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.

Werewolf Story

Last night I read “The Rabbi Who was Turned into a Werewolf” from The Mayse Book (1602).  There are a lot of parallels to Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and William of Palerne.  More Marie than the other, but there are still a few echoes.  It is also a lot more mysogynistic than its predecessors.

That said, I find it rather interesting.  What I find most interesting is that it is an early modern sympathetic werewolf tale and story-genre fiction.  The early-17th century accounts are all “monstrous werewolf” or “lycanthropy as mental illness” in form, as are their 16th century predecessors.  So, based on that alone, I find this sympathetic story stands out.  The genre is also an interesting thing.  Every discussion of werewolves after the 14th century, at least based on my research (dissertation and book), is a treatise, court document, broadsheet, memoir, or play (in fact, I can only think of one play).  This story, hearkening back to both the subject matter and form of the 12th and 14th centuries, seems to be a throw back.

In fact, I wonder how much it predates The Mayse Book.  Based on its components, I suspect it is probably a 13th or 14th century story, although it could be older, that managed to survive long enough in popularity within Europe’s Jewish community to be transcribed into the 17th century book.

History 2435: Why do Empires Fall?

Fantasy and sci-fi are chock full of fallen, lost, or otherwise no longer present civilizations.  They’re as much a staple as elves, dwarves, warp drive, and droids.  So, how do civilizations fall?  And, do how often do they completely die out?

We know civilizations can completely die out.  We have evidence for this throughout Mesopotamia.  However, in the last 3,000 years, the number of totally wiped out civilizations (in the Western world at least) is practically zero.

Also, there is rarely a clear cut end date for empires.  To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in history like the dramatic end of Atlantis (one night of destruction). Obviously, this doesn’t mean such and end can’t exist in fantasy or SF.  But, when every civilization falls or dies that way, it gets a bit old and loses dramatic effect.

Most, if not all, empires and civilizations end up dwindling away with a whimper.

I’m going to use the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Mongolian Empire, and medieval France to illustrate both why empires fall and how they often continue on as civilizations for centuries after their imperial demise.

Medieval France presents a perfect example of a factor in the death of an empire: government.  In the case of medieval France, lack of a strong central government nearly killed the kingdom before it really began.  For much of its medieval history, French government was dispersed among the nobles.  Each noble governed his own territory.  The king was basically a noble with more responsibility, a fancy title, and no more power than any other noble.  The French king really only controlled the land around Paris.  His authority only extended as far as his knights could reasonably ride to enforce his edicts.  Beyond a day’s ride or so from the city, the king had no power.  And France’s neighbors took advantage of this decentralized power, as did the Vikings (who sacked Paris multiple times).

The Mongolian Empire perhaps the three biggest things that allowed the Mongolian Empire to exist were its excellent communication/postal system, tactics and strategy, and its firm central government.  On the other hand, its hidebound customs and relative inability to change with the times led, I think, to its downfall.  The primary custom that needed to change was the election of new rulers.  When every general needs to return to the capital to vie for the top spot, it causes problems.  Were it not for Genghis’ death, the Mongols may have made greater strides into Europe.  But, the empire never recovered its momentum after Genghis’ death.  That said, it still took a few generations for the empire to completely fall and even so the civilization never died out, as evidenced by the Mongols’ return to the largely herding culture of their forefathers that is still alive and still called Mongolia today.

The British Empire, I think, largely collapsed for two major reasons (and a whole host of others).  Perhaps the most important is the force of history.  Cultural changes and the aftereffects of WWII led to a shift in views and ethics, particularly amongst those who had formerly made up the colonial police and British military.  Those shifts tended toward anti-colonialism (in Britain, France, and elsewhere).  Combined with this change in views came the realization of just how unsustainable, in terms of finances and manpower, a military empire is (e.g. the cost of maintaining a global navy, army, and colonial police).  Add in the post-WWII distaste for war that creeped through Europe, and there’s a recipe for the end of the empire.  Obviously, those, the empire was not dismantled overnight (in fact, there are still colonies and the queen is still technically the Canadian head of state), nor did British civilization die out.  It merely changed, adapted, evolved.

