Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Where Historical Fiction and Fantasy Meet

When does historical fiction become fantasy? Please join me in welcoming Mark Patton to the blog this week. His novel, Undreamed Shores, delves into the deep past that is Mark's specialty, and introduces readers to an extraordinary world that is also our own.

Writers of historical fiction draw extensively on the historical record. It sounds obvious enough, doesn't it? But what if a novelist seeks to take readers back into times so remote that there are no historical records? What do we have to draw on then? There are a few outstanding pieces of fiction which offer inspiration, among which I might cite William Golding’s The Inheritors, exploring the nature of modern humanity through their interactions with the last surviving Neanderthals, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s Reindeer Moon, which takes us inside the world (and the minds) of the first modern humans themselves. Modern humans have been on this planet for between thirty and forty thousand years, but writing emerged only around six thousand years ago, and only in some parts of the world. How do we begin to imagine the lives of the people who lived before this time?

My novel, Undreamed Shores (Crooked Cat, 2012), seeks to give a window into the world of the people who built Stonehenge, four and a half thousand years ago. It is a coming of age story and an epic journey narrative, and those themes, in themselves, provide some starting points: these people, unlike Golding’s Neanderthals, are biologically identical to ourselves, and human emotions probably haven’t changed much. We have to imagine, however, a world without roads or bridges, a world in which, not only the wheel, but also the sail, have yet to be invented. People travelled around on foot (without roads or bridges), or in small boats that were rowed or paddled. That gives us another set of starting points: the writer who wishes to venture into this territory needs to gain a close intimacy with the landscape about which he or she is writing. Our characters would take it for granted.

The most difficult part of the imagining, however, lies in creating a system of beliefs and values appropriate to the time and culture. All peoples have narratives which establish relationships between the present and the past, which provide explanations for the central mysteries of life (how the world came into being; what happens after death) and which provide a basis for the moral order. One has only to think of the Christian calendar, according to which most of us live our lives, irrespective of whether we actually follow the Christian religion; or of the Jewish narratives and rituals of Passover, providing a link between a living people and their ancestors of three to four thousand years ago. These, however, are based on written texts. How do we imagine the narratives and belief systems that must have existed in a culture of exclusively oral tradition?

One approach is to start with an already ancient text and project it back into an earlier, pre-literate, world, safe in the knowledge that most myths embody earlier “substrata.” J.P. Reedman does this very successfully in her novel, Stone Lord (Mirador, 2012), taking the familiar legends of the Arthurian cycle back into the Bronze Age. I do it in a more limited way in Undreamed Shores, the ending of which is based (though, of course, I won’t give this away) on an adaptation of a myth local to the place in which that part of the story is set.

The other approach is to build a wholly invented world of belief and myth, based around the archaeological evidence (the physical modifications that real people made to their landscape) and an understanding (derived from anthropology) of how such belief systems work, and how they are transmitted orally. These imagined worlds and landscapes of the mind are not so very different from those conjured by a fantasy writer such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, except that the familiar laws of physics and biology apply in the final analysis (trees can’t talk, horses can’t fly, people can’t turn each other to stone), however fervently the characters may believe otherwise.

At the heart of Undreamed Shores (set in c. 2400 BC) is a poem telling of an epic journey made by the ancestors a thousand or more years earlier. I have deliberately written it in the style of an orally transmitted text, and have also written in certain descriptions of real archaeological sites: 

“I sing of men who lived before the days
When men piled stone on stone to build a shrine,
Before the marriage of the Earth and Sun,
Before the blackbird learned its lilting song.
Txeru’s song I sing, who journeyed far,
Beyond the world that his ancestors knew,
To undreamed shores through waters unexplored…”
This is the poem that guides the characters in Undreamed Shores to their own destination, but I am now writing another novel which is, in part, a prequel to Undreamed Shores, exploring Txeru’s journey as it might have happened in real time. 

Mark Patton’s Undreamed Shores is published by Crooked Cat Publications, and is available (in paperback or e-book editions) from, and

Crooked Cat will also publish Mark's latest novel, An Accidental King, later in 2013.

Further information can be found on Mark’s website (
and blog (


Ailsa Abraham
author of Shaman's Drum

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyable post, Mark. I'm delighted to hear your next book is in the pipeline now.