Reflections on History and Writing

Joanne:

One of the things about Twitter which still surprises me is its ability to introduce me to people I already know in a different capacity. Thomas Shepherd is a great example of this. We both work and Oxford Brookes University and we’ve been in contact by email through our jobs. Yet it wasn’t until I was tweeting that I realized @shepline was one and the same as Thomas Shepherd. Then I discovered that Thomas writes fiction, and after catching up with Thomas at Brookes I read his book The End Of All Worlds. It is a mash-up of fantasy and environmental concerns, rooted in Icelandic myths.

Iceland

https://www.flickr.com/photos/claudiaregina_cc/10044310136/ flickr.com/claudiaregina_cc

Our chats led us to think about our shared interests in history, especially the way past societies have attempted to explain their origins and the way they told and re-told stories. We put our common interests to different uses, however, and we got to reflecting on the differing processes of writing about them. So I asked Thomas to write a post about the way in which history and legend have influenced his writing.

Thomas:

Recently I visited the excellent Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-Earth exhibitionat Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It was one room full of not just first editions of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and J.K. Rowling books amongst others, but the old manuscripts and artifacts that inspired them. And here’s the thing that they have in common: all these stories were not just the product of their writers’ imagination; they all have a seed of truth in the writing. The philosopher’s stone is real, and there really are old books that detail the mandrake roots…

J.R.R. Tolkien is credited with creating one of the most complete and researched, imaginative worlds that there is. His extensive research into Middle English and Nordic texts is already well-documented: he was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon and used his scholarship and his knowledge to build the world, language and mythos of Middle Earth. Alan Garner and C.S. Lewis too used their own research into Norse history as a background to their stories.

Recently there has been a resurgence in books that take Norse mythology as their starting point. Joanne Harris’ Runemarks books, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Viking Sagas, amongst others. Why is this? Why are we so attracted to the stories? I think partly it is because creating a believable story (and all stories, however fantastical, have to be believable) relies on having a world and history in which to place it. If your story is set in a world of your own making then you have to also create its language and history too. It can be very satisfying, but I find, almost unnecessary when you have the wealth of ready-made history and back-story in the real world.

In Britain it is the myths of Arthur and Merlin, or of the legends of Robin Hood. How many writers across the centuries have found new and interesting ways to tell and re-tell these stories? Some research the historical truths behind the stories and seek to achieve some level of veracity and authenticity to the tale. Other writers take the legends as starting points and weave their own stories around them.

For me, I find the Norse myths are the starting point for my writing. I have not studied Norse mythology like Garner or Tolkien, but have stumbled into it through a sense of place. This is what happened to me. I visited Iceland, saw the landscape, experienced the weather, talked to the people, and felt myself compelled to write. I defy anyone to visit Iceland and not come away inspired to write, paint, make music, or some similarly artistic endeavour.

It helps that there is a strong literary heritage in Iceland; replete with sagas and legends. It also helps that Icelanders still seem to believe in the elves and the trolls – the huldufólk – of folklore. They have a completely natural approach in which they accept that the stories are fantasy and know the scientific truth, but believe in them too – all at the same time.

When I was writing The End Of All Worlds I was concerned that I hadn’t done enough research; that I hadn’t read all the sagas and the traditional tales (if I had have done, I probably would never have had the time to write the novel!). However the beauty of the Norse mythology, as with other ‘historical’ tales, is that there is no one single truth. After publishing this story I read A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok and Joanne Harris’ Runemarks, and both took refreshingly similar, yet different approaches to Yggdrasil (the tree of life), the Bifrost, the nature and temperament of the gods. All of us asked whether Ódinn was good, bad, or something somewhere in between…?

Historians can work independently on the same historical sources: each drawing conclusions that share common roots but are still different, so too can numerous fiction writers use the same myths and legends to create diverse results. Of course historians have to base their theories on evidence… while writers get to pick which bits to base their stories on.

You can read The End Of All Worlds yourself in either paperback or eBook from Amazon, or from your local bookshop. To find out more about T E Shepherd, read his blog, or signup to receive his newsletter about his current and future writing projects, go here: http://journal.shepline.com. Also, do also have a look at the book’s dedicated webpage for more about those illustrations, the worlds, and the playlist of music from and inspired by the story: http://www.words.shepline.com/books/end-of-all-worlds/

Joanne:

I have come across some great folk tales, supernatural stories, as well as people who led amazing or intriguing lives, yet have never used these as inspiration for fiction. I mused for a long while with the idea of a psychological/supernatural novel called ‘The Quickening’ which would be based around a pregnant academic, and the baby-farming scandals of the later 19th century. Yet, it stays as an idea in my head. I admire writers like Thomas who act on these kinds of ideas.

I wonder if I am constrained by the discipline of History. I know its rules – creative writing is just too free! Do other historians feel the same?

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