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Fantasy > Authors and readers - how important is history to Fantasy?

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message 1: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments I just posted a blog entry on this topic, but thought I'd see what kind of discussion can be had here on Goodreads. The link to my blog article is below, but in a nutshell I discuss how strong fantasy (and scifi) novels usually (though not always) have a sense of permanence or history that is more than just dumping "facts" onto a reader's lap. There's providing "history", and then there's the masterful delivery of a world that seems to exist beyond a book's covers. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are examples of such a world. What other novels have successfully created this kind of experience? And how critical is it to a truly satisfying story?

If you're interested, here's the blog entry:
Fantastic History: http://welinde.com/2012/09/09/fantast...


message 2: by Amy (new)

Amy (aimz89) I think its vital, it really creates the feel of a historyed place and peoople. From my understanding things like that, that include histories, original languages and the like are more often considered 'High Fantasy' and I more readily pick up a book of High Fantasy, like the works of Tolkien, G.G.Kay and C.S. Lewis than those who lack that history. Not that they aren't good nor have less effort in them, I just find it more fulfilling and satisfying to pick up a well rounded and historyed book, than one who may refer to past events or names but have nothing but that hollow name to back it up.


message 3: by Amy (new)

Amy (aimz89) oh I meant to say that I feel Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry produces this depth of history and evolution beautifully!


message 4: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments Great comments, Amy. I think it definitely takes a gifted writer to weave together these kind of elements and present them in a manner that is relevant and interesting. I also like your "hollow names" comment. I've read books where the author falls far short of convincing me that there is any depth to references made to historic items, people or events. I have not read The Fionavar Tapestry...I'll have to take a look!


message 5: by Amy (new)

Amy (aimz89) It's amazing, it actually *gasp* replaced LOTR as my faourite book, it just to me feels so much more real, I feel that at times Tolkien can take the high and mighty sacrafice for the good of man kind road, but doesn't always touch on true passion or romantic love. I found all those needs satisfied in Summer Tree, Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road, the three books from the Tapestry. Beautifully woven with language, passion and storied history and geography, it's a fitting bedfellow for such an epic as Tolkiens. I only learned recently, but G.G.Kay, the man who wrote the Tapestry trilogy, actually worked with Christoper Tolkien on the Simarillion before it was p ublished!


message 6: by Anthony (last edited Oct 20, 2012 07:19AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anthony Cardenas (aecardenas) | 44 comments W.E. wrote: "I just posted a blog entry on this topic, but thought I'd see what kind of discussion can be had here on Goodreads. The link to my blog article is below, but in a nutshell I discuss how strong fant..."

I think one of the best examples of "world building" in fantasy fiction has been Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, which starts with Gardens of the Moon and ends with the tenth volume, The Crippled God. The sheer scope and depth of this series is astounding.

I know a lot of people use Lord of the Rings as 'the gold standard' in fantasy fiction...but aside from the language creation, and some substantial backstory (primarily from The Silmarillion) the rest of it is pretty standard Good versus Evil fare, the characters more iconic than fully fleshed human beings (or elves or wizards, for that matter). Yes, the Silmarillon is nice, but it isn't anything beyond a collection of cool myths, something that you would find in a collection of Norse or Greek mythology as written in the semi-poetic language of the King James bible.

In the Malazan series, though, every character is fully fleshed out and realized, their histories, their religions, their cultural mores...the amount of thought that went into building this world is incredible. The characters are neither good nor evil, but simply human beings (or gods, for that matter) who are trying their best to make their way in the world.

Erikson was, I believe, an archaeologist by profession, and so the races and cultures in the series feel real seemed to have originated logically, born out of the geographic and social necessities of the time and place.

Also, Erikson doesn't "data dump"...in fact, much to the frustration of many who have attempted to read his work...quite the opposite. If you have ever read Frank Herbert's DUNE saga...he sort of just throws you right in the middle of this world with everything already formed and in place, and then gets on with the story, every character interaction and dramatic development giving tantalizing clues about the strange and wonderful history hidden deep inside this magnificent world that these characters operate in.

I wrote a review of Gardens of the Moon that you might want to read if you are the least bit interested in taking on this 10 book series.

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

Cheers!


message 7: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments Anthony wrote: "W.E. wrote: "I just posted a blog entry on this topic, but thought I'd see what kind of discussion can be had here on Goodreads. The link to my blog article is below, but in a nutshell I discuss ho..."

