Like many of the genres I have covered so far, Historical Fantasy does not have one accepted definition. Like Low Fantasy, Historical Fantasy appears to somewhat shift definitions a bit based on what you read when you first encountered it, or what you read growing up. There is no one accepted definition. Though that doesn’t explain all of the variations I saw.
Jo Walton wrote an article for Tor.com titled “What is historical fantasy?” where she outlines the different types of historical fantasy one could find. It is very, very broad in nature. And one could argue that most fantasy lies within her definitions somewhere. Outlined, her definitions are:
- Alternative history with magic
- Secondary world that closely follows real historical events, periods, and places
- Portal fantasy with characters going from history into a secondary world
- A secondary world that, while informed by actual history, doesn’t follow anything specific
- Take historical events and makes them fantastical
- Steampunk fantasy that is magical and historical
- Takes place in the history of the secondary world
As you can see, that is really broad. I have found a lot of pushback to this post online, and I have to agree with them. I’ve read urban fantasy/contemporary fantasy that could potentially fall into one of Jo’s definitions. And I’m not talking about Los Nefilim. It is just way too broad.
Kimberly Francisco writing for Stacked Books explains exactly why this is too broad. “So much of fantasy is pseudo-medieval, meaning we’d call almost all fantasy ‘historical fantasy’ in that case.” Instead, Kimberly takes a more narrow definition, that historical fantasy is from a past that actually existed. I really liked something else she said that I want to point out. She says part of the appeal of the genre is seeing how the author can manipulate actual events, and that it is “to give the readers a historical time period that is accurate to a point – and then goes off the rails.”
Something interesting I found is Samuel Hale, writing on Armed with a Book, says he thinks that Historical Fantasy is a subgenre of Historical Fiction. Which is an interesting way to put it to me. Not a subgenre of Fantasy, but of Historical Fiction instead. “In my opinion, where the two genres split is that, in HF, we utilize devices such as magic, the supernatural, or/or technological elements to augment the setting, worldbuilding, and characters.”
In addition to the definitions above, there are a few accepted characteristics of Historical Fantasy. Typically the genre takes place on Earth, and not in a secondary world like Jo Walton says. Also, the story must have fantastical elements in addition to the historical.
However, as Maggie Anton writing on Reading the Past says is her article titled Historical Fiction vs Historical Fantasy: Which Is It?, it is not so clear-cut. For much of human history, people believed in the magical as just a matter of course. Even many modern day people believe in the supernatural (I am terrified of ghosts!). Nowadays, The Odyssey is considered fantasy, but how many of the people believed it was true when it was first sang? How about when Homer first wrote it down, centuries after the tale started? (No really, how many? I couldn’t find a good source on this?).
Maggie Anton goes into some depth on this topic of then and now. Such as with sickness. Nowadays, we know it is caused by bacteria and viruses, but back then they thought it was “bad airs” or even demons. And even now, placebos work, despite knowing you have a placebo. Is that any different than make believe or magic? There are even real, scientific studies done to see the effect prayer has on healing, often with interesting results. (Yes, this didn’t just happen on The West Wing.)
Catherine Hokin writing on The History Girls in an article titled Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy: A Question of Genres brings up another really good point. When does history start? Simple question with no real answer. Different organizations have different amounts of time before it only may be considered historical. If you were alive 50 years ago, is it really considered historical to you? Hokin theorizes that it is a “question of perspective, or life lived”, however she doesn’t really clarify whose perspective: the reader or the author.
Historical Fantasy is a genre that lives within boundaries. And it is often up to the reader, and author, to decide where those boundaries lay for them between fiction and fantasy. For the border cases, there may not be a consensus amongst readers, writers, or even publishers. Readers have to ask themselves a lot of questions when deciding if something is historical fantasy to them.
Oh boy. Last month I covered Epic Fantasy and a lot of the same controversies with occur with both that subgenre and Historical Fantasy. And there are a lot of them.
The first I found while researching was the sexism. Historical Fantasy isn’t alone in this criticism. Nor is it alone in trying to defend the amount of sexism it has by adopting a stance of “but it makes it realistic!”. Dan Wohl, wrote on this topic for The Mary Sue, in an article titled Is “Historical Accuracy” a Good Defense of Patriarchal Societies in Fantasy Fiction?.
Realism is not an excuse. As Dan says, “There were no dragons in the real Middle Ages either, but we don’t have a problem including them.” Fantasy is fantasy. Like Kimberly Francisco said “accurate to a point – and then goes off the rails.”. Dan says it better than me. “Abiding by the historical fact of sexism in a fictional universe that is otherwise not bound by historical fact, I’d say, accomplishes nothing as much as reinforcing the idea that it’s the default order of things.”
Another, even more amazing article on this topic is Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That. on Tor.com. “You don’t have to take all the ingrained sexism of historical societies along for the party, and even when you do, you don’t have to write women in a sexist or demeaning way. Your fantasy will not break by treating women as if they are people too.”
