The Influence of History on Epic Fantasy by Anthony Ryan

When considering the course of epic fantasy as a genre since its inception with Lord of the Rings, I can’t help but recognise its debt to, and continued reliance on, the study of history. Tolkien was not a historian but he was a renowned scholar of Anglo Saxon literature and its to this influence that we owe many of the tropes of epic fantasy. However, Tolkien’s seminal work is really a blend of successive European eras that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Whilst the Hobbits of the Shire exist in a medieval world of inns, developed agriculture and clearly delineated geographical boundaries (south farthing, east farthing etc), the world of men is an altogether more Dark Age place, echoing the epic of Beowulf with its magic jewellery, endless lineages and culture of heroic monster slayers. In comparison the world of Elves seems more akin to the reduced lot of the indigenous Celts of Britain following the Saxon invasions; an increasingly marginalised people, worshipping trees and composing ballads on the fringes of a growing empire. It may be stretching a point, but the ever busy dwarves and downtrodden but productive orcs of Mordor could be read as Tolkien’s reaction to the march of industry and loss of romantic ideals following the advent of the Enlightenment.

That other principal progenitor of modern fantasy, Robert E. Howard, also borrowed extensively from history in creating the Hyborian age across which Conan strode with broadsword in hand. Although the world of Conan is not strictly speaking a second world fantasy, he exists in a mythical forgotten age between fall of Atlantis and “the rise of the sons of Aryas” (read ‘Aryans’ – Howard, sadly, was a bit of a racist). He felt little compunction in including Picts and pseudo-Vikings in this apparently prehistoric land, along with the gods of the Celts and Egyptians, none of which were contemporaneous.

As Howard demonstrates, one reason why fantasy authors find so much inspiration in history is the simple fact that it saves a lot of work. Why spend time creating an entirely fictional chronology, culture and belief system when any reference library has it all for free? This is not meant to denigrate the work of authors who tend to mine the past for plots, among whom I include myself. David Gemmell’s Rigante series, for example, makes a positive virtue of its pseudo-historical setting. The first two books, Sword in the Storm (1999) and Midnight Falcon (2000), are a retelling of the Roman conquest of Celtic Europe, except this time the Celts, embodied in fierce warrior folk the Rigante, get to win. The next two books, Ravenheart (2001) and Stormrider (2002), propel the narrative forward eight hundred years finding the Rigante now an oppressed northern hill tribe facing off against religiously inspired southern invaders, essentially a reworking of the conflict between Scotland and England during the Cromwellian Protectorate. However, Gemmell is never a slave to real world chronology, mixing in shades of the exploits of Rob Roy, the later Jacobite rebellions and the colonisation of North America along the way.

It’s this freedom enjoyed by the fantasy author that makes the employment of historical elements such a powerful tool. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing and Aspect Emperor series can be read as reimagining of the crusades, with a hefty dose of modern philosophy and Tolkien mixed in. Bakker has concocted a world every bit as morally and politically complex as Europe and the Arabian peninsular in the 12th century, with a plethora of different nations, cultures and belief systems fighting ever more destructive wars. Similarly, George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire could be described as historical fiction without the history, the endless feuds of Westeros a restaging of the Wars of the Roses on a greatly enlarged canvas.

The parallels to historical reality in Martin’s work are rarely obvious, his often short-lived characters embodying the spirit of brutal medieval Europe without being brazenly allegorical. Scheming ultra-bitch Cersei Lannister bears some resemblance to the formidable Queens of France and England in the 13th -14th centuries, but is an undeniably great fictional creation in her own right. Sadly, history has always been rich in Joffreys (President Assad, I’m talking to you) and, for all their pretensions to chivalry, one of the few real medieval knights who came close to displaying the decency and courage of a Ned Stark was 11th century Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar – known to history, and Hollywood, as El Cid. Although, Scotland’s Robert the Bruce runs him a close second (if you overlook the whole stabbing a man to death in church stuff).

Re-watching the old Charlton Heston epic was in fact one of the starting points for my own Raven’s Shadow series; the concept of a man set apart by honour and loyalty in an age of betrayal and war was a major element in the genesis of my main character Vaelin Al Sorna. I also owe a debt to Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death (1969), possibly the most readable account of the plague that claimed an estimated third of the European population in the 14th century, for my own similarly apocalyptic Red Hand. The crusades were at the back of my mind in conceiving of King Janus’s unjust war on the Alpiran Empire, but recent events in Iraq, and the opium wars in China during the early 19th century, were probably more of an influence.

Not all epic fantasy is so reliant on history however, the world of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series reflects many typical elements found in slaveocracies throughout the ages, most closely, but not exactly, resembling the serfdom of Tsarist Russia. However, its mostly urban setting and inventive world-building make it a distinguished outsider to the cod-medieval club. Those seeking perhaps the ultimate imaginary slaveocracy should look no further than the exquisitely horrible world of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, an often gruesome magnification of the excesses and intrigues typical of ancient Rome, but played out in a completely original world with few obvious parallels to our own.

The influence of history on epic fantasy has been considerable, and certainly a component in its success as a genre. But that success is dependent on a willingness to engage with the truths history has to tell us rather than the myths. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a richer and more interesting place for his sombre recognition that for one culture to flourish others often have to die. The world of men ultimately cannot tolerate the world of elves any more than the Saxons could tolerate the Celts or European settlers could tolerate the Native Americans. The knights of Westeros would be a dull bunch indeed if they didn’t embody the brutality and self-serving ambition of the real medieval knight, as well as the courage and loyalty of which they were also capable. History is inspiration for the fantasy author and, if employed with respect and insight, possibly an education for the reader, even if it’s all made up.


For more information on the author and his work, check out Anthony Ryan’s website.

This article was originally posted on September 3, 2012 at the Fantasy Book Critic.


4 thoughts on “The Influence of History on Epic Fantasy by Anthony Ryan

  1. I’ve only read 3/4s of the books mentioned in this post. Makes me curious to read the rest and see what’s to come. I’m a fan of research. Research helps to add engaging details that bring a story to life. It’s easy for me to come up with broad outlines, characters & history but I definitely use research into other cultures and history as a way to flesh out architecture, vehicles, farming, hunting, fighting, etc.

  2. Pingback: Nocturne (The Shadows of Night Saga) Part 2 | Excursions Into Imagination

  3. Pingback: The City | Stella Gemmell « Books are my Drug

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