What you've described with the Malazan series sounds fascinating. It would take a tremendously talented writer to deliver such detail in a manner that's both relevant and interesting. So I'll definitely want to check out the series.

While I think that Tolkien's world development is quite a bit more advanced than what you're alluding to, I definitely agree with you on Herbert's Dune series. There are few that have matched his ability to tell an exciting story in the context of complex political machinations AND a rich fictional historical context. If Erikson is on that caliber, then I will certainly have to check him out.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!


message 8: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Van Orman | 4 comments I think it all speaks to world-building and is very important. George Martin used actual history and tweaked it a bit so that it already had a resonance with his readers. The Wall is Hadrians wall and the people of the North are the picts. And he used other things as well. When you ground your would in history it makes the story so much more believable. He just claimed history and made it his own.


message 9: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments Sharon wrote: "I think it all speaks to world-building and is very important. George Martin used actual history and tweaked it a bit so that it already had a resonance with his readers. The Wall is Hadrians wall ..."

Great point, Sharon. I think Robert E. Howard did the same thing (with a lot of artistic license, of course), with Hyperborea and the world of Conan the Barbarian. He pulled quite a bit from world history, and presented his own "Alternate history" of the world. Though many don't take to Howard, I'm a big fan. Thanks Sharon!


message 10: by Anthony (last edited Oct 18, 2012 07:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anthony Cardenas (aecardenas) | 44 comments W.E. wrote: "Sharon wrote: "I think it all speaks to world-building and is very important. George Martin used actual history and tweaked it a bit so that it already had a resonance with his readers. The Wall is..."

Love Robert E. Howard's Conan series. His writing was electric and the characters leapt off the pages. If you like Howard...then you have to definitely try Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser series. AWESOME series. Those two characters are so cool, so hilarious, so capable and yet so prone to getting drunk and chasing women..and Leiber's writing is just fantastic. He was really quite the prose master.

What I like about Howard and Leiber so much is that they wrote stories with living breathing characters that felt real and who's choices in life aren't easily categorized as good or evil...they are people, who make good and bad decisions, who are weak sometimes and strong at other times.


Anthony Cardenas (aecardenas) | 44 comments Herbert's Dune series. There are few that have matched his ability to tell an exciting story in the context of complex political machinations AND a rich fictional historical context. If Erikson is on that caliber, then I will certainly have to check him out."

Erikson's work is just as in-depth as Herbert's. We're talking about a history that goes back hundreds of thousands of years with things that happened back in prehistoric times having a direct and real impact on contemporary times, in the Malazan world.


message 12: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments Anthony wrote: "W.E. wrote: "Sharon wrote: "I think it all speaks to world-building and is very important. George Martin used actual history and tweaked it a bit so that it already had a resonance with his readers..."

I'm so glad you recommended Leiber! A friend of mine loved the Gray Mouser, and years ago encouraged me to read them. I never got around to them, and I haven't thought of the Gray Mouser in years. I'm currently on a mission to read certain classic authors that I haven't given sufficient attention to (just finished reading books by H.G. Wells, a collection of HP Lovecraft, and will soon be reading another Conan story (Queen of the Black Coast). Now that you bring it up, the Gray Mouser will be a great way to start my 2013 reading list (2012 is now filled up). Thanks!


message 13: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Van Orman | 4 comments W.E. wrote: "Sharon wrote: "I think it all speaks to world-building and is very important. George Martin used actual history and tweaked it a bit so that it already had a resonance with his readers. The Wall is..."

I've not read Robert E Howard. I will have to go look for him. I love stories that have scope and depth and for me, historical development helps so very much.

I have read some of the Dune books, but I've not read Leiber. I'll have to check that out as well :)


message 14: by A.L. (new) - rated it 5 stars

A.L. Butcher (alb2012) | 848 comments History is important in fantasy I think. If say the novel takes place after a war I want to know what war, who was involved not just "oh the war."

LOTR has such a rich background and that is important, the elves getting to the end of their time and the rise of the humans, the elves fighting Sauron beforetimes. It all adds. A lot of the time the world as it is does not make sense else.


message 15: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments Alexandra wrote: "History is important in fantasy I think. If say the novel takes place after a war I want to know what war, who was involved not just "oh the war."

LOTR has such a rich background and that is impor..."