The Roman Empire fell, some claim, due to the “bread and circuses”, but I don’t think this is really true.  They may have been a factor, but if so, I think they were a minor factor.  Instead, I think there were four major factors that ultimately led to the empire’s fall.  First, the Romans reached the geographical limits of their technology, then tried to push farther.  The key technology in this case being communications.  Unlike the Mongols, they never set up anything like a high speed communication service.  This led to the creation of two capitals, which decentralized governance and power, and hastened the cultural divide between the eastern and western empires.  Additionally, lack of speedy communications meant that the emperor and senate rarely had up to date information about events along the empire’s borders (such as Britain).  Tied to this was the empire’s need for continual expansion.  In order to maintain its standing army and the bureaucracy necessary for a nation of its size, the Roman Empire had to keep expanding, conquering new territory (and thus bringing in more taxpayers and more spoils of war).  That’s a non-sustaining system.  On a related note, the army that kept expanding the empire and kept the peace was eventually a non-citizen army (sometimes fully mercenary).  In time, only the officers were Roman citizens and service in the legions was a path to citizenship.  Of course, it could be easier for the soldiers to simply take citizenship by force, which some legions did occasionally.  Finally, from what I recall from a civ course many years ago, many of the Roman emperors, particularly the later ones, spent most of their time looking backward to a fictional, idealized, glorious Rome of yesteryear.  They kept trying to put in place legislation regarding morality, to bring things back to the “good old days” and such.  Instead, they should have been looking forward, toward the future (as many of the good emperors did) and living in the present.

I don’t claim to be an expert on history and the above thoughts are a gross simplification, but they are the conclusions I’ve drawn from a fair bit of research and reading.  Whether true or not for our world, perhaps they’ll spark some imaginations for someone’s world building.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?


I’ll say right off the bat, I’m a bit of a history nut.  I did a history minor as an undergrad and specialized in medieval and early modern literature in grad school.  History is fun and important.

Fictional world history is important too, both for fleshing out the world and setting precedent or the origins of current action.  But, in worldbuilding the questions arise: How much history should I provide? and How much detail should there be?

To help with these, I think we need to look at a trio of questions:

1)      Will a simple timeline work or is more detail required?

2)      How geographically broad should our history be?

3)      How far back should the history go?

For a short story or novella, a brief outline or timeline, even a sense of a few major events may be enough.  For other genres, more detail may be necessary.  Still, we need to decide whether our history should cover a small location, a city, a province, a nation, an entire world, or an entire universe or multiverse.  On one hand, I suppose we have to say the whole world at a minimum because no nation, city, or place exists in a vacuum.  They’re all influenced by neighbors.  On another hand, look at how many books are currently in print covering the entirety of Earth’s history . . . lifetimes are spent chronicling a couple aspects of one nation’s history in a specific time period (sometimes twenty years, sometimes five hundred).  Which brings us to how far back should we go.  Do we need “simply” history (from the dawn of writing) or should we include legendary or mythological history, maybe pre-history would help too.  And the snowball rolls down the hill faster and faster, growing larger and larger.

The level of detail and scope depend on the writer’s purpose and desire.  A brief history with room to flesh it out is useful for short stories and novellas, maybe even for stand alone novels that are a lone foray into the setting.  More depth and detail are, perhaps, more useful for a planned series, especially if it takes place over an extended period of time.

For examples: J.K. Rowling and Steven Brust seem to take a brief timeline and fill in details as needed, sometimes popping in seemingly random events (Rowling’s Werewolf Code of Conduct of 1637).  At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Frank Herbert’s epic history of the universe before Dune (largely unpublished, or later published as novelized highlights) and Tolkien’s long history in Silmarillion (a dry read; published, but never intended for publication, meant as a personal reference work).  George R.R. Martin’s history of Westeros seems to fall somewhere in between, leaning toward Herbert & Tolkien.