Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hard-line writing "purity"

The most recent manifestation of the debate between "accuracy purists" and those who cry "story first" has wound down a bit, with people on both sides of this issue in various forums, tending to take rather "hardline" positions on both sides. I might not have much more to add to this debate, except that one writer said she spotted anachronisms at the age of 10, in the writing of an author that was well-known when I was about 10!  While I knew of some of these anachronistic things at that age(I don't recall reading anything by that particular author at the age of 10, though), it would never have occurred to me to write the guy and complain about it. Times were different then, I suppose.  But this issue raises some interesting questions in my mind.


The most important thing is, it may all boil down to the author's own experiences informing his or her work in certain ways. For example, I've been reading all of Bernard Cornwell's "Uhtred" series, to date, and quite enjoy them.  And he is known for " fact-checking" the periods he writes about. The "Uhtred" series takes place at the time of King Alfred, and concerns, in part, the Danish invasions of England, and their consequences. He gets the "politics" and the social milieu of the time right, I think, at least within reason.  In this sense, no one can fault him for his accuracy.  He doesn't get anything obvious, wrong.  Yet I've learned some things about Cornwell that suggest he has views of certain things are colored by his own experiences.  For example,his portrait of King Alfred can only be described as "unpleasant". He describes that monarch as being pinched and  "killjoy pious". He also describes King Alfred as rather "sickly", hardly the brave leader that repelled the Danes!  And he is very hostile to "organized religion":  his hero, Uhtred, is unrepentantly "pagan", and he describes all Christians as tending to be unpleasant of temperament in various ways, and themselves extremely hostile to "pagans". 


But before we get into Cornwell's possible perceptions., let's look at King Alfred for a moment.  Historically, Alfred did manage to hold the England of that time together under one rule, no easy feat at a time when there were strong regional forces that could have divided it, and frequently threatened to do so. He also did hold the "Danes"(mostly Danish, but "other" Scandinavians as well) off of the England of his time, by winning battles. We also know that he was originally destined for the Church,and he retained this faith when he became king. On the other hand, he also encouraged literacy at a time when very few people, including those in the highest classes of society, could read or write.  And all of this strikes me as being quite sensible, not "killjoy pious".  We also know that he suffered from some unnamed malady that put him "out of commission" at times, but when he was well, he apparently was a smart politician and strategist. Not at all like the almost "wimpy" Cornwell portrait. So, in a broad sense, Cornwell's portrait is accurate.  It doesn't do any violence to the facts.  It doesn't get dates out of order. It doesn't put historical  personages in the wrong place, or give  them attitudes they wouldn't have had at the time.  And again, I must emphasize that I've enjoyed reading his books(including this series so far).  And yet. . . .


Bernard's birth family name was not Cornwell, but Oughtred, which could derive as descent from the historical Uhtred around whom he weaves this story.  He obviously likes to think so, though in my opinion, at the distance from that time to this, it's probably a bit of a stretch. But he was adopted at a very young age by a family which belonged to a very unpleasant-sounding Christian sect called The Peculiar People,which he apparently came to loathe as he grew older. Given their "peculiar" theology, it's not hard to understand why he might think "Christianity sucks" as they say, though there is more than one possible response to that kind of situation,one of which might be, for example, to find a more tolerant religious "home".  Many people have done this.  And, for the record, my perspective on this comes from having been exposed to far more flexible brands of Christianity than these "Peculiar People"  This is why Uhtred  is "happy pagan" constantly in conflict with "nasty Christianity".  Is this an accurate portrayal?  Well, maybe. Or maybe not.  We also know that the Christian missionaries who went all over Europe trying to convert "the people" sometimes met with a lot of hostility, but this was frequently for "political" reasons:  rulers didn't want to give up their own paganism, or feared losing their power.  In general, Christian missionaries in the early Middle Ages(later times were quite different), tended to think that they could "educate" people into accepting the Church and Christianity, and pagans weren't particularly hostile to Christians, unless there were other factors involved. 


That clearly isn't Cornwell's view.  And I've run across any number of people who would agree, more or less, with Cornwell, citing "incidents" of one kind or another.  These "incidents" are true, but this kind of behavior isn't confined to Christianity, or indeed any other religious tradition.  It isn't even confined to "religion".  You see it,even today, in "ideologies".  One doesn't have to go back very far -- only 50 or 60 years, to see what nonreligious "ideologies", rigidly followed, have done to people in various places. It's not pretty.  In other words, people in power may use "religion" or "ideology" to push their own agendas,and have done so throughout history.


None of this really resolves the "accuracy" v. "story" issue.  It won't, because in historical fiction, both are important, and as I said in a previous post,both are important when you're writing this kind of fiction. Depending on what you're writing, one may get slightly more emphasized over the other, but both must  be there if the story is to be credible and readable.  I can't, therefore, say that Bernard Cornwell's perceptions of King Alfred are any more or less "accurate" than any other writer's, but in his "perception context" they are credible, and it's a tribute to his skill as a writer that people like me, who have other perspectives, can find them credible in a way, even if they reject some of them. And, in closing,it's also wise to remember that not every reader(very few, in the case of Anglo-Saxon England) is going to be very concerned with the history anyway.  They will just want a "good read".  Which, I think, is all any writer can do.

Anne G

No comments: