Saturday, October 22, 2005

Co-opting History

I took my family to the library to look for some books for my daughter (she's very into the Berenstein Bears right now). They went to look for books, while I sat down with my AlphaSmart to do some writing. I got quite a bit done, although the scene I wrote is pretty weak, I think. Still, re-writing is easy; getting that first draft done is the hard part, so I'm not terribly worried about it.

While we were there, I poked around in the history section. I'm a big medieval history buff; I even took a couple of medieval studies courses in college twenty years ago (which is a big thing, considering I was an engineer and had exactly three electives my whole college career). One of the things I've always been interested in was the "The Order of Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon," better known as the Knights Templar. As likely most everyone knows, Dan Brown wrote a fun fiction book called The DaVinci Code that features the Knights Templar fairly prominently. I've read the book, and it's really quite a good story. What annoys me is this: Any time I go to do research on the historical Knights Templar, everyone assumes I'm interested in finding the Holy Grail, or the family of Jesus, or some other such nonsense. The Knights Templar had nothing to do with any of that. Nor are they in any way related to the Knights Templar branch of Freemasonry. They were, however, an extrememly fascinating organization that was very important in shaping the medieval world. They really don't need the trappings of a few authors' fantasies to be interesting, and while I certainly don't fault Brown and his ilk for giving this interesting group of knights an expanded role in their fantasies, it does make things a little more difficult for people interested in researching the historical Knights Templar. It's reached the point where I'm embarassed to let people see me with reference works on the subject, because they automatically assume I believe the mumbo-jumbo in DaVinci Code. It's fiction, folks! Really, really good fiction -- I enjoyed it a great deal. But I wish it'd hadn't been quite so convincing to so many people.

Which brings up an interesting moral and philosophical question: To what extent are fiction authors obligated to maintain the historical accuracy of their subjects? Are they obligated to maintain any accuracy at all? I don't have an easy answer to that. In theory, fiction can do whatever the heck it wants -- it's fiction, after all. On the other hand, Jacques de Molay was a real person. He's dead, so he's not likely to sue for slander. What is a little worrisome is that the general public seems to be a bit ... gullible, for want of a better word. They seem to forget that convincing fiction is still fiction. Are we contributing to gullibility of American population? I'd like to think not, and yet, here am I feeling embarrased about a perfectly legitimate realm of research, one I've been pursuing for two decades now. That's not a feeling I'm terribly happy about.


Ris said...

As both an historian and a fiction writer, I struggle with the balance between preserving the historical accuracy and telling a good story. How much history to add, when to stretch historical details to fit the story I'm trying to tell, and how to use historical figures in a story?

I perceive my role as an historical writer as both entertaining and instructing. I want to tell a good story, but I want that story to be truthful to the era and events that inspired it. I don't want to lecture about the socio-economics of the times, but I want to create a credible slice of life from that era. Like any writer, I want my characters to be fully realized in their cultural and historical setting. And as a historian, I want any historical details or persons that I incorporate to be as accurately portrayed as possible.

I don't mind tales like Da Vinci Code that shrug against historical accuracy, but I do find it disheartening when that fictional account becomes the perceived historical account. However, like my views on movie adaptations of books, if a fictional book inspires even just a handful of readers to delve into the historical events that inspired the story, then that book has not failed the study of history, no matter how inaccurate a portrayal.

Keith Watt said...

Hi Ris!

Well, you bring up a good point. It's hard to get the general public interested in history at all (which, as they say, is why we seemed to be doomed to repeat it, I suppose), so anything that gets someone interested in the past is a good thing. The danger, I think, is that too many people won't carry that research to the next level to find the truth behind the fiction. In this age of "I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true," that's a little worrisome. Just look at how easily Internet hoaxes take hold, after all.

In the end, I guess I'm not against totally making up historical details. I -do- wish authors would post more prominent disclaimers in their fiction books, but then again, part of the reason for DaVinci Code's success is that people are left wondering whether or not it's real.

It's a business, too, after all, I know...