HISTORY OR FICTION?
Today, history is regarded as a social science and to some
a literary art, but it was not always thus. History supposedly
deals in facts, not fancies or entertainment, only edification.
Until late in the 19th Century, most historians regarded
themselves neither as social scientists nor as humanistic
scholars, but rather as literary men, per se, men of letters.
The stories they told were based on known literary
facts and taken to be true, but nevertheless they were telling
stories, just as a novelist does.
Case in point: Is THE ILIAD, the Greek epic poem
about the siege of Ilium or Troy, just a story or
does it have an historical fundament?
After excavations in Hisarlik (the modern name for
Troy) in the late 19th Century, research on oral epics, the
decipherment of LINEAR B (the oldest surviving syllabic script
of Greek dialect), all provided some proof that the story
of the Trojan War, as reflected in the Homeric poems, has
its foundation in a war which actually took place.
However, research always emphasizes the transforming power
of tradition. Having unwound that with my keyboard, let’s
look into Homer’s epic poem.
But first let’s examine this: Was Homer an ancient Greek
epic poet? There is very little literary information about
his real existence and some modern researchers are a bit skeptical
and, quite frankly, consider him to be fictitious. There is
wide belief among researchers that Homer is the name for a
stable of poets incorporated under that name.
Homer is credited for the epic poems, The Iliad
and The Odyssey. What begs an answer is the date
of his time. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian who
lived in the 5th Century BC, Homer lived 400 years before
his own time, at about 850 BC. But other ancient sources refer
to dates closer to the historical Trojan War, which is believed
to have taken place around 1194-1184 BC. Modern scholars believe
that the date of Homer equals the date of the poems, which
researchers are debating, could be the 7th, 8th or 9th centuries
Evidence suggests the Homeric epic was transcribed after
generations of oral transmissions. What leads the researchers
to believe a group of poets wrote under the name of HOMER?
Due to their research, besides his two masterpieces, far too
many other works are credited to him.
In fact, the entire Epic Cycle, including all the poems of
the Trojan Wars, the Little Iliad, the Nostoi, the Cypria,
the Epigoni and also the Theban poems about Oedipus and his
sons seem to fall under his name.
Ok, maybe I haven’t convinced you about history being studded
with a little fiction. If so, let’s take a step back in time
to the Gallic Wars of Caesar. First, there is only
one surviving detailed account of these extraordinary wars,
and that is by great Caesar himself. Mighty convenient, hey?
For each of the seven years (58 BC- 51 BC), he wrote and
published his “commentaries” depicting his and the
Roman armies victories. Now, these are not considered history
books, so, does one believe he told the true facts of each
event or was he the first “spin doctor”?
According to historians, these wars were military campaigns
to boost Caesar’s political career and to pay off his massive
debt (much like our government of today) by plundering the
Caesar’s book “Commentani de Bello Gallico” is considered
by many research historians to be a masterpiece of political
propaganda and should be treated with caution when being read.
It’s a common belief amongst them that he had manipulated
the written records to gain the people of Rome’s undying support
A translation of Caesar’s work has been divided into eight
books by W. A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn and is available
on the Internet if one cares to read about Rome’s famous
A novelist can construct a web of imaginative settings, which
gives them an advantage over the historian, and in some cases
comes closer to the truth than the historian. Novelist and
historians are in essence “troubled bedfellows”;
it seems they can’t live together and they can’t live apart.
In literary cases where it's history versus fiction, both
want to bring the dead of the past back to life to revive
the allure, charm and enchantment of their times and lives.
Though historians chafe against the restrictions of their
trade and can’t make things up, the fiction writers have the
freedom of their imagination to create paradoxes.
Let us speed-up time to the 19th Century (1801-1900) and
see the modern changes to historical writing. The best example
of what has taken place is in the explanation by Hayden White.
White defines the work of historians by saying they constitute
a chronicle of events, which is then organized into a coherent
story. He believes that a historian doesn’t just find history,
but also makes it by using three different types of explanations:
Emplotment, Argument and Ideological Implication. Complete
definitions of these can be found under Vicki
Rea and metahistory.
White proposed another question: Could it be the future of
the historical discipline is at stake? An excellent look into
this thought is his Metahistory:
The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe
(1973), in which White extended the use of tropes from a linguistic
usage (figure of style) to a general style of discourse. White
further argues that metaphors may be the most useful trope
and believes histories be determined by figurative language
using tropes (example: “the bloody sun at noon” and
“all in a hot and copper sky”).
As far as what is happening today in this field, we need
to look no further than across the seas to England. It appears
the Brits have lost their grip on reality when it comes to
history verses fiction. In a 2008 survey in London of 3000
people, 58 percent thought Winston Churchill was a myth, while
the majority reckoned that Sherlock Holmes was real. If that
don’t beat a drum, how about 47 percent thought the 12th Century
English King Richard the Lionheart was also a myth.
It looks like the British marching song “We Came a Long Way
from Tipperary” or was that to Tipperary? Whichever, you get
the drift of my meaning.
As I have attempted to illustrate, history and fiction may
share the same bed, but have their own separate sides on how
and the way their stories are told. One must deal in literary
facts that are perceived to be true, and the other can open
the floodgates of their imagination and let it flow with half-truths
or whatever tickles their fancy.
When writing stories (whether fiction or events in history),
one must strive to create a true sense that the reader is
in the midst of the battle or can mentally visualize the bloody
murder scene through the eyes of the killer.
The blending of fiction and history can create a real challenge
to a writer. When attempting this type of writing it’s best
to pick a subject that most people are not familiar with,
such as, the Chinese “Civil War” (1927) between the
Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China.
Most people wouldn’t have read about it, so if the time, events
and characters are not exact or vary slightly, no one could
doubt the accuracy of the research. It will certainly mean
more explaining of characters and other details, but this
is to the writer’s creative advantage.
Remember—never be in a hurry to explain everything
when blending history and fiction. If you do, it might take
the fun or the excitement from the reader. Just allow them
to stroll through the story like they’re on a trip in a time
machine. And, something else one might keep in mind, refrain
from using too many clichés; a few properly placed in a story
will go a long way.