What is Historical Fantasy?

What is the definition of historical fantasy? How does it differ from historical fiction? Fantasy? I’ve often seen the term “historical fantasy” to classify a certain subgenre of literature but have never really understoood what, exactly, that refers to. What types of works are classified in this category? I did a little bit of research on the term and discussed it with some other blogging friends of mine, and I think Wikipedia actually gives a pretty good definition of what historical fantasy is:

Historical fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, related to historical fiction. It includes stories set in a specified historical period but with some element of fantasy added to the world, such as magic or a mythical creature hidden in the cracks. Often the magic retreats from the world so as to allow history to continue unaltered, as in Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, which takes place in Spain, but which ends with the magician in it removing himself, and all creatures of romance, from the world, thereby ending the Golden Age. Such fantasies, if they do not have the magic carefully hidden from history, shade into alternate history.

Alternatively the story may be set in a purely fictional world which either strongly resembles a specific historical period or contains elements of history evident in its characters, settings or story, for example George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed series “A Song of Ice and Fire”, inspired by the Wars of the Roses, and R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing books which draw on ancient Middle Eastern civilizations such as the Persian Empire, Scythia, Hellenistic Greece, and the Crusades yet is set in a purely fictional location. Unlike alternate history, the history contains many elements that are not derived from a specific historical period.

Examples, by this defintion, of historical fantasy would include:

  • The Prince of Nothing by R. Scott Bakker
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
  • Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead
  • The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

So how does historical fantasy differ from just plain fantasy and historical fiction?

Again, according to Wikipedia, fantasy is:

Fantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. The genre is usually associated with the overall look, feel and themes of the European Early Middle Ages (including architecture, dress and technology), while the actual setting is often a fictional plane or planet where magic and magical beings are commonplace.

Examples of fantasy novels include:

  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkein
  • The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
  • The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind

Historical Fiction is defined as:

Historic fiction presents readers with a story that takes place during a notable period in history, and usually during a significant event in that period.

It shows historical events and puts you in their shoes and let you know how it feels.

In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that is not recorded in history. Other times, the historical event complements a story’s narrative, occurring in the background while characters deal with events (personal or otherwise) wholly unrelated to recorded history. Sometimes, historical fiction can be for the most part true, but the names of people and places have been in some way altered.

Examples of historical fiction include:

  • The Grail Quest series and the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell
  • Emperor series and Conqueror series by Conn Igguldon
  • Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn
  • Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd
  • Camulod Chronicles by Jack Whyte
  • Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I think one more term needs to be discussed in relation to these other three genres: alternate history. What exactly is alternate history?

Alternate history or alternative history is a subgenre of speculative fiction (or some would say science fiction) and historical fiction that is set in a world in which history has diverged from history as it is generally known. Alternate history literature asks the question, “What if history had developed differently?” Most works in this genre are based in real historical events, yet feature social, geopolitical, or industrial circumstances that developed differently than our own. While to some extent all fiction can be described as “alternate history,” the subgenre proper comprises fiction in which a change or point of divergence occurs in the past that causes human society to develop in a way that is distinct from our own. – Wikipedia

Examples of alternate history include:

  • Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card
  • How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove
  • Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen

I have long debated what genre my own novel would fall under. Given these definitions, I would tend to place it as historical fantasy as my novel is set in a “purely fictional world which strongly resembles a specific historical period,” namely medieval England and France around the turn of the 13th century.

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