Something interesting happened to me on the subway the other day. I was standing as usual, swaying like a blade of grass along with all the other commuters in the middle of the car. I was reading the latest instalment in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, the Triumph of Caesar (by the way, great book, Steven!). Anyhow, there I am standing, and swaying, trying to look cool because I don’t have to hold the overhead bar due to my impressive ability to keep my balance and read at the same time. Then, cursing under my breath because of the driver’s sudden breaking that made me do a little skip-hop so I wouldn’t fall over (completely un-cool!).
Having regained my composure, I look up to see this guy looking at my book’s cover, smirking, shaking his head. I pretended to read on, oblivious, but I could tell as he looked from side to side at our fellow passengers, he was eager to say something. Had he a soapbox, he would have stood on top of it and let loose whatever it was he wanted to let loose. Don’t look up, I told myself, Don’t look up or he’ll start talking.
Shit. I looked. He saw me and focused on me, unswerving, his audience whether I liked it or not. The book being a trade paperback, it was really too small to lift high enough to block him out. No more quiet ride for me. It would be five more stations from hell with the guy that likes to talk aloud on the subway to no one in particular. I don’t mean schizophrenic, no, as have most urban dwellers, I have had my share of run-ins with those unfortunates – in one week, I actually spoke with (was spoken to is more accurate) three different Jesus’ on my commute. The guy staring at me and my choice of book was just a blowhard commuter-talker. I couldn’t take it anymore. I put on my most imposing scowl.
“What are you looking at?” I queried.
“Unbelievable.” He shook his head disapprovingly, smirked. “I can’t believe people read crap like that.”
I shook my own head in a sort of ‘whatever’ gesture and went back to my reading (really just staring at the page). He was not to be put off now. Contact had been made.
“They were just crazy back then, all nuts.”
“What are you talking about?” He lit up when I answered and ploughed on.
“Back in history, man. What you’re reading about. Rome is it?”
“Yes. Julius Caesar.”
“Ha!” he actually made the other passengers around us jump. “Ya see, crazy bastard. One of the biggest.”
“Actually, he wasn’t crazy. He was a brilliant general and strategist.’
“Did he kill lots of people?”
“A great many people died as a result of his actions, yes.” What else could I say at that point? That much was true, but Caesar certainly was not crazy. This guy on the other hand could probably claim the title, I remember thinking.
“There you have it. Crazy! Looney tunes.”
“Wait a second,” I chirped. “I don’t think you realize how much we depend on today came out of the ancient world. And not everyone was nasty or ‘crazy’ as you say.”
“Yeah, right. Everyone’s reading stories about stuff that happened so long ago when people killed whenever they liked and robbed and went to war.”
“Like there are no wars going on now?” I butted in sarcastically.
“All I’m saying, man, is that things are better today and maybe they could be better if people would read good stories like Twilight.”
“I suppose vampires and werewolves are all goodness, not crazy at all?”
“This is my stop! He moved to the doors waiting for them to open. Before jumping out he turned around. “By the way, you talk funny, man!”
And with that final adieu, the village idiot exited train right leaving me, looking like a moron in front of all the other readers. I crossed verbal swords with a commuter-talker and failed (I secretly hoped he was a brilliant actor trying out a character). I tried to burry my face in my book but could not concentrate for the remaining two stops, knowing that everyone was casting a pitiful glance at me from above the covers of their own books.
That night, I brought this incident up at my book group. Throughout the day I had actually been thinking a lot about what that guy had said. In a weird sort of way I suppose he was trying to be profound, a la Rain Man maybe. But I decided he was absolutely wrong about all people in the past being crazy. Never mind that that sort of statement doesn’t really apply to any age of human existence. There have of course been violent, or mad or brilliant people at any point in time. Thankfully there has always been goodness and peace to balance things out. Themes of good versus evil, light and dark are a part of us, our stories.
A blog is not really the place to explore this theme at length. However, it is worth addressing this idea in that historical fiction often does focus on people whose brutal or violent deeds are highlighted rather than whether they were good to say, their lovers, their children or their mothers and fathers. Could it be that the ‘craziness’ of the big historical hitters (Alexander, Caesar, Attila etc.) only serve to highlight the plight and the human goodness of our fictional characters about whom the real core of the stories is about?
It should be said however, the modern age does NOT have a monopoly on goodness. One has only to look at the local, national or international news on a given day to see that. In the ancient and medieval worlds, literary works (fictional or not) served to enlighten and teach the populace, to help mortals rise to greatness. Teaching texts such as the Mabinogi served to raise princes who could rule wisely and justly so that they could serve their kingship, their people well. How many prime ministers or presidents do we wish had such devoted training in ideals and morals?
One example of a past culture that stands out to me is the culture of courtly love that began some time in the 12th century at the court of Eleanor or Aquitaine and gave rise to many of the popular Arthurian tales we know today, and which are still relevant. These tales explore the virtues of not only romantic love but also of courtesy, kindness toward women and fellow man, honour in deeds and all those wonderful things that some folks are quick to label as clichés today because they find such behaviour, such ideals too difficult to understand or carry out. What I’m saying is, that an age that could idealize such thoughts can not be so full of evil and void of goodness, just as a golden age that gave rise to theatre, to marble temples and law codes is not completely wicked. Not all creations are made to bring about death and destruction.
As I see it, the art of historical fiction reconciles the past and the present ages, exposing readers not only to past evils but also to past goodness. It teaches us important values and ideals by contrasting them with the wickedness of those that have gone before. As a result, the heroes of the past (fictional or historical) are raised up as shining examples to which it would do us all no end of good to aspire.
Manuscript page from the Duc de Berry's
Book of Hours - c. 1410