Monday, August 23, 2010

Hints in History - Oxford History of the Crusades

Once again I plunged into history and I found several good story ideas or elements I could use to color my stories. Just change the trappings and anything old is new again. And when you’re talking about the Crusades, you’re talking pretty old.

I picked up the book because of the video game “Assassin’s Creed” which takes place during the Third Crusade and did an excellent job of bringing the world to life. It inspired me to do a bit more research into the subject (especially since I love history and medieval history in particular). After some research I found that “The Oxford History of the Crusades” got some great reviews, so I picked it up.

I’ll be up front and say that this book is really for readers who are familiar with the Crusades already. It approaches the topic not chronology, but by topics. It also assumes you are pretty familiar with the events of the crusades, and goes more into aspects of the wars. Some of it was very interesting, including the examination of the Military Orders, such as the Templars. But this approach could become very dry, dissecting the events in a way that lost appeal for me. I love history because of the story it tells, the characters, the plot. Breaking it down in this way tends to be too distanced and cold.

But there were a couple of sections that really brought out the people who took part in these wars. One section dealt solely with the minds and perceptions of the early crusaders. Why would someone want to leave everything they ever knew and tromp off to kill or be killed in the Holy Land? Our modern minds can’t really understand it, and because of poor record keeping (especially during the first couple Crusades) we can only speculate. But the ideas presented are sound and provide a perspective that could be used in another format.

These people engage in a war that will not only serve the will of their god, but will assure them a place in heaven. It will remove all their sins, even the ones of killing, and give them a clean slate when they get to heaven. It all works out and the inspiration of their god or gods us driving them. They become a force to be reckoned with, especially against a government that is dealing with internal strife.

Set in a fantasy story line (althougth Robert Howard already did it in Conan a few times) or in a space opera setting and you’ve got lots of material to work with.

Also of note were the powerful Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa. They directly and indirectly affected the outcomes of the crusades with their trade wars and trade agreements. These powers affected the later crusades and ended up causing some major troubles for Christian military orders and Islamic armies alike. Again, I saw a lot of story potentials with these city-states and how they manipulated both sides to make the most money. You’ve got a lot of characters just waiting to be explored here.

Sure the obvious set up would be historical fiction. But for the genre writer, you can do more with this root. Just some research and your imagination and you’ve got all kinds of interesting stories waiting to be told.

So I suggest you check out the book and the Crusades in general. I think you’ll find all kinds of things to get your creative juices going and you’ll also learn a bit of world history in the progress. Not a bad deal really.

Have you used any history as a basis for your work? Do you have a favorite time period you enjoy researching? Have you read a book that seemed inspired by historical events but cloaked them in a creative way?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Where Myth and History Meet - The King Must Die

Being a big fan of mythology and the ancient world in general it was only a matter of time before I ran into the name Mary Renault. She is famous for her historical fiction based around the life and times of Alexander the Great. I was at the library looking for some ancient Greek flavored stories and ran into her work. I ended up choosing "The King Must Die" which promised an interesting take on the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Now, normally when someone drains the magic from mythology I end up disliking the results. The recent take on "The Illiad" in Wolfgang Peterson's "Troy" annoyed me to no end. But what Renault did in "The King Must Die" was much more interesting and reasoned out. She placed the story far back in the ancient timetable, around 1500 BCE. During this time the Minoan civilization ruled much of Aegean Sea. Renault places the story so that the Minoans demand sacrifice, not for a horrible monster, but for their deadly ceremony of bull leaping. This holy event requires the skills of nimble young women and man to dance around and over a charging bull. Those that are killed are done for the glory of the Earth Mother and Poseidon. This makes a certain amount of sense, and work with the myth of the Minotaur. The king, Minos also appears, but in this case Minos is a title, like Pharaoh. And all the kings of Crete are called Minos. Minotaur, or Minos' Bull is more of a nickname for the crown prince of Crete in this story, but his appearance at the end in the ceremonial bull mask makes him appear like the mythological monster we all know and love.

Aside from those historical elements, Renault works in all kinds of other ideas. Especially important is the power of Goddess worship in the ancient world. The Mother Goddess and her worshipers are in direct conflict with those who worship the Sky God. The melding that we are familiar with in Classical mythology hasn't occurred yet. The main difference between the two religions is the fact that Mother Goddess demands a yearly sacrifice of the King. If the King is not sacrificed than the harvest will fail and all manner of bad luck will occur. Those who worship the Sky God do not sacrifice their kings, but still commit blood offerings (usually animals) to the gods. Kings are held in much higher esteem. This conflict features heavily in the story, driving events in obvious and subtle ways.

The theme of the book is sacrifice. No matter what happens to characters in the story, some sacrifice must be made. If it is not, there are consequences, some of the deadly. Theseus sees his life as a King in terms of both a steward of his people (like Sky God) and a necessary sacrifice if needed (like the Mother Goddess demands). He is a fusion of these beliefs and it serves him well in his journey. However who and what he must sacrifice often dictate his choices.

Renault not only juggles these themes and ideas, but also keeps the story entertaining. As familiar as I was with the myth of Theseus, I was fascinated by the way she fused Minoan and Mycenean culture into the story. She also brings life to the mythological hero, giving him a personality that we can relate to and that works within the story. It's a great read, with plenty of conflict as well as thought provoking themes.

Have you ever read "The King Must Die"? What did you think of it? What do you think of approaching a mythological story but stripping it of the fantastic elements?