‘Historical’ fiction

I’ve just finished the second book in Conn Iggulden‘s Emperor series about Julies Caesar, ‘The Death of Kings‘, and I got to thinking about to idea of historical fiction in general.

Iggulden includes at the end of each of his historical novels a section in which he explains all the things he’s changed because of plot structure, character development, avoiding including minor characters, etc. And while I accept that some things need poetic licence and a hefty dose of imagination to write about and explain, I’m not too sure about changing major historical facts in order to service your ending to entice the readers back for more. I like reading hisortical fiction because I like the idea of telling the stories of real people who lived back in the mists of time, and I also know that for many historical people – like Caesar, Gengis Khan and Shakespeare for example – there are vast swathes of their lives that we don’t know about because there are no records of how they grew up, or even where they were born or went to school for many of them. And in these cases, authors like Iggulden have done a lot of research about the era and formulated a reasonable childhood or school history in light of the evidence we do have about the person. But at the end of The Death of Kings, Cato, one of Caesar’s enemies, dies years before he did in history, although he does die in the same manner, as with Caesar’s uncle in the previous book. I can’t help thinking that there’s more to that particular story than Iggulden is telling. But then, is he required to do so? After all, he’s writing a fictional account, not a textbook…

I guess I’m not sure what my problem with this is. To a certain extent there’s a ‘reader beware’ thing going on here – Iggulden and others include the historical notes to let you know what’s been changed, and honestly, Iggulden does point you to other sources to look things up if you want more information. But I still feel a bit uneasy about the changing of real events to fit the fictional plot outline…

Maybe I’ll get over it.

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About Beth

Canadian English teacher living in the UK with husband, daughter, imminent baby and cat...
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5 Responses to ‘Historical’ fiction

  1. I have the same feeling regarding some of the historical fiction I’ve read and seen.

    Take the 2-season television mini-series Rome for example (the joint HBO/BBC/RAI production). It was chock full of glaring historical liberties: people missing, people fused, major events not occurring – heck, the power struggle which resulted in Julius Caesar being proclaimed perpetual dictator of Rome was between three people not two – but poor Marcus Licinius Crassus gets edited out, and he cannot be viewed as a minor historical character.

    What bothered me about Rome is not the historical inaccuracies per se, it was that Rome is lauded so highly for being historically accurate, when it really is not; people look at the level of detail, conclude (correctly) that a great deal of historical research went into the series, and thus conclude (erroneously), that the series is accurate. Many people’s impressions of what Roman history, and culture, were like must have been formed by this series, and many people came away with radically different ideas than what actually occurred.

    I think this is the “danger” in any historical fiction.

    I find it refreshing that Iggulden at least points out to the reader where the inaccuracies are, and points the reader in the direction of better and more accurate sources (although, if you study any historiography you really have to wonder how accurate any historical accounts are), but I really wonder how many of the novel’s audience will really avail themselves of that, and how many will just accept his version of events as fact.

  2. Beth says:

    I agree on that – I’m not sure many people would take the time to look things up further, unfortunately… It does make me think about what I’ve ‘accepted as ‘truth’ without further exploration…

  3. Richard says:

    It gets more of an issue when history is rewritten to ‘make a good story’ and this misleads people about what actually happened – take U-571 as an example which showed the USA capturing an Enigma machine and caused massive controversy in the UK.

  4. Beth says:

    Charles, pthththththth…

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