Greek Mythology As Historical Fiction, by Glyn Iliffe
While watching Arthur Christmas the other month I remarked to my wife on the modern trend for demystifying all things supernatural. In the film, Santa Claus is no longer a lone agent who uses Christmas magic to circumnavigate the globe in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, heaving his ample waist down chimneys to leave presents for every (good) child on earth. Instead, he is the figurehead of a high-tech organisation populated by thousands of elves who, like an army of miniature Tom Cruises, are able to rappel into homes, plant presents with military precision and exfil before you can say “Happy Christmas”. Gone is the mystery, gone the innocent belief in something numinous. In their place is the cold logic of science.
The same might be said for mythology in modern historical fiction. People don’t stop reading books about Robin Hood just because historical evidence for the main character – and the stories that surround him – is shaky. It’s still a great story. But today’s audience also expect their Robin to be “historically accurate”. They don’t want Lincoln green and merry men anymore; they want thirteenth century mud and a host of cut-throat rogues.
Similarly, how tolerant would today’s readers be of the Arthur of Sir Thomas Mallory’s day, a king in plate armour who fights giants and goes on quests to find the Holy Grail? Aren’t they more attuned to the Arthur portrayed in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles: a pagan warrior, rather than a Christian king, fighting Anglo-Saxon invaders on the one side and – ironically – the spread of Christianity on the other? In Cornwell’s retelling, the armaments, rudimentary technology, culture and attitudes are all intended to meet the modern reader’s expectations of historical accuracy. Obviously, as a writer in the Information Age he has decades of historical and archaeological research at his fingertips, something Mallory never had the benefit of. But Cornwell also chooses to play down the fantasy element of the Arthurian tales, portraying such things as Merlin’s magic in a way that can be read as illusory or the result of superstition.
The trend doesn’t seem to have spread to Greek mythology. The main character in my books is Odysseus, a mythical hero with less historicity than either Robin Hood or King Arthur; and the backdrop is the Trojan War, a Bronze Age conflict for which there is only sparse evidence. Though I’ve always tried to incorporate what little is known about the period – evidence of armaments, political systems, religious practices and so on – I’m more than happy to follow Homer’s example and include elements from later periods if I think they fit the story better. Neither am I averse to the odd mythical beast or interfering Olympian. Yet my books are still classed as historical fiction rather than fantasy.
So why is it more acceptable for gods and monsters to appear in novels about Bronze Age Greece than ancient or medieval Britain? An editor once asked me to consider rationalising the immortals et al as the effects of superstitious beliefs on primitive psychologies, very much in the vein of Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. I admit I gave the suggestion thought, but not much. To dismiss the gods in a retelling of The Iliad is one thing, but what about The Odyssey? Odysseus and his crewmates would need to be on a constant diet of LSD to explain away the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis!
There’s another thing about removing the mythical from Greek mythology – what’s left is just Greek. For those of us weaned on the milk of Jason and the Argonauts before going onto the solid food of Homer, the supernatural is what makes sense of this almost pre-historic world. As archaeology begins to reveal more about the Greece and Troy of three thousand years ago, novels about the era can add more historical fact to the fiction. But to strip out the supernatural would be sacrilegious to readers, as doomed to failure as renaming Christmas Winterval or as bad as telling kids that Father Christmas isn’t real.
Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.glyniliffe.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Historical Novels