Re-History: Revisiting History in Worldbuilding

History is an important element of every worldbuild, regardless of genre. In Clancy-style thrillers, the history of nations and the history of organizations are important. David Morrell built entire action thrillers out of small pieces of history, and built secret organizations and societies with their own histories. On a larger scale, Tolkien and George Martin constructed huge continental or global histories going back several millennia.

Facing this daunting task, one thing writers and worldbuilders find themselves facing the question of what to include. Limiting history to rulers, battles, and wars gets boring and dull fast. Histories can include foundations of nations, cities, other sites, and organizations; reigns of rulers and dynasties; conflicts between nations, leaders, religions, and groups; treaties, good & bad times (ex. the Great Depression); inventions of note; first contacts between civilizations and species; the rise and fall of nations, families, and organizations.

In fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi, history forms the foundation of current events and national or species relations. It affects current organizational relations as well, ex. the mages and clergy are at odds because the priests tried to purge magic from the country 100 years ago.

The depth and detail of histories varies widely, for a host of reasons. We know that Tolkien’s history is very complex and detailed thanks to the Silmarillion and Lost Tales. Frank Herbert’s was probably equally detailed, based on what Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert have been able to reconstruct from his notes. Rowling and George Lucas’s histories seem to have started rather sketchy and been filled in when needed. Michael Moorcock seems to be somewhere in between. The depth of detail also depends on the length of the piece. Neil Gaiman didn’t need to be excessively detailed in putting together a history for Neverwhere, a relatively short standalone novel. Herbert needed a detailed history for his extended epic. The role of history in the piece can also determine detail. For Neverwhere, detail and depth were not particularly necessary, just a general knowledge of London history and the Atlantis legend even though that history forms the plot. On the other hand, the history of Middle-Earth drove the plot of a wide ranging epic.

Once the history is outlined or fleshed out, how does it get incorporated?

The methods are almost as varied as the elements of history itself, sometimes they aren’t even necessary.

History can be introduced through the laws and cultural traditions of the setting. J.K. Rowling’s wand usage laws derive from the wizarding world’s history with non-human species. Frank Herbert’s imperial edicts against artificial intelligence have their roots in the Butlerian Jihad, 10,000 years before the events of Dune.

Tolkien utilizes the songs and stories of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, and Rangers to convey elements of Middle-Earth’s history.

In certain settings and types of stories, courses and books can relate parts of history. A good example of Rowling’s use of the school setting to convey her fictional history.

The very landscape can be tapped to tell the reader about the world’s history. For example, Tolkien’s use of the Argonath, the Barrows, and Weathertop or George Lucas’s shots of the temple of Yavin IV.

Family and national relations are another good way to bring in the world’s history. George R.R. Martin does this well, if in a somewhat heavy handed way, with the Starks (former Kings of the North) and the relationship between Dorn and King’s Landing.

Species relationships build out of the family and national ones. Rowling’s discussion of the various Goblin Rebellions and the plots present in many vampire-werewolf movies—in which ancient relationships lead to species conflict—are good examples.

The appearance of organizations or groups can be used as a moment to narrate or describe some history. For example, Martin’s use of the return of the Faith Militant under Cersei Lannister-Baratheon.

Other times, the entire plot of the story can reveal world history or the real world antecedents of the fictional world. The entire plot of A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin) is based on the English War of the Roses. Harry Turtledove builds most of his secondary worlds out of history, including Videssos and the setting of the Fox novels which are treated almost like alternate histories.

Turning to real world history is often an excellent option for finding inspiration for fictitious histories. There are many interesting elements, moments, and odd things in our own history that spawn plots, cultures, or even entire worlds. For instance, the appearance of the Plague in Europe, which yielded significant socio-economic and religious change. Or the sumptuary laws that were instituted throughout most of Europe to differentiate the impoverished noble class from the wealthy mercantile classes. Perhaps even the family relations of the European heads of state leading up to and throughout WWI (almost all of whom were cousins).

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Learning New Things

Still under the weather, so not a full post this week.  Instead, a few things I learned this week:

  1. Muslims have been part of the U.S. military in every major war the U.S. has ever been involved in.  Several were documented as members of the colonial army fighting the British in the Revolutionary War and nearly 300 died in the American Civil War (Captain Moses Osman was the highest ranking in the Civil War).
  2. Sikhs have been part of the U.S. military since WWI.
  3. Until 1980, men in the U.S. military were allowed to have beards while on active duty, Reagan changed that policy until it was reversed in the early-1990s.
  4. I really, really hate third person present perspective, especially when it shifts between limited and omniscient (editing job; more on this later).
  5. Being congested sucks, especially when you do your best fiction writing by hand . . . oops, sorry, already knew that.

Anyway, writing largely on hold as I’ve shifted back to handwriting all my fiction.

De-Bunking Myths, Seeking Werewolves

For whatever reason, I’ve been seeing a lot of people bemoaning modern werewolf stories, whining that “werewolves have become sympathetic” as if this is both new and bad.

