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.