Historical Fiction vs. Historical Fantasy: Which Is It?
I’ve noticed a debate in online historical fiction groups about the difference between a historical novel and a historical fantasy. On first glance, the difference is clear. A historical novel is set during a historical period on Earth, with real historical details as to politics (names of rulers), technology levels, and clothing styles. Definitive examples include Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Even novels such as Gone with the Wind, where the characters didn't exist and there is no proof that the plotline really happened, are considered historical fiction. However adding an element that could not happen in the real world – such as vampires, dragons, ghosts, or sorcery – makes it historical fantasy as long as the action takes place on Earth. Recent popular examples include Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. But I don’t think these genres are quite so clear-cut. During most of human history, everyone believed in things that we moderns say do not exist, just as things exist today that our ancestors would consider magic.
How about when a modern novelist tackles these ancient days of yore? When does a historical novel become a historical fantasy? In my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, which takes place in medieval France, characters accept that illness came from foul air or bad food, but might also be the result of demon attacks or divine punishment. Precautions against these include actions we would call superstitions, such as wearing amulets or avoiding certain activities on “unlucky” days. I detailed many of these “magical” practices, but left it up to the reader whether they actually worked. As far as I was concerned, I was writing historical fiction authentic for its time period.
My Rav Hisda’s Daughter duo, Apprentice and Enchantress, takes place in 4th-century Babylonia, where no one doubted that "magic" was real (the word “magic” comes from Magi, Zoroastrian priests who were part of the ruling Persian hierarchy). Most of my characters are members of the community of rabbis who created the Talmud, the text that has been the source of Jewish law and tradition for 1500 years. But the Talmud is more than a corpus of complicated legal arguments. Tales abound of rabbis, and sorceresses, who perform actual magic.
I wrote both books from the heroine’s first person POV, which meant that I, the purported author, believed just like everyone else that misfortunes such as disease, miscarriage and premature death were caused by demons, sorcerers’ curses, and the Evil Eye. She/I also believed that these problems could be cured or prevented by spells inscribed by skilled healers on amulets and incantation bowls.
In Apprentice, my heroine trains to become one of these healers. All the incantations I include are authentic, that is from archaeological evidence and ancient magic manuals. Some are found in the Talmud itself. Though the techniques she learns would certainly be considered magic today, I tried to stay on the historical fiction side rather than cross into fantasy. My heroine sensed, not saw, the angels who made her incantations work. When her father cast a spell to control the wind, the wind might have changed direction on its own rather than him having caused it to do so. When she suffers a near-fatal illness, she dreams of the hero’s battling the Angel of Death to save her.
So it would appear that my novel is a historical fantasy. Except that my characters are pious historical figures whose actions are documented in religious texts. How do we classify historical novels with saints or Biblical figures who perform miracles? One person's miracle can be seen as magic by someone else. What about divine, or angelic, intervention?
Here’s another thing to ponder. The very definition of magic assumes that it doesn’t work, but the kind of healing magic that Rav Hisda’s daughter and her enchantress colleagues practiced may very well have worked. We know today that the placebo effect is real, even when the patient knows it’s a placebo. So casting a spell that calls upon angels to force the demons afflicting a person to flee might indeed make the person better. The same for chanting psalms in the sickroom.
In fact, one of her “magic” procedures, that of saying an incantation while washing one’s hands three times to protect against demons in the privy, would certainly work. Substitute “bacteria and viruses” for “demons” and you have one of the best prophylactic practices in modern medicine.
These days we agree that vampires, golems and jinn do not exist except in the realm of fantasy. But over 75% of Americans believe in angels and many people have sensed the spirit of a recently deceased loved one. And whether sorcery exists depends on how you define it. Personally, I think microwaves and wireless Internet are pretty magical.
Hopefully everyone understands the difference between Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but even reviewers may not agree about novels at the fuzzy border where something supernatural makes an appearance. That leaves it up to readers to learn more about the plot and decide for themselves if a particular book might be one they’d enjoy – exactly as they did before this dichotomy.
Which is one of the reasons websites such as Reading the Past are necessary.