Fictive history and THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS


Last month I was involved in a book discussion that sprawled over the entire landscape of literature, as they do. At one point a person began deriding the recent crop of YA steampunk-Victorians, naming some best selling authors in a disparaging way, pointing out (correctly) that they made many, many period errors, and further (equally correctly) that the protagonists, especially the young women, were 21st Century females dressed up in corsets, using contemporary slang like “okay,” and addressing everybody on a first name basis.

These books, in short, were Wrong.

An outcry went up at that, one pointing out that some of these (like Gail Carriger, among the names derided) is actually writing comedy, which has its own rules.

Does anyone criticize Bertie and Jeeves for wearing the fashions of the 1920s Mayfair in the novels P.G. Wodehouse was still writing in the 1970s? No indeed. The idea of Bertie in bellbottoms and a paisley pirate shirt and headband breaks the bubble of that fragile but ineffable world. Just so, Gail’s indefatigably modern-speaking, modern-thinking heroines wouldn’t romp a tenth so entertainingly if they were depicted as properly pale and passive Dickens heroines, or Anthony Trollope’s ladies who wait most properly for the gentleman to indicate his interest before they dare to fall in love.

It was also pointed out that Georgette Heyer’s books, which one person held up as an example of what ought to be done research-wise, are also full of more subtle errors, but more tellingly, the behavior and language of many of her heroines would be appalling to actual women of Jane Austen’s time—whereas they have a lot more in common with the outlook of the well-born Smart Young Things of London between the wars.

Actual Greek art

Actual Greek art

A third person brought up Wolf Hall as the epitome of the historical novel—to be shouted down by someone else. No, no, underpinnings and prose too postmodern. Cloud Atlas’s eighteenth century bits got equally hammered, as did Nicola Griffith’s more recent Hild, as being chock-full of detail of the sort noticed by a modern skeptic without any evocation of the overlapping paradigms and mysticism of early medieval life, and so the pros and cons batted back and forth with nobody offering an example that everybody could agree on.

I don’t believe anybody is going to be able to write the “perfect” historical novel—if your definition of a historical novel is that it reads indistinguishable from something produced in that time. We can’t. We know too much of the wrong things, without knowing all the details of what life was actually like.

We only have records of what writers of the time wanted remembered—while they left out a great many assumptions that need no explanation because everybody knows them: Jane Austen’s novels are largely peopled by floating heads, as her readership knew exactly what the characters wore, when, and why.

regency era painting

Meanwhile there are those who disparage any historical novel, slagging the entire genre as being at best a regurgitation of what already exists, served with a heaping helping of wish fulfillment or agenda.

With that I take vigorous exception.

The older I get, the more I see literature as an endless conversation with itself, reflecting the variety of human experience, and the novel is the most playful and imaginative form for that conversation.

Through the attempt to evoke different periods of history (however deeply we delve into the details of that time) we get to mess around with different modes of being, which can enable us to come back to ourselves and see our surroundings—which are nearly invisible to us in their everyday order—anew. And have fun.

And the most fun I have as a reader is with a book like Jo Walton’s second Thessaly novel, The Philosopher Kings, which partakes expertly of various periods of history, fantasy, mythology, and science fiction deliberately melded together in this second installment of the Greek goddess Athena’s thought-experiment project of establishing Plato’s Republic.

Late Renaissance idea of Greek myth

Late Renaissance idea of Greek myth

As one can expect from Walton, it’s utterly different from the first book, The Just City, though certain characters and the settings reappear here.

I think a new reader could begin with this book (though I feel that to get the maximum enjoyment the first ought to be read before this one) because even though a main character from The Just City is snatched away from us at the outset, the rest of the book deals effectively with what that means to the surviving characters.

The first three quarters offer a journey, its motivation a mixture of justice, exploration, and revenge. Along the way, our main characters—the incarnate god Apollo, his daughter Arete, several of his sons, a few characters from the first book and some new ones—hold more of those marvelous philosophical discussions that contributed to making the first book such a delight, covering so many subjects—theology, justice, art, human relations, and the crucial difference between envy and jealousy—with the overriding quest for human excellence.

French Rev. idea of Greek myth

French Rev. idea of Greek myth

Every reader is likely to come away with a different theme: mine, after three readings, is how exalting, exhilarating, and challenging it is to do everything one can to work toward being the best human being one can possibly be.

Along the way, we see so many views of what the characters believe constitutes excellence, and how humans set about making it. But this description leaves out all the emotion and passion. Oh, and anger. The character, Kebes, from whom Apollo seeks justice (or vengeance), is very angry. By holding onto his anger, he pretty much guarantees that, in spite of all his work in other directions, resolution is going to include a component of violence.

