Sharon Kay Penman is the author of ten previous historical novels and four medieval mystery novels (including one nominated for an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America). His newly released novel, The land beyond the sea (GP Putnam’s Sons, March 3, 2020) tells the story of the defense of the Kingdom of Jerusalem against invaders during the Crusades.
In an article I did for National Public Radio in 2011, I described the past as uncharted territory, likening it to visiting a country whose language we don’t speak and depend on the historical novelist to act as our translator. For this relationship to work, it must be based on trust; we must be able to count on the interpretation of a novelist of this past. So the truth matters. I never expected this statement to become controversial, but never has this core value been so relentlessly attacked. As writers, we owe the truth to our readers and to history. Many people accept what they read in a book or see on screen as gospel, and that can give novelists and screenwriters more influence than they realize. We just have to think about Brave Heart Where kingdom of paradise, a visually arresting film that transformed Balian of Ibelin, one of the most influential nobles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, into an illegitimate French blacksmith.
Historical novelists must adhere to known facts, whether they are writing about a battle, a rebellion, or the lives of the men and women involved in those events. Writers inevitably have to rely on our imaginations to a large extent, because there are always blanks to fill in. Medieval chroniclers were indifferent to the needs of modern authors, neglecting to give us the date of a marriage or a birth, the cause of death. even kings.
When I’m forced to fill in meaningful blanks, I empty my conscience into my author’s notes. Since my readers often tell me how much they appreciate a writer’s “AN”, this is a win-win situation. Not all writers go as far as I do; the year of one of my novels was eleven pages. But I’m disappointed when I finish a historical novel and then find that the author didn’t include an AN. The best historical novelists – Bernard Cornwell and Margaret George to name just two – always offer this intriguing look behind the curtain of the creative process, telling us when they had to take liberties and why. And I think most readers are comfortable with that approach, as long as the writers play fair and alert them when a diversion is coming. I understand that few of the battles in Bernard Cornwell’s splendid Saxon series have been well narrated and so it only makes sense that he would have to call upon his own strategic skills to make those battles both memorable and bloody; when he next reveals that he borrowed a battle tactic from Napoleon for one of his books, we are amused and even more impressed.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that we should accept “history” without question. It’s a cliche but true that history is usually written by the victors, and while I disagree with Napoleon’s cynical comment that history is an agreed fable, it’s obvious that the history reflects more than facts. We must bear in mind that historians tend to interpret the past in the light of their own beliefs and prejudices. This is why the reputation of controversial kings like Richard III and Richard Lionheart have fluctuated so much over the centuries.
A good example of this can be found in the history of the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem. Twentieth-century historians explained the political divide that would doom the kingdom in modern terms – as a struggle between hawks and doves, between those who called for war with Muslims and those who argued for accommodation and peace. compromise. They weren’t entirely wrong; European Crusaders were more likely to have a no-prisoners mentality than Levant-born men and women and had a more realistic understanding of their vulnerability as a small Christian enclave in a Saracen sea. But the truth is always messier than that, rarely able to fit into such a neat “hawks versus doves” paradigm.
Historians like Peter Edbury have convincingly shown that these rivalries were more complex. Personalities mattered too. If the last king of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, had not been malleable like wax, well-meaning but easily influenced by men of stronger will, it is likely that the battle of Hattin, one of the great military blunders of history, would not have happened. The Count of Tripoli, cast by earlier historians in a heroic mould, has been reassessed by the current generation of historians, who have not been so quick to ignore his acts of blatant self-interest. A more balanced portrayal of the count’s character makes it easier to understand why his enemies despised his advice when he begged the king not to fight Saladin at Hattin.
In emphasizing the importance of historical accuracy in novels, I also argue that novels can add a valuable dimension to the study of history. I realize that my point of view is not universally accepted; on the contrary, some historians dismiss fiction as a superficial distraction from the actual study of the past. I guess it’s normal that I want to defend what is both my job and my passion. But novelists have learned that our books can reach a wider audience than many academics, that we can win converts to the cause – the belief that history should be an essential part of any school curriculum, as it was in the past. It helps us understand our place in the universe and teaches us the importance of context, that we are united in our common humanity and that there is nothing new under the sun. And learning history is great fun, especially if it’s camouflaged in fictional form!
Most of us have heard a variation of George Santayana’s comment that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. True, but it is also true that even those who know the pitfalls of the past can still fall into them. While the trappings of civilization have changed dramatically over the centuries, human nature remains a constant. So I prefer to conclude by giving the last word to William Faulkner in Requiem for a nun: “The past is never dead. It didn’t even happen.