I agree, Alexandra. What I love about LOTR is that the reader knows there is a lot of back-story, but doesn't need to know every detail. That creates what I think of as a "sense of permanence" about the story. The reader understands the world that they are exploring through the novel has somehow existed for some time, and will exist after they're finished reading the book. And I think that Tolkien is one of the great authors who was so successful at this that his work is resonating 75 years after The Hobbit was published.

I'm also thrilled that I've been pointed to a number of other works that have this kind of rich background. My "to read" list has grown, thanks to this thread!


Heimdall Thunderhammer | 4 comments All these comments are spot on. I really believe that creating history is far more important in fantasy than in any other genre. In most cases, you are literally building a new world, or at least a completely different view of the one that already exists, so if you can't create the feeling of a past then it's hard to get the readers invested in (or care for) the present.


message 17: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments Heimdall wrote: "All these comments are spot on. I really believe that creating history is far more important in fantasy than in any other genre. In most cases, you are literally building a new world, or at least a..."

I like how you framed your perspective. For fantasy in particular, readers are expecting to not only care about the characters, but to be immersed in a world that they care about. I've read books where I was so uncommitted to the world I was reading about that I groaned every time the author dropped another load of "history" on me. I appreciate your thoughts!


message 18: by J.D. (new)

J.D. Hughes (jdhughes) | 46 comments I enjoyed the 'dropped another load of history on me' comment! Authors can become so immersed in their world that they sometimes forget about progressing the storyline. It's the result of enthusiasm and a lack of discipline.

Walter M. Miller with 'A Canticle For Liebowitz' and Frank Herbert with 'Dune' both achieved a sublime balance between historical overload and maintaining storyline flow. Both, in my opinion, then failed to do so with subsequent books: 'Saint Liebowitz and The Wild Horsewoman' for Miller and any of the remaining 'Dune' series for Herbert. It's a difficult trick to pull off in a series.

I don't write fantasy, but my supernatural thriller 'Northman' is concerned with real history interpolated with alternate timelines and I'm constantly aware that readers may not share my enthusiasm for 9th century England, so I try to be brief. Sometimes without conviction!


message 19: by D.E.M. (new)

D.E.M. Emrys (d_e_m_emrys) | 17 comments They say that history repeats itself...
And the say that any story has already been told once before, but in a different way...

I think that history is HUGELY important to fantasy. Sometimes people base their writing on it, sometimes they purposefully fight against it.


message 20: by W.E. (new)

W.E. Linde (welinde) | 9 comments J.D. wrote: "I enjoyed the 'dropped another load of history on me' comment! Authors can become so immersed in their world that they sometimes forget about progressing the storyline. It's the result of enthusias..."

It seems most of the commentators here agree on the need for historical context of some sort, but you make a great point about the delivery. It takes a skilled writer to deliver it in a way that agrees with, and enhances, the story being read. There are probably countless ways to do that, but if the author isn't careful, the reader could come to loathe the "historic " bits. Thanks JD!


message 21: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Van Orman | 4 comments Yes, that is very true. You don't want to feel like you are at a history lecture. That can really take away from the effect of the story.


message 22: by J.D. (new)

J.D. Hughes (jdhughes) | 46 comments Thanks, W.E. When researching 'Northman', I lived and breathed Viking culture, went to Viking re-enactments, visited historical sites and spent many long hours digesting mediaeval texts. I even bought a replica 9th century helmet! I loved it.

It was easy to want to offload all that 'enthusiast' information onto the poor old reader and my first draft was like a primer in 9th century Norse culture. Tedious and dry.

So, I went back to basics and cut anything that didn't move the story forward. And immediately I had a story that was dynamic, exciting and - so I'm told - vivid and involving. You can judge for yourselves here: http://wp.me/s24Exb-northman

Fortunately, 'Northman' is not set entirely in 9th century England, so the temptation to go "hey, look at this interesting fact about Viking middens" became less of a problem as the story progressed.

I recently read 'Pillars of The Earth' by Ken Follett and he achieved that balance between showing the life of a mediaeval stonemason and what is a terrific story. Many historical romance writers also do a fine job of creating the period detail in the background and allowing the storyline to dominate. It's a great skill I admire, despite my lack of enthusiasm for historical romance.

In terms of fantasy, Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' and Frank Herbert's 'Dune'(okay, it's SF) are, imo, superb examples of the control of imagined history.

Above my desk is a sign. It's scribbled in magic marker. "Less is more".


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