Historical Fiction and Mythology in Children's Writing
"The Alexander Trilogy of Mary Renault took me, as a teenager, straight into the world of Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire"
HISTORY IS EXCITING AND FUN; full of extraordinary stories, and an astounding mixture of tragedy, comedy, aspiration and failure; stories about us; which is why writers, both for adults and children, will go back again and again into the past. There is always an appetite for history as entertainment, whether it’s ‘Horrid Histories’ for children, or the historical novels of Mary Renault or Philippa Gregory. Sixteen year old school girl, Marjorie Bowen’s imagination was so fired by fourteenth century Milan that she plunged into a novel about intrigue, politics, romance and death. ‘The Viper of Milan’, published in 1906 remains an icon of passionate and inspired storytelling which brings alive fourteenth century Milan. You can hear her relishing the names and places, and identifying, as perhaps only a schoolgirl can, with the loves and losses of her characters.
Every now and then, there is an extra surge of interest in the historical novel – but that’s how fashion goes with any genre – and it is usually because a particularly well-written book has been such a success, and others step in hoping that the formula may work for them too.
But fashion and formulas aside, a well-researched, yet exciting historical novel can generate an interest far beyond any straight-forward historical account of particular events, and can give a real flavour of a period, interesting a wider readership. ‘The Alexander Trilogy’ of Mary Renault took me, as a teenager, straight into the world of Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire, and it was only later as an adult, re-reading those books, having myself researched the Persian Empires, did I realise how sound her history was.
Although fiction can make the imaginative leap, bringing in emotion, plot, and the sheer power of storytelling, these days, writers of history have been hugely influenced by the narrative of television – whether with Simon Schama or Dr. Who, and have been making history more appealing to a mass audience than ever before. History is also appearing in so many guises, being written not just as non- fiction, or the historical novel, but crossing boarders into travel books, biography and even cookery, often taking on the format of the novel. But then, of all subjects, history is both lateral and vertical, able to creep into all sorts of areas and, when you think about it, is the very hard core on which our storytelling stands.
But there is more than just the enticement and romance of another period. Going back in time often enables a writer to explore events, issues, relationships or situations, which sometimes, can be easier to deal with when removed from a contemporary context. Fantasy and science fiction can perform this role too. It can provide a larger stage on which to tell a story, though the great contemporary novel is often already taking its place in an historical context even before the ink is dry. Shakespeare is a good example of someone who could be subversive, exploratory, and express his ideas through a mixture of fantasy and history, by setting his plays in past history, distant lands, foreign cities, magical woods, and islands. This freed his poetic imagination, and enabled him to be explosive and controversial without risking contemporary criticism or loss of patronage.
Apart from this greater imaginative freedom, historical fiction is a wonderful way to bring alive a period – whether for adults or children – and inevitably cause the reader to make comparisons with their own experience of contemporary life.
Children’s books brought a real understanding about war through fiction, perhaps greater than any fact-driven history book. Writers such as Nina Bawden (‘Carrie’s War’) Michelle Magorian (‘Goodnight Mr. Tom’) Markus Zusak (‘The Book Thief’) Michael Morpurgo (‘War Horse’) brought insight and empathy into what some children thought was a time when the past was in black and white as in old photographs, and bore little relevance to them.
I learned more about WW1 when I contributed a story to Tony Bradman’s anthology ‘Stories from WW1’ (pub. 2014) and had to research the theme I chose, which was about the experience of Belgian children having an encounter with an Indian soldier before the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. It was called ‘The Man in the Red Trousers’.
When I wrote ‘The Surya Trilogy’, I was writing about events which were contemporary to me while growing up. It was salutary to realise that the children who read it, thirty or more years younger than I, saw it as “history!” But ‘Coram Boy’, published in 2000 was definitely history. Set in the C18, I had to research and tune myself into a period right outside my experience – well almost. While delving into C18 London, I realised that many aspects like the streets of London, the filth, the poverty, the injustice, the superimposition of the rich on top of the backs of the poor – were not unlike the scenes I had witnessed in India. Suddenly, I could empathise and feel I “knew” this period.
In ancient times history and mythology often seem intertwined. Great kings and emperors and military leaders knew that, in an age of illiteracy, if their names could become inextricably linked with mythological gods and heroes, it would ensure their own immortality through history.
King Philip ll of Macedonia told his son, Alexander, that to be an emperor you must also be a god, so Alexander the Great’s name is linked with Zeus, Heracles and Amon. He is linked to fantastical tales of deep sea monsters, flying with eagles, talking with trees. Even his death is disputed, with a mythological element to it. I enjoyed writing the real history of his campaigns across Asia – as real as it is possible to know – in a book I called ‘Alexander the Great: Man, Myth or Monster’.
I have loved writing the Hindu myths and legends over the years, including various versions of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. I also found the universal issues in these great stories which were echoed in Homer, and Scandinavian mythology, provided me with much inspiration and sometimes, a structure on which to build my own stories. Likewise, my interest in the fairy stories of Grimm, Hans Andersen, and the Arabian Nights, also inspired me to write my own – ‘Blackberry Blue and other Fairy Stories’ -as so many previous writers and storytellers have done over hundreds of years.