Hidden Histories: Six Inspirations for Historical Fantasy

Credit Tithi Luadthong

I had been going to skip this one but I read something that turned cogwheels in my head. Blame Imyril and this line in particular:

“if you’ve inserted magic into the past, you’re no longer being historical”

Thing is that for just about all of human history, people have believed in what we broadly call magic. The inclusion of something definitely or potentially magical in historical fiction isn’t necessarily ahistorical; it is simply lending greater credence to certain sources than is generally given. Indeed, for some historical novels, playing with the idea of magic – and therefore straying into the realms of fantasy – is necessary to try and be as historical as can be. See Bernard Cornwell’s speculative historical treatment of Arthur in The Warlord Trilogy. Is that what most historical fantasy does? No, but it’s possible and does happen.

So I decided to do an article where sources give the potential for a historical fantasy that is very true to history but does include the possibility of magic. Bon appetit!

The Battle of Cerami

This battle in the Norman conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily is attested by Geoffrey Malaterra. There are reasons to believe Malaterra’s account is not strictly accurate – the 15,000 soldiers killed by the Normans is probably an exaggeration – and the accounts of St George appearing to help the knights pushes it even further into doubt. Still, what if it was true? What if divine intervention occurred during that battle? How? This and other such tales (such as the probably mythical Battle of Clavijo) would make fertile ground for historical fantasy.

The An Lushan Rebellion

Like many of the Emperors of the Tang dynasty in China, Xuanzong has an interest in Taoist claims to be able to bestow immortality. Not all of them sparked eight year rebellions. A large part of that was due to Xuanzong’s interest in his own pleasures, such as the legendarily beautiful Yang Guifei and seeking to become immortal. Taoist alchemy is rich material in general, but particularly when linked to such seismic events.

Operation Cone of Power

The founding figure of Wicca, George Gardner, claimed that during World War Two the New Forest Coven of witches undertook a ritual to protect the UK from Nazi invasion. The ritual was so strenuous that some of those conducting it died (independent researchers have found that there were indeed deaths of locals who potentially part of it), although by strenuous I mean it was conducted in the nuddie at night. Nazi interest in occultism has made this era well used already (Indiana Jones anyone), but there’s plenty of potential to show it from the other side too.

Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance emerged in Native American spiritual beliefs in 1890 as a ceremony that would reunite the worlds of the dead and the living and in doing so, end westward American expansion and restore prosperity to all Native American people. The Ghost Dance is still used in some tribes – the Caddo and the Lakota – which makes it sensitive ground for a novel, but it remains a seed of interest.

The Predicted Demise of Pope Urban VIII

In 1628, the Pope’s enemies predicted that the coming eclipses would mean his demise. The Pope’s response to that was to turn to one Tommaso Campanella, a Dominican Friar who was famed for his knowledge of astrology and other occult arts (as well as plotting against the Spanish rulers of Calabria). Campanella conducted a magical ritual evoking the solar system and Pope Urban lived another sixteen years. There are many allusions to magic in the Italian renaissance, any of which could enrichen a popular setting for fiction.

Apsethus the Libyan

Look, I’ll be honest, I’ve no idea how to include Apsethus in a story. He was an occultist who attempted to become god in the 2nd century, an attempt that included training parrots to fly around the place to proclaim Apesthus is God. Which is genius. Until someone trained the parrots to badmouth him instead, so people decided he wasn’t a god and burnt him. Still, the point of Apsethus is all sorts of mad things are believed to have happened in history.

Also it’s just a great wee story. And sometimes that’s the whole point innit.


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