During the interview, George R.R. Martin said, “It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common.”
To which Bernard Cornwell responded, “You're right—fantasy and historical novels are twins, and I've never been fond of the label 'fantasy,' which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then 'fantasy' magically becomes sci-fi).”
Are Martin's and Cornwell's Novels Two Sides of the Same Coin?
I largely agree. While Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could never be considered “historical” in a literal sense because it doesn't take place in the real world, the most prominent elements of his novels scream “historical” fiction. His setting is broadly “Medieval” and his storylines – a war of succession, political intrigue, and battles among noble houses – are classic subject matters of some of the best historical fiction. Magic may be present in Martin’s novels, but it is subtle and never the driving force behind his world.
Similarly, Bernard Cornwell has written “historical” novels that dance along the fine line between history and fantasy. Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles, for example, tells the Arthurian Legend from a more “historical” perspective. But as anyone who has read The Warlord Chronicles knows, Cornwell’s Merlin performs acts which could be magic – or not. He leaves it to the reader to decide. But the core of his novels are the same as Martin’s: wars among kings and nobles, and the heroes who survive them. And perhaps most importantly, both Cornwell and Martin create wonderfully real characters for which, we, the reader, cannot help but empathize.
I still believe there is a line between the two genres, but maybe Cornwell is right – that line doesn’t matter much. The things we love about Martin’s novels are many of the same things we love about Cornwell’s novels. Does the fact the land of Westeros never existed, while Dark Ages Britain did, truly matter in the context of a great novel? For me, it doesn't. It’s the story that matters and the characters who inhabit it. That is why we adore reading them.