Ending there would have made a perfectly good book—that’s where many stories would have ended, and there is catharsis—but this novel continues on to explore what is possible beyond anger, leading to an unpredictable twist in a breathtaking new direction.

Even when I don’t agree with the conclusions and opinions of various characters, every discussion sparked reflections when I had to set the book down, and a wish to follow the trails of characters into readings I have yet to make. Put together with sheer enjoyment of the storyline, I came away knowing that this book will be one I’ll enjoy revisiting.








Fictive history and THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS — 10 Comments

  1. I think some of these criticisms are really about being able to show how the person doing the criticism is superior to whoever is daring to enjoy whatever is being criticized. I remember several times when I was enjoying a book or TV show or movie or whatever, and someone came along and in a very condescending tone informed me about All The Errors in it, and it was very clear that I was to feel very small and stupid, and that my enjoyment was to be ruined, forever.

    • I wouldn’t dare to comment on people’s motivations, but I think there are few of us who are experts at something who don’t get thrown out of a fiction if the text makes errors invisible to the commonality of readers. And that can be anything–I remember going with a group of people to see the movie Hairspray back in the seventies, and we kept getting interrupted by a person among our number who kept gasping and shaking her head and saying repeatedly, “That would never happen in any hair salon I know!” and “No, they don’t do it that way!” I don’t think she was trying to parade her knowledge before us ignoramuses, more like, this was her bailiwick, and the filmmakers had taken what she saw as unbelievable liberties.

      Likewise my spouse used to get distracted by errors in firefighting protocols in TV shows, and couldn’t resist commenting, which of course distracted the rest of us.

    • You can’t help but be thrown out by egregious flaws. No one except the most broadly comic author would get away with putting the Eiffel Tower in Rome and the Vatican in London. The difference is what you know determines what was egregious. Like, a lot of people would not blink at a story where a writer knocks off a story in a first draft and sends it off and it’s published.

      A dinner time conversation once revolved about a book. My father objected that the characters never worried about lack of ammunition; my older sister that an early modern woman would regard blue jeans as shockingly immodest; my younger sister and I that the same era would regard the ideas of religious tolerance and democracy as silly, not self-evident.

  2. I admit to being dismissive of the 21st-century females dressed up in period costume because to me, the point of historical fiction is to explore the constraints of an era unlike ours. You’re right that we’re never going to be able to truly replicate fiction of the past–we just know too little–but we know enough to recognize how men and women behaved to each other, and what the consequences were of breaking with cultural norms. I think the point of putting modern women into these earlier settings, with their modern sensibilities, is to bring modern readers comfortably into the past while maintaining their sense of…superiority, maybe? That whole “well, we don’t do *that* anymore” that underlies how we like to root for the underdog. I wonder how many readers today would really be comfortable with heroines who behaved the way the majority of women did in past eras.

    I also feel irritated with the authors who play fast and loose with history in order to make their *characters* superior to all the other poor stupid schmoes who are abiding by the rules of society, as if their characters and their 21st-century wisdom were the first to ever think of such things. Ignorance of all the women (because I think in general this phenomenon is centered on history’s women) who dared flout convention–and as a result paved the way for generations of women to live differently–isn’t something I admire.

    • Good point. While I have no problem with the “historical dress-up” novels–that is, pretty much everybody is a novel’s version of the SCA, modern people playing with the awesome costumes and buildings and intrigue and swords and cloaks of history–I find myself really resenting novels in which the heroes are enlightened postmoderns and the villains all hold the opinions of the day, especially when it’s all couched as thinly disguised religious bigotry.

  3. More to the point probably is those who object to historical fiction’s fictions in novels, television and movies are objecting to the lies they perpetuate that perpetuate and support the lies the members of the class from which most protagonists come — or rise to enter — about the brutality and cruelty, the oppression and repression they utilized to live comfy lives at the expense of those others. Those others who hardly ever appear other than as nurturing and convenient loyalists to the comfort of the protagonists.

    As per usual the most well known, thus the most commonly invoked example of this would be Gone With The Wind, historical novel as well as the movie, which further perpetuates the lie of the Glorious Lost Cause of white supremacy that has further contributed to the contemporary need even past the Civil Rights era for a Black Lives Matter era, i.e. the third Reconstruction.

    These sorts of things happen when the creator really doesn’t understand the politics, material and cultural to the breadth and depth of an historian’s knowledge of an era. And often it happens just because the creator doesn’t give a damn, but because “it makes for a good story.”

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