Rather than respond to each individually, I thought I’d do a list of werewolves in one place instead. Because this is an incomplete list, I’m limiting it to European, mostly named, and pre-modern (mostly to demonstrate a point):

Alphesiboeus & Moeris – werewolves in Greece, no ethical commentary given (Virgil, Eclogue VIII, 1st c. BCE)

Niceros’s Soldier – potentially violent werewolf, but no violent action in the story (Petronius, Satyricon, 1st c. CE)

Lycaon – man cursed by Zeus with a wolf shape for crimes against the gods (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1st c. CE)

Demarchus – one of many werewolves of Arcadia, Olympic champion (Pausanias, The Description of Greece, 2nd c. CE; also mentioned by St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, 4th/5th c.)

——— – neutral discussion of werewolves (Isidore of Seville, 6th/7th c. CE)

Alphouns – sympathetic werewolf, prince of Spain (Guillaume de Palerne, 12th c.; translated to English as William of Palerne, 14th c.)

Bisclavret – sympathetic knight-werewolf (Marie de France, “Bisclavret”, 12th c.)

Ossory-Meath Werewolves – sympathetic werewolves, married couple (Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, 12th c.)

Gorlagon – sympathetic werewolf, king (Anon., “Arthur & Gorlagon”, 14th c.)

Peeter Stubbe – monstrous werewolf, put on trial in Germany (1590)

Jean Grenier – monstrous, yet sympathetic, child werewolf, put on trial in France, deemed psychosis (1603)

Ferdinand – psychosis werewolf induced by incestuous desire (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 1614)

Wolf – the monstrous wolf-man of Little Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault, 1697).

As we can see, the sympathetic and monstrous varieties of werewolves have existed side-by-side for well over 2000 years. In fact, the sympathetic werewolf seems to trace back further in history (and pre-history) than the monstrous variety (see Adam Douglas, The Beast Within, for a good starting history of the figure).

What Really Happened?: Layered History in Fiction

I’ve been toying with the idea of layered history lately. In short, this is a situation where my mind is going off on scores of tangents at once with regard to a worldbuild and I’m not sure how everything’s going to settle or pan out. Then this lightning bolt strikes, a seed is planted (mixing metaphors!), and something interesting comes out of it.

The idea of layered history is intrinsic to urban fantasy, regardless of whether there is a hidden magic or public magic world. It is also intrinsic to Lovecraftian horror (ex. Hellboy). And, of course, the realm of conspiracy theories (the Reptilians, ancient astronauts, etc.).

It is the idea that there are multiple layers of understanding history, or rather multiple layers of information about history. What people believe history is versus what it really is.

In other words, in urban fantasy there is always the surface layer of history: real world history, the things we were all, theoretically, taught in school about world history from pre-historic archaeology to the Renaissance to the Boxer Rebellion to both Iraq Wars. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to that as mundane history.

Beneath the level of mundane history, all urban fantasy and Lovecraftian horror offers a paranormal history. This is the history of the non-humans, the magical elements of the world. In hidden magic worlds, this is a history that normal people know nothing about. In open/public magic worlds, it may or may not be common knowledge. Rowling codified paranormal history as the History of Magic classes at Hogwarts. Charlaine Harris (Southern Vampire/True Blood) kept vampiric history secret from humans, even after vampires went public, even moreso the histories of the weres, shifters, fae, witches, and others who hadn’t gone public. The True Blood writers took things a step further than Harris and introduced a third layer of history known only to a select handful of vampires (the “vampire bible” and Billith line, in all its absurdity).

I’m currently working on an Earth based urban fantasy setting in which there is mundane history and paranormal history. One group also believes that it has figured out and filled in some of the holes in paranormal history. In truth, they know a handful of little things and extrapolated the wrong things from what little they know, so there’s also real history to account for.

Tradition vs “Tradition”: Werewolves (& Other Shifters, Really)

Thinking about history, I think about traditional figures, particularly shapeshifters since I’ve spent a long time studying them. When I think about traditional figures, I like werewolves especially because there’s a divide between what most modern audiences consider to be traditional and what actually is traditional. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the latter as traditional and the former as “traditional”.

The modern “traditional” is really a new phenomenon that is largely built out of Hollywood, rather than the traditional figures of folklore, legend, myth, and literature. For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on cases of supposed actual change, not psychology (Sigmund Freud, Henri Boguet, James I of England, Simon Goulart).

According to the “traditional”, werewolves have a number of interesting traits. Most of these traits would be unrecognizable to pre-modern audiences. For instance, “traditional” werewolves take a wolfman shape, sometimes in addition to a wolf shape. “Traditional” werewolves are forced to change at the full moon (a theory posited by Gervase of Tilbury in the medievla era and dismissed by his peers, a theory that was never posited again until the 18th century), possibly coming about due to theories about ties between the moon and madness. “Traditional” werewolves are regenerative and vulnerable to silver (likely tied to the moon change, also a relative cheap precious metal). Finally, “traditional” werewolves transmit their condition through biting victims (or sometimes transfer of other bodily fluids), an idea that doesn’t appear before germ theory.

