Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Artistic License and Historical Fiction

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 A.D. – the famous battle where the army of King Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace and his fellow Scotsmen, depicted in the movie Braveheart. So, this week I'm revisiting one of my first posts from July 2011, this blog's inaugural month.

Loved the film, even if the history is questionable.
The Battle of Falkirk was one of the most significant battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. In Braveheart, it’s the battle where Wallace is almost killed before he’s dragged from the field by Robert the Bruce, who had sided with the English at the behest of his sinister father. 

Now Braveheart is a great movie and that was a dramatic and compelling scene, but many historians have criticized both the scene and the film as being historically inaccurate. For one, Robert the Bruce did not side with the English at Falkirk. He wasn’t even there, although during his reign he did change sides between the Scots and the English several times. Nevertheless, was the artistic license taken in Braveheart defensible in the name of crafting good fiction?

Does Robert the Bruce look like a traitor?
One of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors is Bernard Cornwell. For his novel Heretic, set during the Hundred Years War, he created several fictional places and personages central to the story, including a French count, a walled city and its lord, and a cardinal from Livorno, which is not a real archdiocese. In my opinion, Heretic is a fantastic novel and Cornwell’s artistic license is entirely justified. In fact, unless you are a student of the French countryside or an aficionado of Italian archbishoprics, you’d not even know artistic license had been taken.

A perfect use of artistic license!
I did something similar in my own novel, whose antagonist is a French bishop. He’s not a nice man – and that’s being kind! So instead of slandering the name and memory of some real bishop, I made this character the Bishop of Blois, even though Blois’ real bishopric was not created until centuries later. I made this call for the sake of my story, and I stand by it.

But others may disagree. So what’s your view? When does artistic license go too far in the name of historical fiction?


Bill said...

Good question, Joe. I do have a problem with slandering real historical figures by having them do things they never did nor would do. I have no problem with inventing characters, even if they're clearly based on a real figure in some particulars. I've noticed good writers of naval fiction usually invent ships that never floated if they intend for something ahistorical to happen.

Robert the Bruce was a fascinating character, and probably was badly slandered in Braveheart.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks for the comment. That was my thought when I chose to make Bishop Ademar a fictional character, rather than basing him on a real tenth-century bishop. I'm having a tougher go at it in the next novel since Pope Gregory V is a major character. I've done enough research to believe I'm capturing the essence of the man, but I'll undoubtedly have him do some things he never did in real life. Of course, there is less real "history" known about a short-tenured tenth century pope than Robert the Bruce.