Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 4


4). The last category of Heroic Fantasy that I’ll discuss in detail is the Heroic Historical. The story here is about a somewhat larger than life hero who exists within a recognizable period of history, such as the Greek, the Roman, or the Viking period. The main character is usually (though not always) fictional, but the historical period is generally drawn with accuracy. In other words, you will usually not see anachronisms and will not be asked to accept the common existence of phenomena that violate what we know of the history and physical laws of Earth. For example, there won't regularly be flying dragons, flying galleons, flying horses, or flying humans. (My borrowed illustration this time is another Frazetta, showing a recognizable Knight.)

Supernatural forces sometimes play a small part in Heroic Historicals, but nothing like in Sword & Sorcery or High Fantasy. The setting is Earth during a recognizable historical period, so magic is not going to be a mainstay.

Heroic Historical is a very broad field that often crosses and blurs typical genre lines. That means it’s much harder to determine the basic “rules” of the genre, as I’ve done with the other three subtypes of Heroic Fantasy. Make the setting conform generally to the Earth we know, depict the time period accurately, and feature heroes with swords and similar weapons. That’s it.

The Iliad and The Odyssey are probably best classified as Heroic Historicals, although they reflect the beliefs of their time and certainly allow for more “fantastic” actions than would be acceptable in the modern genre. Ivanhoe is a much later example of this kind of story, and closer to the modern form. I’ve read all the way from Heroic Historical mysteries to Heroic Historical romances. The first supposedly “romance” book I ever read was The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Definitely an Heroic Historical.

Robert E. Howard wrote this kind of fantasy on occasion, and once said he preferred it to any other type of writing. His collection called The Sowers of the Thunder gives us four of these stories, and is actually my favorite of Howard’s works. My next favorite writer in this genre is Poul Anderson. He wrote several books set in Viking times and featuring actual historical figures, including Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and the Last Viking series about Harald Hardrede. He has several other books set in the Roman period.

Kenneth Bulmer, who I’ve mentioned before in this series of posts, wrote Heroic Historicals under the names Neil Langholm and Andrew Quiller. Another enjoyable series is the “Falcon” books by Mark Ramsay. The most popular modern writer of this kind of book is probably Bernard Cornwell.

Many other well loved classics might be fitted under the Heroic Historical umbrella. The Three Musketeers perhaps. Captain Blood. Richard Adams’ Shardik. There are also Heroic Historicals written about cultures other than the European one, but I’ve not read many of those so I can’t speak confidently about them.

Although I enjoy reading them, I’ve never written a true Heroic Historical. It could be that I don’t have the discipline to do the research, but I prefer to think it’s because I like to play around with the kind of fantastic elements that historical fiction doesn’t really allow for, such as flying mounts and flying battleships, and sorcery. The closest I’ve come to an Heroic Historical is the story “Sundered Man,” from Bitter Steel. Here’s a piece of that story which reflects that kind of quality.

“The heroes rode four abreast through the open portcullis of the castle and dismounted in the narrow courtyard. They were dressed in plate armor of polished steel, with helms that hid their faces but which bore the crests of famous families. Their bronzen shields had been ground to a high shine, but by this time the sun was well down and the shields did not burn so brightly as before. By this time, also, Kellan was on the rampart above the heroes, crouched in shadow behind the crenalated wall where he could not be seen.”

NOTE: There'll be one more post in this series, in two days. It'll close out the discussion.
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22 comments:

ivan said...

I tried to do some real research on this by registering in a Classic course at Toronto U.
Durn. I nearly failed the course-- but I've got to hand it to old Homer for writing--I suppose-- the first uh, heroic non-fantasy.
I was especially taken by phrases like "wine-dark sea" and the image of Hector's baby boy being frightened by the large plume atop his armored father's helmet as he set off for battle.
When I finished the course, I went back to my editor boasting that I had taken a Classics course to bolster my research in writing.

Editors were sort- of combative then. Certainly one who felt my writing was less than stellar.

"Did the course make you write any better?"

...I think he had me there.
Head full of facts and great ambition and desire.
But when it came to writing my
Heroic Fantasy, all that came out was white paper.
So I finally resorted to autobiography about a mad scientist gone over the hill, living in a Mexican hovel with his cleaning maid, drinking, thinking, fornicating.
This was surely not Heroic Fantasy,
and I'm sure old blind Homer was not grist for his own mill.