Tansy Rayner Roberts writes from a place of academia. History is written mostly by men. What they were doing and what they found interesting. Women’s writings were made fun of or destroyed outright. It is a long rant that I highly suggest you read, because I don’t have the space to devote to all the points she brings up.
History is not society. It only covers one aspect. History is imperfect, and biased, and it always, always has omissions. The most common omissions are the bits that the writer of that history took for granted that his readers would know.
Closely tied in to the sexism complaint is the complaint about the amount of rape in historical fantasy. Which again, the entire argument for including it typically boils down to “realism”. Rape, Fantasy, and ‘Historical Accuracy’ by S.E. Smith covers some of this topic.
However. Rape can and was prosecuted as a crime in that era, and not every man in the medieval era was a rapist. As now, rape was often a serial crime repeated by the same man, with plenty of men, you know, not raping women. And plenty of those men actively worked against rape and sexual violence, although their work and advocacy may have taken different forms than that we do today.
Going back to the sexism argument, rape wasn’t limited to women, like S.E. Smith brings up in her article. Yet, often in fantasy, and historical fantasy, rape almost exclusively happens to women. Men “were commonly raped in the medieval period, as it was used as a tool of battle then as now.” In fact the only time I have ever seen male rape happen, to my recollection, is in Outlander. So maybe don’t argue that your story has a lot of rape because of historical accuracy if you are only telling the part you somehow find palatable.
Then there is the racism. As you might have expected. Not only the racism the characters experience in the story, which I couldn’t find a good article talking about. It is also the homogeneity of the story as well. Mary Robinette Kowal wrote on this topic in Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author, when she even examined her own works. She says
- There would have been a range of classes and abilities/disabilities
- People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always. And
- The first person who says, “Yeah, but it’s unlikely that a black person would be able to–” will get a huge eyeroll in response. How many books have you read about a white farmboy who goes on to rule the world? It’s as likely as that.
Then there is the inherent racism in the fact that most historical fantasy is European, which despite the previous point was still predominantly white. And not even just European, European from what is mostly a handful of “important” peoples. There are, of course, exceptions, but this isn’t a problem that is solely for Historical Fantasy. It is, however, a problem that shines most readily within the genre. For example, the article Why Is Fantasy “Stuck” In Middle Ages? on Medium by Dominik C. Durst.
Most damning of all, P. Djèlí Clark wrote in a post titled The “Other” Histories of Fantasy
Why is it so few writers have bothered to expand beyond the western end of Middle Earth and give us instead stories out of Far Harad?
The answer I normally get to this is, if such things are missing then PoC need to fill the niche. Agreed to a point. And many certainly have.
But this remains just part of the answer. Because despite these great efforts, there is still a yawning gap. Walk into any bookstore and let your eyes do some traveling around the fantasy section. It sure don’t look like the UN. Euro-fantasy fills the genre. It’s so bad that publishers, fearful of deviating away from this manufactured normalcy, have at times gone as far as to remove PoC from the art on novel covers–fearful any hint of diversity will cause readers to balk. This whitewashing, or racebending, has grown so prevalent that blogs like The Book Smugglers in 2010 blasted the practice and exposed it fully for the world to see.
The truth is, it should not be left up to PoC writers/creators singularly to bring diversity to the fantasy genre. It’s not our burden to shoulder alone, while the rest of the fantasy world remains landlocked by some literary Ural Mountains. PoC don’t even make up a significant portion of fantasy writers. And readers shouldn’t have to wait until some PoC tipping point to see something that dares to challenge the norm. There is no reason, except perhaps fear and complacency, why more fantasy writers can’t expand beyond their medieval European based imaginings.
And as we all know, even if we wanted to leave it up to PoC writers, it is easier said than done.
I’m not even going to touch LGBT representation in historical fantasy, except to say that SURPRISE!, LGBT was not vilified everywhere, by everyone, at every time and place in history. And even if it were, that isn’t an excuse, as covered in the sexism section. 😮
And as many things as I have talked about here, that feels like it is only scratching the surface. Fantasy is built on these errors, but with its basis in actual reality, Historical Fantasy seems to make them all the more real.
…Hey maybe I found some reasons why I don’t particularly care for historical fantasy.
Here are a few links I didn’t really get to include in my discussions above.
This first is an article titled Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction by Ramon Saldivar at Stanford University. It is 27 pages long and I just didn’t have a chance to read through it.
The second is an article titled Medieval inspiration: what the fantasy genre owes to the 14th century by Helen Carr. It talks about the influences of history on the fantasy genre, namely the medieval period.
Third, a 172 page Theses/Dissertation on Science Fiction/Fantasy and the Representation of Ethnic Futurity by Joy Ann Sanchez-Taylor. Which again, I do not have time to read. Just reading the table of contents was heavy.