OK, Internet. New Game of Thrones just started, and I know we’re all very excited. Before the deluge of internet commentary really begins, I think this is an appropriate moment to have a chat about the relationship between fiction and history, and more specifically the relationship between the fantasy genre and the specific periods of Euro-centric history from which it tends to borrow heavily. And specifically, to answer the question: what do we mean by historical accuracy?
It’s a tale as old as the Internet. Someone writes an article about a book/film/game/ interpretative shadow-puppet musical from the fantasy genre. Some members of the audience say, “Hey, I really like this thing, but I would like it more if the women were not being sexually assaulted quite so constantly and the brown people were not costumed entirely in Generic Tribal Chic.” Then, without fail, a deeply indignant nerd type will pop his head over the parapet of the comment box and let forth his ancient war cry: “BUT HISTOOOOOOORY THEREFORE YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVAAAAAALID!!!”
It may seem like I’m overstating for effect here, but this exact exchange just happened on a recent post from Media Diversified. Shane Thomas made some excellent (and, at this stage, well-worn) points about Game of Thrones and its race problems. This attracted the attention of one intrepid commenter, who didn’t bother to read the whole post but nonetheless left a long comment – equal parts condescending and clueless – which boiled down to, “The Mongols existed at some point, therefore Game of Thrones can’t be racist.” In his response, Thomas acknowledges that he is aware that history is indeed a thing, but the fact that history is extremely racist does not give a modern TV show set in a fictional world a free pass to also be racist.
I have dubbed this phenomenon the Because History or Something argument. It is analogous to the Because Biology or Something argument that gender traditionalists like to use when they are explaining how all women secretly want to stay at home and pop out babies in a committed monogamous relationship for their entire lives, because of cavemen and hormones. Also maybe chromosomes. You know. Biology. Or something.
There are a lot of reasons why this genus of argument is becoming increasingly tiresome. The main one, as Tansy Rayner Roberts points out in her excellent article on unpacking historically authentic sexism in fantasy, is that the entire idea of historical accuracy is a clusterfuck of pitfalls and problems. The history we learn in school is a (mostly) linear story, event after event, invention after invention, great man after great man, neatly laid out in illustrated timelines and fun fact boxes, as immutable and irrefutable as if they had been carved in stone. The reason history is taught like this is that most formal education systems require that the story of the past be transmitted to the next generation in a few hundred pages of textbook that can be easily regurgitated in an exam.
But the reality of history – as anyone with even the most rudimentary academic background in the field can attest – is not so comfortably clear-cut. History is, in fact, a vast and dense tangled mess of conflicting accounts, incomplete records, baffling fragments and frustrating dead-ends. Producing anything that vaguely resembles a full picture – or even a coherent theory about the way things might have been – involves extrapolation, estimation and a significant amount of educated guesswork. And of course, the process gets more difficult the further back you go. History is full of human error and human bias. Humans do not move through the world recording everything we encounter with the impartiality of a black box. Our own subjectivity comes into play even as events unfold around us, never mind when we’re trying to remember and relay them at a later date.
More specifically, history is full of old white dude error and old white dude bias. The most consistent and readily available primary sources we have were written by old white dudes about things old white dudes considered important, largely for the purposes of making old white dudes look good compared to everyone else. Therefore the old white dude version of events has become the dominant narrative, the lens through which we process the past. This did not happen by dumb luck. It is not a coincidence that one of the first steps in any colonization regime is to strip the local people of their language, their history, their religion and their customs. The privileging of one narrative as true and right above all others is a cornerstone in any oppressive structure.
But in recent decades, as many previously marginalized groups began to gain footholds in academic institutions, a new breed of historian started to dedicate their careers to uncovering the parts of history that the old white dudes overlooked, ignored or destroyed in service of their own interests. Social history established itself as a mainstream area of study, alongside more traditional fields such as political and military history. Social historians discovered new narratives and perspectives: stories of colonisation as told by the colonised; original research from a woman who was never credited on the final paper; letters and diaries and scribbles and songs from all the multitudes of people crowded into the margins of the old white dude history book.
So my message to you – my nerd brethren who are so quick to invoke historical accuracy in defense of gratuitous rape and harmful stereotypes – is please try to understand exactly what you are invoking. When you insist “that’s how it really was back then” and “it wouldn’t be believable otherwise”, I want you to understand what exactly you mean by historical accuracy. When you wave the importance of historical accuracy around to swat away any hint of diversity or social conscience, I want you to have an insight into what that says about you and your own values.
History is a narrative, but that narrative is neither singular nor static; it is multifarious, fluid and constantly changing as new evidence of the past comes to light. Women as a class did not suddenly, in the last century, have a mysterious collective brainwave that made them decide to wander outside the home and start participating in politics. People of colour did not just pop into existence when white men “discovered” them. These people were always there, present in the world, living rich and complex lives, achieving things and shaping history even from within the oppressive systems that attempted to keep them silent and invisible. Many of their records and accounts are long gone, or perhaps never existed in the first place, and it may be that there will never be enough primary sources to establish their stories in popular understandings of history. But where history does not have the license to fill the gaps with counter-narratives, the fantasy genre most certainly does.
I am of the opinion that the lines between history and fiction are far more blurry than most people are comfortable admitting. For me, as for most people who are not academic historians, the only functional distinction between fiction and history is that the majority of us believe history describes things that actually happened. History is, functionally, a story. Religions are also stories, stories that some people dismiss as a pure fiction and others hold to be more real and true than the physical world around them. I say this not to diminish either history or religion, but to emphasise the immense power that stories hold over us, whether we judge them to be fictitious or not. Stories are how we process and understand our own reality. Stories do not just influence the way we think; stories are the way we think.
When you insist that fantasy must abide by historical accuracy, you are essentially saying that fantasy worlds must be subjugated to an established story, an existing narrative that is comfortable and familiar and safe for the dominant groups in society. When you insist that a historically-based fantasy novel is above social and cultural criticism, you are saying that history itself is above social and cultural criticism. When you argue for your own subjective version of historical “accuracy”, you are invoking a banal and narrow understanding of how history works and what it is for. You are advocating for that singular static narrative, the status quo where white women stay at home having emotions and babies while white men go into the world and do politics and wars, and people of colour are one homogenous blob of Other standing around in the background.
When you scream “HISTORICAL ACCURACY!” with the righteous conviction that such a thing even exists, you are saying that there is only one story about the world – whether that world be Earth or Westeros – and it just so happens to be the one you were taught in school, the one where all the people who look like you were in charge. You are insisting the same white, patriarchal, imperialist narratives that dominate our understanding of history must also permeate any and all fiction that even vaguely resembles that history.
And despite the many flowery pedantic protests I have read from the Because History or Something brigade, no one has ever given me a satisfying explanation as to why our fantasy has to be this way.
 To clarify, I am using Game of Thrones as a starting point, not singling it out for a takedown. I love Game of Thrones. As with most medieval-style high fantasy, it has some glaring(ly white) problems, but it also has female characters who have agency and influence the plot. (I’m setting the bar incredibly high here, I know.) I agree with many of these excellent analyses over at Feminist Fiction, but I also fully back this now legendary rant by Sady of Tiger Beatdown. Basically, I don’t think it’s the worst ever, but also there is so much rape. Go figure.