On the other hand, the traditional werewolves of the ancient through early modern eras were rather different. They only had human and animal shapes, no hybrid form. They did not regenerate (nor share injuries between forms, a concept that developed in 18th c. literature). All traditional werewolves changed for one of four reasons: curse, genetics, ritual, or an item. The most well known curses are in Gerald of Wales, Ovid, and William of Palerne. Marie de France seems to work with genetics. Petronias’ werewolf and Demarchus of Acadia were ritual based. Item based change, with an attendant deal with the devil, was most commonly use in the early modern/Renaissance era. Werewolves of the eras could be cured, typically by being struck three times by certain objects (with the spread of Christianity). They were a mix of monstrous (classical and early modern) and sympathetic (classical and medieval). Virtually all traditional werewolves were male (only one female comes to mind, in Gerald of Wales), from Lycaeus to Alphouns, Bisclavret to Gorlagon.

The “traditional” has become considered traditional due, I think, to saturation. Most modern audiences know the werewolves of movies and modern horror novels (and urban fantasy of the last decade). Few know the older stories, especially the early modern, medieval, and classical.

Are the “traditional” in any way worse than the traditional? No. But, as some authors rediscover the older sources, I’ve seen readers scream that the figures “aren’t right” because they don’t have the “traditional” attributes. I think this is another area where some awareness of history and awareness of just how young some of our “traditional” things really are is helpful.

Living History: The False Premise of Claims of Revisionism

Continuing my theme of history . . .

I think we have a problem in how people view history, particularly in the U.S. Too many view history as a dead thing. It is not. History is a living entity, but the view that it is dead spawns myriad false claims of historical revisionism.

A brief pause.

Historical revisionism is a thing. However, historians do not (generally) perform historical revisionism. Politically, religiously, or otherwise motivated non-historians are typically those who perform historical revisionism, due to a partially false premise.

On the one hand, there’s the view that history is the past and therefore is unchanging. On one level, this is correct. However, our understanding and information about history changes constantly.

It is true that history means the events of the past. It is true that the past doesn’t change, therefore history doesn’t change.

We are constantly making new archaeological discoveries, developing new technologies that help archaeologists. We are also re-studying and thereby better understanding the discoveries of the past (such as Schleiman’s Trojan artifacts or the sack or Rome). We are always finding new documents (legal, literary, personal) and better understanding older versions of languages (whether Middle English, Sumerian, or whatnot). We also apply more advanced methods to acquire information (DNA analysis, for example). All of these shift our understanding of the information we have gathered, provide new information, and often create new questions to be answered.

I wonder, sometimes, if there is a difference between American and Eurasian understandings of history, given the wealth of visible ancient historical sites throughout Europe and Asia and the plethora of archaeological discoveries on both continents, particularly in major European cities. I’m not sure, really. But, from my own travels in Ireland and England, and to a lesser extent China, I love the fact that 500, 700, 1000, 1700 year old ruins and restored buildings are almost literally everywhere and right next to brand new buildings.

Image(Photo: Tower of London [foreground] and “The Gherkin” [background], credit: lordtaltos, 2008)

What Happened?: The Complexity of History

I’m going back on a history talk again, this week.

This time, I’ve been thinking about history, alternate history, and the nature of both for a couple months now. Basically, my thoughts come down to: history is an extremely complex thing.

We like to make history simple and easy. It is easier to learn that way, it is easier to write overview fictional histories that way. But, real history is anything but simple. I’ll take on illustrative example: literacy in Europe.

The short, simple version: literacy rates rose in Europe starting in the 15th century because of the printing press.

It’s really a lot more complex than that.

The printing press had been around for a while, but it took a confluence of three big things occuring at roughly the same time for literacy rates to skyrocket.

First, movable type had to be invented. Previously, printing presses used a single piece of metal upon which the texts was etched. The plate was then melted down, recast, and re-etched with a new text. Obviously, this limited the number of copies that were printed, how quickly new texts could be printed, etc.

Second, the development of rag paper had to come along. Rag, cotton, paper was much cheaper than parchment or other media of the day. This development was fed by the Plague and consequent deaths that left behind an abundance of rags in the form of the clothing of the deceased.

Third, the Plague. The deaths caused by the Black Death created greater socio-economic mobility. Therefore, people, on average, made more money as the labor force shrank and relocated. As a consequence, more people ate meat, which meant more tallow (animal fat) was produced. More tallow meant more candles, more candles meant people stayed awake after sunset. And what do you do in a Renaissance city or town after sunset? You go to the pub or stay at home and read. Theaters hadn’t become widespread that soon and there was little to no other entertainment for 97% of the populace.

Had even one of these three events not occurred fairly close together, book production and literacy rates may not have risen for another century or more. And even the above account is somewhat simplified, as there are potentially several other factors that could come into play.

This, I think, is where the alternate history genre gets very interesting, and difficult. It’s not necessarily whether Julius Caesar was born or not, it’s often little, seeming inconsequential, things that have some of the largest impact in history.