A few weeks ago I gave a nod to the History Behind Game of Thrones blog in my article about counterfactual histories. In that article I reiterated a point made by the blog itself, which is that it is possible to see the whole series as George RR Martin’s experimental tinkering with history. If history’s rumours really happened, how would that’ve played out?
And this is a theme that definitely bears thinking about. Because, while fantasy might be utterly absurd and largely drawn from imaginations, it is also grounded in the real history of our own world. So here we go:
#1: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is all the weirdness of our anthropological past
Like many other great fantasy authors, Pratchett is a student of history. In The Science of Discworld, it is explained that the Discworld works in a similar way to our own except that, instead of the fundamental laws of science, the Discworld has fundamental laws of magic. Therefore, if people once believed something existed in our world, it probably does exist in the Discworld, and is minding its own business thankyou very much.
#2 Tolkien’s Middle Earth is all the complexity of our linguistic past
JRR Tolkien was fascinated by language and linguistics, and spoke (and, more importantly as far we’re concerned, wrote in) a number of different languages, to varying levels of fluency. Languages were his bag. One of his many Elvish languages was based on Latin, by way of Finnish, Welsh, English, and Greek. And that’s not even abnormal. It’s just par for the course, baby!
#3 The Warhammer world is all the madness of our aggressive past
As a younger man, I was a massive fan of Warhammer. There is a vast mythology to the games which goes beyond any other series I’ve come across. The ultimate focus of it is on the aggressive jostling of different races of creatures and peoples. Warhammer is about fighting, and each race has its own style. The Empire, for example, is based on C14th German Landknecht culture. The colourful Lizardmen, by contrast, inhabit a continent that looks suspiciously like South America, and behave a lot like Mesoamerican civilisations.
#4 Robert E Howard’s Conan is all the brutality of our lawless past
While the other series on this list capture the broader sweep of history, Conan is all about one guy. Moreover, it is about the struggles between the powerful and the powerless. Conan, despite his heroic stature, is a powerless man. He is forever having people he cares about torn away from him. There is no higher power for him to appeal to. In many ways, he embodies ‘barbaric’ tribal prehistory, where an individual could either trust to primal gods, or take fate into their own hands. Conan doesn’t love battle, it is his last resort.
There are other fantasy series, but these are the cream of the crop, and all of them owe something to real world history.