Using History as Inspiration for Fantasy

Gerard Butler in 300

When others learn I am a writer, one of the most common questions I am asked is “where do you get your ideas from?” Now the obvious answer is “everywhere,” because life is inspiration for fiction.  But one of those places where it is easiest to draw the direct correlations between what I see or learn and what I write is in history.

Some of you might, at this point, be thinking, “Oh yes, kings and knights and castles and all that. What’s new about that in fantasy?” But history encompasses so much human lived experience, and we can use it in far more intricate and interesting ways than just including an idealised image of the medieval world.

I have spent four of the last five years studying degrees on the ancient world. As such I have been immersed in history at the same time as I have written fantasy, and have thus frequently used it for inspiration. Many of the examples I will use below come from personal research of ancient Greece and Rome.

As fantasy authors we can use history in many different ways. I’ll look at a few below.

Cultures and Worldbuilding

This is probably the most obvious way of using history in fantasy. Historical cultures are frequently used as a backdrop on which to build our fantasy worlds. Tolkein, for example, was recorded as having said that the Rohan were based on the Anglo-Saxons, had they had access to huge numbers of horses.

The ways in which one can use cultures in this way are varied. One example would be to take a culture’s beliefs about the supernatural as a starting point for your fantasy culture’s beliefs. I recently read in Herodotus’ Histories about a Spartan king, Cleomenes. He had visited the oracle at Delphi, a sacred site in ancient Greece strongly associated with prophecy, where he was told by the oracle that he would capture Argos. After leading the Spartan army in battle against the Argive army, he defeated them and forced them back to a sacred grove. After capturing this, he learned that the grove was sacred to a hero named Argos and abandoned the campaign; the prophecy had been fulfilled, he had captured Argos, and further campaigning against the city of the same name would be considered hubris, arrogance against the gods.

The beliefs that Cleomenes and his contemporaries held about prophecy are therefore clearly defined: prophecy might be fulfilled in ways one might not expect, but it will be fulfilled, and to seek more than the prophecy has promised is dangerous and impious. Prophecy is something that frequently crops up in fantasy, and this is one way in which you could present it.

Similarly you can take inspiration for your magic system from the real world. Given that it is generally agreed that magic does not exist in the real world, you might be wondering how this would work. But the people of ancient Greece, and indeed the Roman Empire, believed strongly in magic, such that using it – curses and potions and so on – was forbidden in law by the Roman period. People so feared curses that they created counter curses to protect themselves and their deceased loved ones, whose graves might be disturbed by those seeking to curse someone. Curses were very much physical objects by the Roman period – written usually on lead, they featured formulaic language, images of strange beings and symbols believed to be magical; often the rolled up curse tablet was pierced by a nail. These were then buried in graves or deposited in water. It was believed that they worked too – there are inscriptions that have been discovered in temples in which someone has praised a god’s power for striking them down and stated that they have returned items they have stolen in order to be rid of the curse.

These beliefs about curses and the ways the gods interact with mortals have inspired the novel I’m currently planning.  And a curse, not quite taking the same physical form as ancient Greek and Roman curses but based on the same principals, has become a subplot used to illustrate my main character’s attitude towards another character. In the world where this is set, the physical laws are like our own world, but in a world where magic exists and works in the ways the ancient Romans believed, you could certainly have fun with curses.

Settings and Places

Some authors go further than simply using real cultures to inspire fantastical ones, and set their fantasies in real historical contexts, but with the addition of fantasy elements such as magic and mythical creatures. David Gemmell, better known for his Drenai novels featuring characters like Druss and Waylander, also wrote fantasy books set in the ancient Greek world, such as Lion of Macedon.

But you don’t need to go that far to take real settings as inspiration for locations in your stories. A visit to an Iron Age Hillfort in Leicestershire a couple of years ago, on a day when the fog simply would not clear, inspired another story I worked on for a while, in which a fog-wreathed abandoned hillfort was the site of magical goings on which terrified the main character and set in motion some key elements of the plot.

