Saturday, 19 April 2014

How Fantasy is a Better Guide to the Past than History

I don't usually blog about books that I'm currently reading, but the idea for this week's post came to me so fully formed that I didn't want to wait. The book that inspired it is Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies, the author of the magisterial tome Europe: A History. In terms of popular history books, I believe the older book is considered a standard text, and certainly an important reference point for subsequent volumes of world and European history.

But while Europe is concerned with providing a history of the continent as it stands, Vanished Kingdoms looks at a number of nations that have flowered briefly and then disappeared. Davies takes in various Roman successor states, including the Byzantine empire, but also more recent disappearances, like the Soviet Union. I've only gotten as far as the second chapter, which deals with one of the pre-Anglo-Saxon but post-Roman kingdoms that sprang up in the early Middle Ages, called Alt Clud.

Davies makes much of the fact that Alt Clud, or the Kingdom of the Rock, was at the height of its power, near present-day Glasgow, before what we now know as England or Scotland even existed. And he does a good job of painting a picture of the political situation there at the time, despite the fact that actually very little is known about the place. There are links to St Patrick, and to King Arthur, but much that we know currently comes from sources that were written long afterwards.

Now, the reason I'm mentioning it is what Davies himself talks about in the introduction to the book. He notes that the majority of history books are about countries that exist currently, which risks "reading history backwards", as he himself puts it; that is to say, finding what exactly in their pasts led to their pre-eminence in the present.

But of course, this approach is by its nature reductive. Any history of Italy will talk about the Romans, as any Russian history will heavily feature the Soviet Union. But these notional books would probably struggle to do justice to the Romans' competitors, like the Etruscans, or to the Mediterranean empires built by the likes of Venice, or to the kingdom of Novgorod, against which the princes of Moscow vied for supremacy in what we now call Russia.

Yet they were important in their time, and Davies is at pains to point out - at the start of the introduction and presumably in more detail at the book's end - that our current crop of countries will likely one day be little more than a footnote. Interestingly, fantasy literature is probably more successful at conveying this idea than popular history.

This is no accident, if you think about it. It isn't controversial to suggest that the template for modern fantasy literature comes from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (I've previously referred to this as a form of kabuki). Tolkien was a philologist, interested in the languages of Scandinavia and medieval Britain, and both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of references to civilizations that have receded and left nothing but artifacts, desolate hill forts and place names.

The scene in the wights' barrow, sadly removed from the movies, is an excellent example, as are the Elves themselves - while they're still around in both novels, it's as remnants of the mighty civilizations that once occupied the lands of Middle-Earth. The dominant mood in Lord of the Rings is melancholy at the passing of these nations, seen from the perspective of people who are experiencing that passing in their day-to-day lives.

Most works of epic fantasy that came after Tolkien's have kept this aspect. The best example is probably Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which takes the idea and extends it to a metaphor for the destruction of indigenous peoples by invaders. The theme acts as a backdrop to a number of points in Williams's books (which for space and spoiler reasons I'm presuming you've read), from the destruction of the Sithi's civilization by the human Rimmersmen, to the encroachment of the Aedonite Church over the pagan belief systems of the lands of Osten Ard, and to the destruction, essentially, of the Hernystiri - a proud kingdom at the start of the first book, which by the end of the fourth is little more than a scattered remnant of people driven to living in hills and caves. Guy Gavriel Kay evokes this passage of time equally well in his book Ysabel.

Terry Brooks also plays with this idea in his Sword of Shannara books, although without Tad Williams's or Guy Gavriel Kay's eye toward historical parallels - the characters move through a medieval-looking landscape that is actually the remnant of our own world, thousands of years after our civilization has wiped itself out. This is a similar premise to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and a number of other series.

Of course, every trope evolves, and I believe that in recent years we've moved away from the idea of kingdoms built on top of preceding civilizations, to a more narrow medieval view. By this I mean a landscape that was once dominated by a single (Roman-influenced) empire, but that now consists of a number of smaller, meaner kingdoms.

Guy Gavriel Kay's books on the Byzantine-influenced Sarantine Empire could be said to fit into this mold, although he gets a pass because he's commenting on actual history - and he does a good job in The Sarantine Mosaic of evoking the Germanic states that sprang up in the ruins of the wider Roman Empire, and the tension between the Romanized elites of the time and their new masters.

In any case, while the idea of lost civilizations seems like a reliable trope of fantasy literature and adventure films, it's worth remembering that it's actually true to life - and it's a shame (if understandable) that the current crop of history books rarely touches on these civilizations that are still with us in our place names and loan words. It also goes to prove the saying among writers - who are forever giving this advice to whippersnappers like me - that you should read widely, in many genres and in non-fiction as well as fiction.