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Behind The Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Michael G'Francisco


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 BC.

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 conquered countries.

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 for himself.

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 paradox writer.

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.


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