After a couple of weeks of posts concerned with WWI, we now return to our regular programming to discuss historical fiction. Anachronism can be a dirty word when it comes to evaluating historical fiction. By and large, I would agree that blatant anachronism can be dangerous when it undermines the story. However, I would also argue that when used carefully there is a place for anachronism in historical story-telling. I’ve written previously about how complaining about anachronism sucks the fun out of everything. But anachronism can also be put to good use, if used in a conscientious way. I’m going to use examples from the Trojan War, simply because it’s a topic in which I’ve researched pretty thoroughly.
Numerous novels set in the Trojan war run with the Homeric tradition that the Trojans were more or less the same as the Greeks, eg. Colleen McCollough’s Song of Troy and David Malouf’s Ransom. In these stories, Greeks and Trojans speak the same language, worship the same gods, and share the same material culture. The power structures in Greek and Trojan society are organised in more or less the same manner. The idea that the Troy was a mirror image of Greece is in no way historically probable, and if we are trying to understand the novel using the restrictive framework of accuracy, it will fail dismally.
In fact, the historical Troy was in all likelihood a Hittite colony. Eric Shanower picked up this idea and ran with it to great effect in his magnificent Age of Bronze comic book series. His depiction of Troy was hugely effective in that it subverted the reader’s expectations. Another great example of a novel which honours the historical Troy’s Hittite origins is Judith Starkson’s Hand of Fire. Shanower and Starkson deserve kudos for their detailed research and the dense, richly layered depiction of Hittite culture.
However, even as I acknowledge the power of historical verisimilitude in these narratives, I would argue that the traditional depiction of Troy as a kind of Greek polis still honours the story’s historical roots in that it reflects the cultural milieu which produced the Iliad and Odyssey, the primary textual sources for the Trojan War. In this context it can be very effective for the historical fiction author to evoke a sense of time and place rather than to rigidly adhere to the facts, archaeological or otherwise.
Sometimes we imagine that archaeology is an impartial science which provides unquestionable fact. Problem is, there’s no such thing. Archaeology is just as much influenced by the vicissitudes of historical circumstance as any other discipline. Here I think it’s useful to consider the thoughts of classical archaeologist (and spy!) Jerome Sperling is illustrative. When he wasn’t relaying information to the allies, Sperling participated in Carl Blegen’s pivotal excavations at Troy. Blegen’s interpretations of the site were strongly criticised by later archaeologists, who argued that he allowed his experiences of seeing cities levelled by enemy bombing in WWII to influence his interpretation of the destruction of Troy. Questioned about it decades later on Michael Wood’s documentary series In Search of the Trojan War, Sperling responded:
To me it doesn’t have any great significance, this criticism, because everybody’s Troy is different from everybody else’s Troy. It depends on what blend you make of the poetry you’ve read or how much of the archaeology and you care about it, and how much you use your own imagination… I don’t see the need for identifying Agamemnon, say, as being the person there at the end of Troy VIIA. I mean I’m thrilled by, I’m overpowered by Homeric poetry, and I think everyone is who reads it carefully. It’s an over-powering experience. But that doesn’t make it, doesn’t have to make it historical, because you see poetic truth comes in the people that he talks about, their hopes and despair and problems and conflict. That’s where the truth of it is.
So there you have it. I think that if a renowned archaeologist (and puncher of Nazis) can recognise that the power of the Troy lies as much in story-telling as historical veracity, then surely novelists can too.
Until next time,