The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy – report and video recording

Thank you for joining us online for our The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy event! We are delighted to share a report on this event by Fantasy PhD student Lucinda Holdsworth.

History is an ideological battleground. For as long as humans have thought about the past, we have altered it to suit our view of the world and repurposed it to achieve our goals. Misremembered or misrepresented histories have inspired rampant nationalism and fascism, but reinterpreting  the past also provides opportunities for liberation and new visibility for groups excluded from historical record. With so much at stake, historical fantasy, a genre which consciously changes elements of the past, is a risky business.

The dangerous entanglement of fantasy and history took centre stage one cold night in November as we gathered to celebrate the launch of James Treadwell’s new historical fantasy novel, The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach. Treadwell was joined in conversation by L. J. MacWhirter (author of the Tudor fantasy Black Snow Falling), Rob Maslen (Co-director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow), and Fraser Dallachy (Lecturer in historical linguistics). Our speakers shared a fascination with the affordances of historical fantasy and its unique ability to confront truths of the past.

The evening began with a dramatic reading from The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach. As we took in the rich detail of Treadwell’s gorgeous prose, it was easy to become lost in his 18th century world, created by replicating the writing style of the time. It is, as Maslen pointed out, a kind of literary necromancy, resurrecting a long dead style of communication, and with it, the world view that language constructed. Treadwell’s own take on his style is less complimentary, describing this resurrection as a ‘mangled and distorted’ version of the original body. Yet here he makes an important point—it is only through this distortion that a sense of the period can be accurately conveyed to contemporary readers.

The distortion afforded by fantasy plays a similar role here. Our relationship with our own history is often uneasy—did it really happen that way? Can the sources be trusted? Can our own memories? Our knowledge of any given event, be it recent or ancient history, is inherently fuzzy. We misremember, misspeak, misrepresent. We are subjective creatures and that subjectivity, passed down through the ages, is often all we have to go on. How better to navigate the haziness of ancient biases than through the fantastic, a mode which Todorov defines as the ‘hesitation’ between belief and disbelief. Where historical fiction must come down on one side or another of a historical debate, historical fantasy can allow hesitation and the truth of uncertainty to remain. Perhaps the crew of the Mary Celeste really did vanish into thin air. Perhaps Nostradamus really did have prophetic visions. Almost certainly untrue, but perhaps true enough to many at the time that fantasy is the only way to capture a sense of the period accurately. By making the past strange, we can often engage with it more honestly. 

As the conversation turns towards magic systems, Treadwell’s own thoughts on the uncertainty fantasy allows are voiced: ‘magic shouldn’t have systems and rules, magic is what happens when the system collapses’. In his new novel, this is certainly the case. After the Enlightenment, the hesitation of the fantastic should not be possible, and as such the appearance of magic is an embarrassment. It breaks the rules and undermines objective scientific fact. For this reason, magic is made socially invisible.

As we begin to discuss the trials and tribulations of replicating the language of a given time period, Fraser Dallachy gives us a brief overview of the remarkable work of a historical linguist. In this role, Dallachy charts the changing meaning and power of words across time. A particularly intriguing part of this work involves catching anachronisms—words which appear in periods they do not belong in. Such linguistic analysis is invaluable to historical fantasy authors like Treadwell and MacWhirter, both of whom have made use of this kind of research in their work. Treadwell has used historical linguistics to pay homage to the narratorial voice of literature of the time, noting in particular the influence of 18th century gothic novels such as Clarissa. MacWhirter, on the other hand, has used a minimalist approach in her appropriation of historical language. She notes that, given the complex temporal structure of her work, anything more linguistically unconventional might have alienated readers.

As the discussion continues, Maslen realises that there is a striking difference between our authors’ approaches to historical fantasy. Treadwell focuses on the practicalities of his characters’ day to day needs—needs upset by the intrusion of the fantastic. As such, his characters are resistant to the magical elements of their world. MacWhirter’s characters, on the other hand, enter into much larger fantastic frameworks consciously and deliberately. In this, MacWhirter seeks to address issues from our own time, or perhaps more precisely, from our future. The path ahead of us seems, at times, apocalyptic in the light of climate change. Such a global phenomenon is too large to get our heads around, and can only be made sense of through fantastic narratives.

