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.
I want to believe that, debased as the present era may feel, words and deeds of nobility and integrity can come from characters set in the present day. If heroes don’t present themselves in person, maybe it’s our duty to create them, to let them speak so people don’t forget the humanity we’re capable of.
I’ve got to hope that stories serve not only as entertainment or social criticism, but as templates for an alternate present, or alternate future. I was trying to think what writer had expressed this view. I know I’ve seen several iterations, but on a search, it was Ursula Le Guin who came up first:
“[Stories] let you think through an alternative without actually having to do it. Which, I think, is really one of the functions of all fiction – to let you live other lives and see what they’re like. It widens the soul.”
On language: the archaic vernacular is something that I’ve admired greatly in Gates, Virtues, Afghan, Amazons, and the others set in our past. Enough to let me know I’m not in the present day, but not so much as to make a reader read the sentence twice. The sound of it is just right.
On Shakespeare: While he’s not a stage actor, I’ve always thought Carwood Lipton’s quoting of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech was most powerful, here in this documentary about HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” Portrayed in the miniseries by Donnie Wahlberg, this rendition is from a man, Lipton, who isn’t just reading it off a page, but who has lived it.
Damn Joe, had me all misty-eyed in public. What an incredible group of men.
Lipton’s reading, then the anecdote from Winters, watching him hold it together. Something to witness (with eyes getting hot).
“… one of the functions of all fiction – to let you live other lives and see what they’re like. It widens the soul.”
Could this be a remedy for our silo-ed, bubble world? Do we still have the capacity to live other lives and widen our souls?
This is why I’ve always written fiction — in the hopes that we can.
Steve, This reminds me of why I crave historical fiction romance by Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen where decent men have honor and are shamed by society if they behave illicitly.
The shock to sensibilities is still a wonderful scene to play out.
For example in Heyer’s gothic romance her heroine is appalled by the plot her aunt holds for her. I love a character who can be repelled by what is wrong.
One of the best modern examples of this sensitive character is Ellie Miller DS in the PBS Broadchurch series. Played by Olivia Coleman.
How can an era be “debased?” Isn’t this an insult to everybody who lives in it? Because the era is ultimately a result of our joint efforts and failures.
Each era has its challenges and its heroes. Today’s heroes for me are those who are able to bridge the divide, to reach out to the “other side” instead of demeaning their neighbor, just because they have another idea of how to go forward and what values should lead us.
As to your ancient heroes, and their honor and integrity, keep them for yourself. I am grateful and happy that I do not have to live in times where you had to chop somebody’s head off to prove your value to society.
The stupidity and uselessness of the heroic figures you propose gives me actually hope, because it shows that we as humanity have come a long way. Now again we are at a turning point, and we are in the thick of it, so that no one is able to say what the result will be one day. Heroism today, that is when you have the courage to see tomorrow instead of talking badly about the status quo.
I tend to agree with most of what Mr. Esser is saying. Human strengths and weaknesses tend to express themselves essentially the same in every generation. The fact that we no longer rush madly into deadly war doesn’t make us less brave or more cowardly than ancient people. I appreciate Dr. Pressfield’s enthusiasm for the good qualities of Spartan civilization, but I’ve always questioned an ethos where mothers could find such a lack of maternal connection with their own sons that they could say to them, apparently with little wasted emotion, “With this or on it.” That seems to be a glaring weakness of their society instead of the ringing endorsement it’s usually said to be.
Fascinating. There must be something adaptive and powerful in the human spirit that needs to maintain these values and aspiration, and therefore instantiates them in art, when we find them absent in the world.
Thank you Steve, the guru.
It is precisely because of this debased era that writers, as artists, must strive and rise above. There must be exemplars provided, and well-designed, before more hope is lost. As difficult as it may be to craft those kind of characters acting in today’s world, it must be done. It is a fight worth taking on.
I’m worried about you lad.
Honor and integrity don’t die unless you yourself kill them, no matter the era we live in.
Don’t do it for them.
Although I can hear your frustration in this post about our “debased era,” there are strong voices today that are speaking with honor and integrity. And we can go back in history and find considerable debasement there, too. Keep the faith…
A balanced perspective. Thanks, Mary.
An era, more correctly a generation or even a moment in time is often debased by a tyrant or demagogue who deliberately dehumanizes a people with insults, scorn and hate speech, as in our current politics. History is replete with such toxic times: McCarthy “era”, Hitlerism, Slavic “ethnic cleansing”, Custer, Atilla, the Crusades, etc. Perhaps our vision of the past is too romantic that we forget debasement has always been with us, but the past provides an opportunity to discover moments of when we rose above it, when “heroes” led us out of a time of troubles. I read and write historical fiction to give voice to these real-life, lesser-known characters who have made an such an attempt and whose lives have made a difference in the outcomes of history. Their stories are everywhere imbedded in Livy, Polybius, Thucydides and Plutarch to be discovered anew. Thanks Steven
If the loud ugly voices on our national stage have debased the values of honor, courage and integrity, perhaps as writers we can find them on the small stages of family and friendship.
I love this. I think it’s one of the reasons people like Science Fiction and Fantasy and Super Hero movies so much. And, yes, historical fiction too.
Your comment about historical fiction reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s desire to bring meter and rhyme back to the stage and feeling like he “cheated” by setting Murder in the Cathedral in medieval England. So he labored to write The Elder Statesman in which he’s able to discuss issues of honor, duty, integrity, dishonor, and conscience in manner worthy of Sophocles, despite setting it in then-current-day England.
As for Shakespeare, if you’re interested in how the politics of his time meshed with his drama, I can’t recommend Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare highly enough.
