Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Artistic License & The Historical Note

Last July, in a post titled “Was Robert the Bruce a Traitor, and Does It Matter?” I posed the question of how much artistic license can an author take in historical fiction for the purpose of crafting a good story? A few months ago, this issue came up again in the comments to my review of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland. Both topics generated concern among some of the commentators that when too much artistic license is taken in changing the details of actual history, a risk exists that readers may come to remember this “false history” as fact.

My example of artistic license from Braveheart was the depiction of Robert the Bruce betraying William Wallace to the English at the Battle of Falkirk, when in fact Robert did not side with the English at Falkirk and wasn’t present for the battle. Still, this change resulted in one of the movie's most dramatic scenes and heightened the conflict between two key characters. In Patrick: Son of Ireland, an example of artistic license may have been the portrayal of Patrick as a bard or druid (albeit of the Ceile De) instead of a Roman Catholic bishop. In both cases, the writers made these changes for the sake of their story, even if it may have altered “real” history for viewers and readers.


Personally, I support the taking of artistic license to craft more compelling fiction, but I understand why some readers may be bothered by it. One remedy to such concerns employed by many authors is the use of a historical note at the end of their novels. These notes do two things: first, they tell us which parts of the story comport with actual history – in other words, which parts are “true”; and second, and perhaps most importantly, a good historical note tells the reader which parts are fictional and where real history has been altered. The best historical notes also offer a reason for why the author exercised artistic license and changed a historical event or character.

Bernard Cornwell, perhaps my favorite author of historical fiction, frequently includes an author’s note or historical note at the end of his novels, and he admits when he’s taken artistic license and why he did so. Morgan Llywelyn included one at the end of Lion of Ireland, and Stephen R. Lawhead used one in Hood, his retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, though he did not include one in Patrick: Son of Ireland. Of course, anyone interested in real historical details could access any number of on-line encyclopedias and similar resources to learn more about what really happened. But I, for one, like hearing from the authors directly and gleaning a little insight into their creative design.


But let me know what you think? Does a historical note resolve any concerns you might have about an author taking artistic license in historical fiction?

8 comments:

Leslie said...

Personally, I don't mind when writers take artistic license either, though I'll agree it does tend to promote a distorted view of history.

Take the movie "Gladiator" for instance. I heard the historian consultants on the set actually didn't want to be mentioned because of the huge artistic license. But the script created a story that tied everything up nicely.

BJB said...

I heard the same thing about Gladiator that Leslie heard. Anyway, as one of the commentators who has expressed concern about artistic license in historical fiction, I agree that a well done historical note can be a fair compromise.

Joseph Finley said...

Leslie - thanks for commenting! Funny that you mentioned Gladiator. I was going to write about that, but then I thought my previous Braveheart reference made the same point. Yet I'm with you: I'm in favor of exercising artistic license, but I think the historical note is a great way to let readers know how far the author has gone with it.

Joseph Finley said...

BJB - I agree - Thanks for the comment!

James T Kelly said...

I haven't thought about this much before, but my first reaction was against a historical note. Maybe a note to say that the author has taken creative licence, but I'm not sure I'd want it to be any more specific than that. It might break the spell of the novel to be told which parts are real and which were done with smoke and mirrors.

Joseph Finley said...

James - thanks for your comment! It's great to have another perspective.

carmenferreiroesteban said...

I love the historical notes. As for the creative license, it´s inevitable and I don't mind it. The purpose of a fictional story is to illuminate the times, to bring then closer to the reader. If some facts are somehow distorted in the process but the overall "feeling" is right and we are entertained in the process, I'm not complaining.

Joseph Finley said...

Carmen - thanks for the comment! Sounds like you and I are on the same page. And, you're a writer of historical fiction, so I appreciate the point of view!