which draw influences from real-world cultures? If two cultures were separated by distance or time on Earth – lets use the Egyptians and the Aztecs as examples – do you think they should be similarly separated in fantasy? What are your thoughts on those books that “mix and match” their cultural influences?

I think it would be easiest to navigate for the author if such separate cultures were kept apart, but I also think it would be exciting to imagine them right next to each other. It could be fertile ground for imagining new ideas, characters and stories. The only caveat when drawing strongly on real cultures (and especially when making heavy alterations or combinations like you mention) is to approach them with respect. Nobody’s culture should ever be a gimmick or a cheap way to draw attention to your works. Always be meticulous in your research and fair in your portrayal of both peoples and cultures.

Thanks for your time, Daniel. If you don’t mind, could you tell us a little about your books and how someone could go about reading them?

I don’t mind at all. My approach is first and foremost to write stories set in a world – there’s no single protagonist or plot across my current book series. This does not mean they are unconnected. Rather, each book has a progression of stories, with characters that constantly cross paths as they pursue their individual goals; sometimes to mutual benefit, often leading to conflict. The setting is medieval, juggling a focus on the military and politics of the nobility (with inspiration from the Bretwalda of Anglo-Saxon society or the Danehof of Denmark) and the ordinary lives of soldiers, scribes, craftsmen, and so on. While I write lengthy books, this allows for reading in shorter bursts – for instance, the first book, The Eagle’s Flight, has a self-contained plot related to political intrigue and the succession of power spanning just the first six chapters. If you are the binge-reading type, however, you can continue straight on to the next stories, showing how the events and consequences of each preceding story affects the next. The first book is available in various formats for free at my site, http://www.annalsofadal.net.


Daniel E. Olesen is a Danish writer holding a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature. When not searching for inspiration in musty tomes, he travels around Europe looking for castles to explore and calling it research. His first novel, The Eagle’s Flight [www.annalsofadal.net], is available for free from his site, which also includes extensive background information on the setting of his stories. Other than writing fiction, he also writes a blog discussing literary theory, usually as it pertains to fantasy, and a blog series discussing the image of the hero in Western society, from mythology and up to modern times. Daniel is also a member of Sigil Independent, a guild of independent writers. 

Follow him on Facebook or Twitter to be updated on his writing or new blog posts on his website, www.annalsofadal.net.

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