Towards the end of the evening, Maslen asks the question we have all been waiting for: How important is accuracy to historical fantasy?

This question of historical accuracy is a source of great contention in the world of fantasy literature. Demands for historical accuracy have long been used to justify the exclusion of people of colour, women and queer folk from medievalist works. It was an argument that cropped up again and again in the discussion surrounding Game of Thrones which, despite being set in a secondary world, appears to have been heavily influenced by the War of the Roses. Its depictions of sexual assault in particular, many argued, were necessary for historical accuracy. As many scholars and fans have pointed out before me, this kind of historical accuracy is rarely actually accurate. David Olusoga has traced the presence of black individuals and communities in Britain since the time of the Romans. Women have, of course, always been part of our society, as have queer folk. Sexual assault may have been more normalised in the past, but when the women being assaulted are sexualised according to contemporary beauty standards (e.g. skinny women with modern makeup and no body hair), the excuse breaks down. This is not so much historical accuracy as it is a dark romanticisation of history—nostalgia for a past that never existed. At the same time, genuine historical accuracy has a radical power to counter this exclusionary romanticisation by pointing out the truth of our interconnectedness throughout history.

Our authors’ responses reveal a shared awareness of the awesome responsibility of the historical fantasist, yet their approaches to this conundrum are quite different. When asked if historical accuracy matters, Treadwell replies enthusiastically, “Not at all!” He notes that accuracy is not the aim here; instead, he works to create a sense of time and place which feels convincing to contemporary readers. Yet Treadwell’s extensive academic work with 18th century literature puts him at an advantage here. MacWhirter takes the opposite line. For her, research plays a key role in replicating the past as faithfully as possible, allowing her to wrap a rich tapestry of details around her story. Her own academic work is also great source of knowledge and expertise in this—her PhD on pre-modern responses to ontological suffering have given her great insight into the Tudor mind.

As the evening comes to an end, our speakers give us some closing thoughts on the magical power of language. The ability of style and syntax to convey more than the words themselves, they all agree, is magical in itself, let alone the magic of Old Words or verbal spells. It is, as Treadwell notes, a ‘richly textured beautiful thing that is constantly drawing attention to itself’. It is magical because it is how we understand the world, but it is not neutral in this role—it changes the world at the same time it describes it. In this, once again, fantasy is the perfect lens through which to view the past. Our view of history is at times frighteningly malleable (just look at the Mandela Effect for a recent example!) and fantasy, above all other genres, understands the power of language to shape the world and our memories of it.

We close with some final recommendations for historical fantasists—Octavia Butler is a popular choice, her award winning Kindred the perfect example of historical fantasy forcing us to reckon with an uncomfortable past. Alison Uttley and Frances Hardinge are mentioned too, but Macwhirter suggests going back much further and experiencing the magic of historical texts for yourself, starting with medieval romances and dream poetry. After a final thanks to our guests, the night ends.

The evening’s conversation took many twists and turns along the way, through unnatural temporalities, histories real and imagined, and our strange relationship with the truth of that past. Such discussion is, if you’ll forgive the pun, timely, given our current state of affairs. Our movie theatres are full of 80s remakes and every week a new TV reboot is announced. Our political leaders harken back to the good old days at every turn, and there is ever greater public opposition to teaching the ugly truth of history in our schools. Perhaps it is a hopelessness for our future, as MacWhirter noted earlier, that inspires this widespread romanticisation of the past. Whatever the reason, historical fantasy lies at the centre of this conundrum. The night’s discussion has shown us that historical fantasy has a greater power than we could imagine, allowing us to engage, critically, with the past, or obscure the truth. It is a powerful tool, but a tool that can break just as easily as build.

Lucinda Holdsworth

If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:

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