But in the language of the day, "You gotta do what ya gotta do."
How else can you put 50.000 words together short of plagiarizing the classics?
Editor had said, "Win the degree and f*ck up the book."

Not such a hot writer, but bigod, I told him, I'm erudite.
My editor came from Cabbagetown in Toronto, long before the yuppies moved in, so I was not surprised by his retort.

"More like Morphodite."

Damn, this used to be a tough business.

sage said...

Okay, now I want to know what Kellan was doing hiding in your excerpt! Good writing and interesting definitions

Travis Cody said...

I love to read this kind of story, but writing it is something completely different. A writer can get away with making something up in another type of fantasy, but the close comparisons to reality of historical fantasy are what makes the story believable and enjoyable. And that takes a lot more patience to get right.

A favorite writer of mine in historical fantasy is Katherine Kurtz. Her Deryni series portrays life in a recognizable medieval Great Britain, ruled by a king and nobility, dominated by church influence. There are magical elements within the story, as that is what distinguishes the Deryni as a separate race from normal humans. The over-riding theme is discrimination against that which is different and difficult to understand.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Your descriptions of each category have been fascinating and informative - thank you!

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, I really love the Fitzgerald translation of Homer. I still have sections of that translation memorized. So lovely. But yeah, gotta write what one has to use.

Sage, he's about to try to kill some heroes. For one!

Travis Cody, some high fantasy and Heroic Historical overlap pretty strongly. I have the Deryni books but have not read them yet.

Alex, thanks, I'm glad you've enjoyed.

BStearns said...

Thanks for this great series of posts' Charles, they were grand. I haven't read much Heroic Historical but really want to add some of it to my reading list. A question about it though. Can Heroic Historical have some elements of the supernatural in it? I can think of many times where ancient cultures feature magic and such, or does this more-so count as a cross genre? Thanks Charles!

-Bryan
sff-hub.blogspot.com

Bernita said...

The Horatio Hornblower series would also be heroic fantasy?
Do you think Beowulf?

I suppose the "alternate history" fantasies help blur the definition as well.

I like your brief (too brief!) excerpt.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bryan, I think Heroic Historical can have some magic, as long as the story doesn't hinge on it, as is generally the case with sword and sorcery and High fantasy. People in the past certainly did believe in magic so and the gods, so to have them do so in a fiction book is only realistic.

Bernita, Beowulf for sure. As for Horatio, I tend to take off the fantasy label when we get close enough to our own time so that gunpowder is the major source of weaponery. But his stories have many of the characteritics for sure.

laughingwolf said...

so far, i use the same excuse: no time to do the detailed study of the historical time, so i like to create my own ;)

David J. West said...

I love Heroic Historical and while research is a part of it-I still think story is king and can overshadow the details/research-long as you don't get too anachronistic of course.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, it works for me!

David J. West, there is quite a bit of room for playing around with history. I don't think most readers mind if some liberties are taken, as long as you don't have blatant anachronisms.

Cloudia said...

you are an excellent teacher, Charles

BernardL said...

Another stellar edition to your fantasy posts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, thankee.

Bernardl, I appreciate that.

Steve Malley said...

I'm just catching up with these, can't believe how much I've been missing out! GREAT series of posts!!

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, thanks. It's nice to have some time to focus on doing decent stuff instead of dashing off a post in between grading.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent. This is probably my fave kind of fantasy, probably because I dig history generally. But it's all good when well-written!

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, yes, the writing can make all the difference for sure.

Heff said...

I had no idea this stuff is categorized to such detail !

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I'm being fairly specific but there are others who are even, dare I say it, more anal than I am about it. It's like the subgenres in Metal these days. There's death, and black, and thrash, and half a dozen others. I just call 'em all metal.

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, thanks for this great series of posts.

Also, for fans of Heroic Historical writing and similar genres, Harold Lamb had some pretty solid books on historical action fiction written mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, making him a contemporary of Howard and plenty of other weird writers. I don't remember Lamb ever delving into speculative fiction himself, but he could write a decent historical action novel without making it feel like a textbook.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, good point. I've read a couple of Lambs works and enjoyed them. Definitely verging on the historical fantasy field I'd say.