Historical Fiction, #1
I was watching Shakespeare’s Henry V the other night (the Kenneth Branagh film version from 1989) and it got me thinking about historical fiction and why I write it. At least one of the reasons.
In debased eras like today’s you can’t speak with a straight face of such notions as honor or integrity (or just about any other quality of character that rises above the basest and most self-serving of human instincts). You have to express yourself ironically or with a certain bitter and self-distancing knowingness and despair. You certainly can’t put words into a contemporary character’s mouth that take seriously such notions as nobility or rectitude.
And yet we all crave such qualities. The need doesn’t go away just because the times have fallen.
How, today, can you and I write about such things? How do we even bring them up?
The only way I’ve found is to travel into the past (or into some speculative future.) Obi-wan Kenobi can offer certain wisdom or express lofty aspirations … or Yoda or Gandalf or Aragorn or Dumbeldore. I don’t know The Assassin’s Creed or games like it; perhaps there are characters in there who can offer such sentiments.
But no contemporary President or Prime Minister or head of state can.
When I wrote Gates of Fire and other books set in the ancient past, I adopted an archaic idiom. I did it deliberately because anything smacking of the contemporary vernacular, no matter how well executed, would fall flat or, worse, be howled at.
Shakespeare’s verses of course sound archaic to our modern ears. For all I know, they sounded archaic even in his times. But the great dramatist was reaching into the past too. Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt happened in 1415. Shakespeare’s play was produced (no one knows exactly) around 1600.
I wonder if Shakespeare was dealing with the same issue. Terrible crimes have been committed in our time against the English language. Idioms and rhythms of speech that can express notions of honor and fidelity have been debased and rendered impotent.
So … fiction.
Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. For me, Xenophon, Plato, Thucydides. And this bard, giving speech to Harry, from almost two hundred years later than his true hour of fame:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.