Historical Fiction is a Type of Fairytale

Author G.M. Baker writes “serious popular fiction”, the kind of story that finds the truth of the human condition. A perfect kind of story, if you ask me! The Needle of Avocation is the third novel in his series Cuthbert’s People.


Historical fiction has traditionally been regarded as a realist genre, but I think it has as much to do with fairytales as it does with realism. I write both historical fiction and fairytales, and my fairytale novel, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, and its heroine, Isabel, feel very similar to my eighth-century historical, The Wistful and the Good, and its heroine, Elswyth. I can easily imagine these two young women having tea together and telling each other their stories without either raising an eyebrow at the other’s adventures. When I stumbled on this passage from G. K. Chesterton, I realized why the similarity seemed so strong.

“Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

This is why historical fiction and fairytales feel so alike and why historical fiction is a kind of fairytale. This is not to suggest any compromise to the historical rigor practiced by most writers of historical fiction. The worlds in which most historical novels take place are already fantastic worlds, even if they are refined and distilled versions of genuine historical times and places. The real court of Henry VIII was wild and full of marvels. Sane men and women there had to take great care to keep their heads. Henry VIII has more in common with the Queen of Hearts than with Charles III. Henry is a fairytale ogre, and Anne Boleyn, the most fabled creature in the historical fiction cannon, is either a fairytale princess or a fairytale enchantress. 

The other favored places and periods of historical fiction are all fantastic worlds: the ships of Nelson’s Navy, Nazi-occupied Europe, the Rome of the Ceasars, the courts of the Sun King and the Tsars. My own historical novels take place in the immediate aftermath of the great Viking raid on Lindisfarne. Most historical novels are set in those times and places where the pot has been stirred, and all is glamour, excitement, and danger. Historical fiction finds and inhabits the fairytale moments of the past. 

Worldbuilding is as integral to historical fiction as it is to fantasy and fairytales. JRR Tolkien, in his famous essay On Fairy Stories,described what he calls “literary belief.”

That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the storymaker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

This is exactly what is expected of an historical novelist: to create a world that feels like the past come alive. It also perfectly describes what happens when an anachronism breaks the spell of that living past. The author of fairytales and the historical novelist paint with a slightly different pallet, but their art is fundamentally similar. Both strive to create and maintain a wondrous and delicate world of marvels and chart the course of a sane man or woman through that wonderland. 

It is for this reason that characters can pass so readily from one genre to the other. The Arthur of Bernard Cornwell’s Winter King, for example, is as much Arthur as the Arthur of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The incidents and accidents of the stories are different, but both show the clear character of a sane man trying to learn how to live in a mad world. 

Tolkien commented on the porous nature of any boundary there might be between history and Faerie: 

It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faerie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred’s defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faerie. 

The entry of the sane person into a world of wonders is also a motif expressed on many historical fiction covers: a woman, usually quite normally dressed for her time, and without any unusual adornments or apparatus, faces into a scene which, in one way or another, bears the marks of Faerie. It might be a grand manor house, a smoking town with warplanes above it, the throne room of a palace, a sea with a distant ship, an internment camp, or a madhouse. But in each case, these covers say the same thing: here is a sane character entering into a mad world. What will a healthy woman (or man) do in this fantastic place?

For readers, recognizing that historical fiction is a type of fairytale opens new possibilities for discovering the kind of tales they enjoy in a different genre. For writers, it provides a useful exemplar of the devices that build the drama of a sane person in a mad world, and can perhaps remind us of what truly matters in building and preserving the integrity of our fantastic subcreated worlds.

Many thanks, G.M. – also known as Mark! – your analogy of historical fiction as fairytale brings a compelling insight to the genre. Monsters and mad worlds are great thoughts to keep in mind. Best wishes for your latest novel.

The Needle of Avocation by G.M. Baker

Hilda is the second sister, the plain one, the overlooked, the put upon. She is also the finest needlewoman in Northumbria, though she distrusts anyone who tells her so. Her mother, Edith, was born a slave and seduced and married a thegn’s son, a fact which embarrasses Hilda greatly. 

Edith has tricked the local ealdorman into betrothing his only son and heir, Anfaeld, to Hilda, an arrangement unwelcome to everyone but Edith, and particularly to Hilda who would rather retire to a nunnery and spend her life in embroidery. 

It is Hilda’s right to refuse the marriage, but the future of her mother and sisters may depend on her making the match, a role that should have fallen to her enchanting older sister Elswyth, who was kidnapped by vikingar three years earlier. 

On the way to her wedding, Hilda meets a heartbroken king, his petulant child bride, an abbess who wrestles with a great torment, and the shy young man she is supposed to marry. 

Feeling herself mistreated by them all, including her prospective mother-in-law, Hilda resolves to refuse the marriage and become a nun. But first she must solve the double enigma of what really happened to Elswyth, and why Anfaeld himself has not refused the marriage.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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