Friday, November 25, 2011

On This Day In History ...

I love it when dramatic events in history give rise to great works of fiction. Today provides a perfect example.

On November 25, 1120, a royal vessel called the White Ship sank in the English Channel leaving only a single survivor. Among those killed was William Adelin, the son of Henry I, King of England. William’s death spawned a nineteen-year war of succession between Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, and Stephen’s cousin, Matilda, the daughter of Henry I and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. This fascinating period in English history, called The Anarchy, provides the setting for one of my favorite works of historical fiction, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

Follett builds his entire story around the events set in motion by the sinking of the White Ship. Indeed, the mystery surrounding this disaster – and its sole survivor – is a central part of the plot, starting with the novel’s very first scene, the hanging of Jack Shareburg. Other characters in the real-world historical drama feature prominently in the story, including Stephen, who rules as king during much of The Anarchy, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, who ends the war of succession by becoming King of England in 1154 and provides the catalyst for the climactic events at the novel’s end.

I won’t give away any more of the plot (and I’m sure most of you have read it anyway), but The Pillars of the Earth serves as a wonderful example of how an author can take a dramatic event in history and turn it into a fictional masterpiece.

3 comments:

HelenR said...

I did not realize the November 25 carried this significance. The Pillars of the Earth, however, is a great piece and one of my all-time favorites.

BJB said...

Please post about the root principles of historical fiction. Specifically, please address, at least, the following three questions. One, why use real people and events as the key elements of a story, only to invent the details of what happened with those people and events? Two, what are the 'rules" about changing parts of the story that history has accepted as true? In other words, how much is the author "allowed" to fictionalize what happened? Just the finer detailed parts history never preserved? Or may the author alter accepted facts? Three, why not take the same people, places and events, change their names to fictional names, and then do the story that way?

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comments. I've already written on artistic license in historical fiction -- see my post from July 2011 titled "Was Robert the Bruce Really a Traitor, and Does it Matter?" That one generated a bunch of interesting comments. I like your others suggestions, so expect a post in the near future about why I adore historical fiction. And thanks for following my blog!