On Historical Fantasy: The Vinciolo Manifesto

I began The Vinciolo Journal in January 2013 with a post promising content of a literary and historical variety. I target readers who, like me, may be in their twenties (or thirties), are university students or graduates, and are avid readers of fantasy novels. The age and education bracket are the most flexible of parameters, but the theme of my blog presupposes an interest in the literature, ideas, and aesthetic behind  historical fantasy. Anyone with a moderate interest in historical fantasy is bound to be at least informed, or better, entertained.

The original concept behind The Vinciolo Journal was as a way to disseminate my ideas after finishing my Honours thesis. I analyzed Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasy novels, arguing that his work demonstrates how history itself is a fantasy–a narrative of desire. I have reviewed several of Kay’s works on my site.  The purpose of this blog has expanded since then, mostly because items of an academic nature tend not to attract quite so many followers as posts that are more “fun.” It has always been a part of my mission to make my material entertaining or at least digestible. Hence I take full advantage of pictures.

My greatest posts have often attempted to unveil certain items of interest to the fantasist or historical fantasist–or even just the historian. Probably the most famous ever is Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted: Historical Reality and the Creation of the Myth behind Assassin’s Creed because of its popular appeal. A distant second in popularity is my treatment of the Marlowe assassination. In a whirlwind of ‘likes,’ another much beloved post is my review of Dracula by Bram Stocker. Though readers have responded less enthusiastically to my long, three-part articles on the Battle of Culloden and the Gunpowder Plot, they are being continually revisited by people interested in learning.

Another original purpose to this site was to promote myself as a writer. A platform is everything, publishers and editors say, so here is my first crack at finding an audience. I have attempted to steer this blog away from being a site that discusses writing. I am still learning creative writing myself and God knows there are too many writer’s sites out there. However, based on my Honours BA in English literature, I do claim to know something about literature in general, particularly Renaissance drama, historical fantasy, and Canadian poetry. That diploma is the main piece of paper that qualifies me for this blog.

It gives me just enough pretension to compose a manifesto on my views regarding the role that historical fantasy has in the world today. Or perhaps the role in should have, though my pretension stops at ought . Ultimately, I hope I am describing a role that my favourite genre can have.

Our world is defined and distorted by innumerable fantasies: these are called myths, fantasies that are true. They do not necessarily reveal the entire world for itself, but they are able to illuminate certain corners. Ancient civilizations had Graeco-Roman mythology, the Vikings had the Norse gods, and medieval Christendom had the bible. In our modern age, these great stories have fallen from the center of our lives to the periphery in favour of realism, rationalism, and science. However, there is still a chance to recover the significance of these tales. Doing so, we form our own genre, while the hipsters among us–radical folk they are–try to subvert the mainstream.

But make no mistake, hipsters: there is no going back to traditional worldviews. If we return to these tales, it is never to the initial, raw experience of the significance that the original listeners treasured in their bear caves, mountaintop temples, or cathedral naves. Postmodernism claims we can only live such experiences in “quotation marks” (which itself is an oft-quoted phrase about postmodernism). We may try to approximate what it felt like, but everyone who attempts to inevitably carries with him or her the value of hindsight and the attitudes of his or her age. I actually don’t think this is an entirely  twenty-first century phenomenon. The present always impacts how we see the past. This act of reliving is still necessary, despite what distortions of the past time period may occur; reliving  is an exercise that can help us recover ourselves.

Our Twenty-First Century is one marked by ennui, the tiredness that comes as a result of too much media mind-control, which causes us to live in the present moment, expecting immediate gratification. “Life is pain,” said Wesley in The Princess Bride. “Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something.”  We are drowning in newness. But the future has also become blind. Our society promises much, but when we look at how we are actually living, cell phones are drawing us physically farther and farther apart as families and societies, when corporations will have us believe that their main benefit is connection. This irony finds counterparts in a sea of deceits, paradoxes, and false promises. It is the existential fate of people born to be young in the Twenty-First Century. We are crying out for restoration. Perhaps it comes from having been raised in the 1990s, before the Internet got really big, before 9/11, before smart phones, before the social media surge.  Stephan King mentions in On Writing that he was one of the last writers to be born to a generation that remembered the pre-television years. My generation may claim the same relationship to social media.

All this makes  me sound like an old fogie. Rest assured, I am 22. You are also reading me on WordPress. That may be another irony of this postmodern age, akin to the pro-physical activity commercials that appear on TV.  But in all seriousness, we must not become too nostalgic, for that also leads to trouble: being unable to let go of the past. My ideal is to be a free agent, equally aware of where I have come from and where I want to go. We must never forget the past, but we mustn’t be so overburdened that we collapse before we can step forward. And our vision of “forward” cannot be so clouded by false ideals and ideology that it implodes us.

It might be my tendency towards nostalgia that makes me interested in historical fantasy as opposed to good-old epic fantasy. There are many modern-day fantasies, including the whole genre of urban fantasy, but living in a suburb of Montreal, I struggle with the form and setting even one short story near my home, worrying how on earth to make it believable and relevant.  Far more intriguing are the thought experiments and projections historical fantasy can lend you. The past is a distant country where nobody can absolutely verify fact, unless there is strong evidence. “Truth” bends in the past, becoming more flexible, more easily shaped to our will. Though the negative consequences of abusing this power can weigh heavily over us in our awareness of current political issues, for the fantasy writer or artist, this property of history is godsend. What better way to interrogate, using speculative techniques, the systems of cause and effect that brought us out of the Age of Legends and into the present-day, Internet-driven world?

Fantasy is the perfect vehicle to subvert ideologies and restore our vision.  Historical fantasy in particular has the potential to do the job better than epic fantasy, since it always implies the connections to our world and our history. Epic fantasy may use a historical scope, but the degree of removal from “primary world” history may also seem too fanciful for some readers. Historical fantasy that takes place in Planet Earth’s past, on the other hand, hangs onto the living, breathing world you inhabit by at least a tether.

By changing how we view the past, historical fantasy can change how we see ourselves in the present. From there, historical fantasy influences the future.  It is “the kind of escape that brings you home,” to quote Guy Gavriel Kay quoting Douglas Barbour.  That is the power of this genre. It can be use for good or for evil, and it is up to you to decide what that means. The politics of fantasy are inherently subversive, argues Brian Attebery, and can collapse the binaries of good and evil, capitalist and communist, black and white, simply by existing outside the system. It is something other about the “other.”  It may be a powerful force for unity in this world, for the joining of other to the self, which is one of the most noble  goals of literature.

2 comments on “On Historical Fantasy: The Vinciolo Manifesto

  1. Hi Matthew, I would love to submit my first novel, The Sun God’s Heir to you. Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Sun-Gods-Heir-Elliott-Baker-ebook/dp/B00M3FI6VU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407603313&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Sun+God%27s+Heir

    I liked your manifesto and the novel is Historical Fantasy.

    Cheers,
    Elliott

    • Hello Elliott,

      I’m sorry for not getting to you faster. Although I appreciate you sending me your book, at this point, I’ve started school again and that means a lot of other reading. I won’t be able to read your novel right now. Maybe at some much later point (next summer), I might be willing to read another novel. Have you self-published or gone through a traditional publisher?

      Thank you,

      Matthew

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