Then there’s the landscape and the way settlements and forts have interacted with the land around them over time. The ancient city of Corinth, built on a narrow strip of land linking the Peloponnese to the rest of Greece, controlled routes between those two areas, and thanks to the wider landscape it also was able to control trade between the east and west Mediterranean via its two harbours, one on the Saronic Gulf and the other on the Corinthian Gulf. The landscape made Corinth rich through trade, and militarily and symbolically important even after the city itself lost influence. A city in a similar position in a fantasy story would certainly be important.

Events

This is going further from what history is usually used for in fantasy, but it is just as valid an area for inspiration. Events from history can inspire anything from an overarching plot to a single scene. Wondering how to get your characters out of a tight spot, or how to ensure a particular army wins decisively when really they’re equally matched? Look to history!

Let’s take that second example, and return to Cleomenes the Spartan king. The way in which he defeated the Argives, according to Herodotus’ account of it, is an interesting one. The armies were evenly matched as far as numbers were concerned, but the Argives were reluctant to join in battle. To avoid battle, they concocted a plan: whenever the Spartan herald called out an order, the Argive herald would repeat it. The Argives would not instigate the battle but would be ready if it came. Cleomenes soon spotted this, and spread the word around that when the Spartan herald gave orders to sit down for lunch, the Spartans should instead make ready for battle and charge on the Argives. Thus the Spartans attacked the Argives as they were eating lunch, unprepared for attack. The Argives were killed or fled to the sacred grove Cleomenes would later capture.

So if you need to demonstrate a battle of wits between opposing generals, or you need the protagonist’s army to be almost completely destroyed while the antagonist’s army remains intact (or vice versa), there you have an event which could inspire the events of your story.

You can use history for larger events too, even the overarching plot of your whole story. The historical account of the Greco-Persian wars as recorded by Herodotus (yes, I know I keep coming back to him, but he’s just that awesome) can and indeed have been used as inspiration; I’m sure many of you will have seen 300 or read the graphic novel, which is a fantasised, exaggerated version of the events at Thermopylae in 480BCE.

You don’t have to be quite that obvious in the source of inspiration, of course. The same basic sequence of events – a small army defends a narrow pass against the largest army the world has seen to give their countrymen more time to gather an army large enough to oppose the enemy – would certainly make for a compelling story. Characters battling against the odds, sacrificing themselves to save their families back home. Marvelous stuff.

Characters

Ultimately a story isn’t just about beliefs or cool places or even individual events, it’s about people. And history, too, is very much about people. Many of the early histories focused around a single individual, like Arrian’s account of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives series, comparing famous Greeks to famous Romans. Even for Herodotus, the events were caused by the people.

It is easy to think of historical figures in simple terms: Pisistratos was a tyrant, Aristotle was a rational academic who was tutor to Alexander the Great, Nero was crazy. This is, after all, how they were presented to us. But Pisistratos built public buildings for the people of Athens, Aristotle was wrong about a great many things including the elements that make up all matter in the universe, and Nero, perhaps, was simply born in the wrong time and would fit better in Hollywood.

The three-dimensionality which emerges through a little research can be inspiration for a character in your fantasy world. It would certainly be interesting to see a character who is revered as the wisest person in the known world, teacher to future kings, who is utterly convinced that the head of a beehive couldn’t possibly be female (despite his contemporaries having observed the queen bee give birth) and who thinks all matter is formed of earth, air, fire and water.

A Final Few Points

The suggestions presented above are some of the ways history can inspire fantasy, and I’ve used quite a narrow range of examples, simply from the point of view of what I am most familiar with. There’s a whole world of history to draw upon, and it’s a great way to give your worlds and your stories depth.

So what other ways have you used history beyond the four ways described here? Are there specific periods, cultures  or historical figures that have you found to be most inspiring?