Fantasy as History

Author’s Note – it has been said that we should ‘write what we know’ and, in that spirit, for my first outing here at Amazing Stories I have decided to crib a little from my recent review of Steven Erikson’s ‘Forge of Darkness’, originally published at Fantasy Book Review in early February.

Erikson and Tolkien

Reading the work of Steven Erikson has often been compared with reading history. Some people throw this phrase as an accusation while others of us deem it a virtue. There is a breadth of scope that belittles many other works of fiction, and the author treats the reader as would a historian a prized pupil – as a fellow devotee and acolyte of this particular aspect of history. This can be a good thing, but also sometimes leaves the reader reeling at the wealth of information and assumed knowledge.

There is only so far that I can step back in time; to be widely read in the fantasy genre is to be 60 years old or to be a full-time reviewer. I am neither, and so my fantasy reading has been limited by the sheer volume of fantasy available to read. Subsequently, I label J.R.R. Tolkien as an inspiration for treating fantasy as history, without dismissing the possibility it could have been authors like Dante or Mallory. Unlike Erikson, we now have access to the history Tolkien was working from, thanks to the tireless efforts of his son Christopher. One wonders whether maybe, sometime down the line, there will be a treasure trove of Malazan history published for our enjoyment.


As it stands, however, to really appreciate Erikson’s work requires reread after reread. Let’s not dismiss the sheer enjoyability of his writing the first time through; there’s a reason I rank him as one of our best living authors. But spend any time on the Malazan forums and you’ll begin to realise you haven’t even scratched the surface, if all you’ve managed is a one-time read.

Steven Erikson is not unaware of what he is doing to his authors, as he explains in his Preface to Gardens of the Moon;

When challenged with writing this preface, I did consider for a time using it as a means of gentling the blow, of easing the shock of being dropped from a great height into very deep water, right there on page one of Gardens of the Moon. Some background, some history, some setting of the stage. I’ve since mostly rejected the idea. Dammit, I don’t recall Frank Herbert doing anything like that with Dune, and if any novel out there was a direct inspiration in terms of structure, that was the one. I’m writing a history and fictional or not, history has no real beginning point; even the rise and fall of civilizations are far more muddled on the front and back ends the many people might think.

So we can surely add Frank Herbert and ‘Dune’ to the works of fiction that have decided fantasy as history was the way to go (I apologise in advance for not having read Dune. Trust me, I’ve read a lot, but not everything.).

Must Know Everything

Personally, I dislike not knowing something; give me issue 600 of Batman and I’m going to need to at least read through the Wikipedia article so I know what’s going on, who’s who, and why Bruce hates guns so much. So when I am reading a Steven Erikson book, I’m usually doing so with my iPad nearby, loaded with the Malazan wiki and forums for easy access to answers. When I finish a book, I’ll similarly spend an hour or so trundling around the internets trying to get to grip on what I’ve read, what I missed, and the innumerable reasons why I’ll need to allocate a few months to reread the whole Malazan world.

This idea of fantasy as history is an interesting one, and rare. So often I read books that are based around the “ease of access” principle. Unsurprisingly, too, considering that authors aren’t necessarily out to limit their audience: it’s a tough industry to begin with, without adding barriers of entry.

So here is my question: is fantasy as history a barrier to entry?

Barriers to Entry

Consider Erikson’s words above, his dismissal of “gentling the blow” of his writing. “ I’m writing a history, and fictional or not, history has no real beginning point.” It’s as if Erikson is writing to those hesitant readers standing in the middle of the bookstore or reading the Kindle sample and telling them from the get-go “you’re going to have to work for your enjoyment if you keep reading, mate.”

Tolkien similarly refused to coddle his readers with his Lord of the Rings (to the point that we could justifiably say he refused to coddle his editors a well). So much is held back until the massive chapter in the middle of ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – ‘The Council of Elrond’ – at which point we’re still left with more questions than we had answered.

Glen Cook in his ‘The Black Company’ series of novels also refuses to give the reader a whole look at the world his creations are traipsing around in, to the point that even his characters are more often than not bemused by events and history: one has to ask the question, if the characters and narrators are confused, what chance does the reader have?

You need only finish one of these books – just one – to realise just how irrelevant that question is. How many times have we heard that “it isn’t the destination that counts, but the journey”? Sure there are authors that are rated highly who don’t burden the reader with the knowledge of unimaginable lost history: just look at Terry Pratchett and Brandon Sanderson, two wonderful authors at the peak of English language writers; neither pays much attention to what came before their stories, and their writing is no less important because of it (I realise this is not so much the case for Brandon Sanderson’s ‘The Way of Kings’).

Writing is nothing if not an ever shifting canvas of storytellers with their own styles and opinions on how to twist a tale.

The Journey

But there is something satisfyingly worthwhile in reading works of fiction which are more than just a beginning, middle, and end. Having to work for something makes the end product all the sweeter; and when we specifically reference creative fiction, writing prose that requires reread after reread to fully grasp the whole of the story is nothing short of genius. What author wouldn’t want to create a book that is guaranteed at least five rereads? What matter that the first three passes left the reader feeling inadequate and confused, they’re now committed to the story and won’t let go until they’ve understood it all.

Fantasy as history provides readers with something that many authors dismiss as ‘too hard’. Too often the easy route is to write thirteen books a year and hope that it all amounts to a kettle of beans. Here though, in the pages of Tolkien, Cook, Erikson, and others, we’re presented with a history posing as fiction.

The real question I want to leave you with is simple: who is to say it’s fiction at all?

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1 Comment

  1. "Who is to say it’s fiction at all?" Great line. I love fantasy as history; I ought to do as I write it! Yet I find Erikson's world … oddly unwelcoming. I've tried several times to get into Gardens of the Moon, feeling that it ought to be right up my alley. The characters always turn me off. History though it be, it needs sympathetic protagonists. Would you recommend any alternative starting point for Erikson?

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