There is a book on my shelf, written at this current time, by a contemporary writer. True, it is not fiction, yet in it, the artist has the integrity to speak his truth, with words which speak of honor, integrity and rectitude. They even hint of nobility. Surely if this writer of non-fiction moves humanity with his words calling for a higher self, humanity can also be moved by similar words, spoken by a fictional character, set in our current time. I believe so.
BTW, the book is titled, “The War of Art.”
P.S. Though I do share your frustration and disappointment with the alarming lack of ethics and integrity displayed in the public square today!
It’s important not to think of history as “those good old days.” Good and bad existed in equal measure, as they do today. We can, however use history to burn in effigy what we despise about today and thereby, leave a bonfire to guide the future.
Then maybe the answer is to read historical non-fiction, or historical military fiction. The battlefield is where Honor-Courage-Commitment remains very much alive today, but you need to read Robert Leckie, Philip Caputo, Sen Jim Webb, Steve Pressfield, or James Brady instead of the fluff published today by those who have no understanding of shared sacrifice and brotherhood.
Leckie @ Guadalcanal: “It was up to 400 Marines holding a shortened line 1,800 yards long against 4,000 Japanese-one man every five yards against 10 of the enemy. Red Mike Edson gathered a small group of men in late afternoon, a few minutes after they’d eaten their first meal since the day before, and he spoke to them like a professional.’This is it’, he said softly. ‘It is useless to ask ourselves why it is we who are here. We are here. There is only us between the airfield and the Japs. If we don’t hold, we will lose Guadalcanal.’ (Strong Men Armed)
Pressfield @ quoting Lou Lenart “They came up and were issued rifles. I will never forget their faces. They were certain they were going to die. But their eyes were shining. They had weapons in their hands. They were men.” (The Lions Gate)
Or there’s always historical non-fiction by the likes of Newt Gringrich and Bill O’Reilly, but I know on what side of the berm I choose to stand.
Great post & contributions from the Tribe. I agree that it is more palatable, digestible, and believable to think of character values in the past instead of the present. I feel bereft of honorable leadership from city-POTUS, which includes both political parties. My experience in corporate America, 20 years ago now, was also decididely vacant of a moral compass. (Sadly, I found myself becoming part of the problem as well–DRUNK TANK PINK is a good read about the influence of environment BTW).
It feels both disingenuous and corny to talk about integrity, honor, traditional values (and I don’t mean Focus on the Family traditional values in some judgmental way) in the public discourse/present day humanities. Why? I don’t know exactly, but Michael Esser, Dr Tim Hadley, Mary Doyle, and Joan all make good points. We cannot quit on ourselves.
It may be the technology. Maybe the dopamine release from social media, cable news, reality TV overwhelm our ability to see the quiet dignity displayed everyday. The honorable choices made every second. The silent courage seen by our police & demonstrators away from cameras.
For the past 28 years, I’ll have come home to tell Kelly about some great piece of advice/knowledge/wisdom I heard out of the house. Her response…(all married men know…), “Oh, I’ve only been telling you that for the last 20 years.”
Maybe we cannot see it because we are too close. Maybe the historical fiction is akin to me finally hearing what my wife has been saying for years…
You only need to read about some modern day heroes like Michael Murphy, Adam Brown, Pat Tillman, Chuck Keating, Michael Monsoor and so many more modern day heroes to know that our current era is also filled with men possessing the traits you speak of.
I appreciate Steve’s commentary and all responses. Irony abounds in the thick foggy present. I have never in all my days felt so concerned about how we ( mankind) is collectively behaving. Debasement is an appropriate word. Working in health care (and secretly having a passion to write), when times are flourishing and hips are healthy, our moral compass of right and wrong, unbeknownst to us at first, decays.
The rise and fall of ‘above reproach’ character is a mystery written about for centuries. We are just wearing different clothes and may be a bit taller. I believe we are in a time of reexamining who we are , why we are acting as such and questioning what is ‘this’ all about. When I speak with friends, family, even strangers, we all want to get back decency, kindness, manners and grace. So I know it is out there.
What will it take for these virtuous traits to rise up? Hope, a sprinkle of sugar, wonderful writes and perseverance. All the best.
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.
– Albert Camus
This is an interesting discussion but I think a critical distinction is largely being overlooked here. There’s little question that there is despicable behavior and debased characters in any and every era. The question is what are the character traits that are elevated above others as agreed upon ideals worthy of admiration? What are the models and ideals that we aspire to in any given society? And, within each society, what are the incentives in place for aspiring to these higher ideals as opposed to low, degraded ones? What values are we teaching our children with what we elevate as having worth?
There are no lack of heroes in today’s society on every level – even in the political sphere, though it’s not in vogue to say so. Our problem is that our values have collectively been degraded by an incentive structure that rewards individual betterment over collective well-being. A higher ideal of individuality, for example, has become perverted into proud selfishness in too much of America today. A reverence for intangible values are increasingly replaced by the desire for stuff. Status is increasingly determined by appearance not behavior. Worst of all, what once was sacred – the pursuit of truth – is now a fungible commodity. We’d rather live in CGI-built alternative realities than come to grips with the ones we have. We’d rather spar with talking points with strangers on social media than engage with our own children, elders, neighbors in real time.
I don’t know what role historical fiction plays in understanding this other than to show us a mirror on human nature: that for every aspect of enlightenment there is a shadow that must be dealt with. To the worm in an apple, the whole world is an apple. Perhaps an immersion into a historically reimagined past gets us out of the apple we live in long enough for us to see that the worm is a worm is a worm. Our potential for enlightenment and debasement is always there – both collectively and individually. Whether we’re writing about the future, the present or the past, it is our job to grapple with our nature and wring some insight from the stories we invite onto the page.
I wonder if Shakespeare was dealing with the same issue.