Learning from Fantasy: Part 1 (History)

Dorothy McQuaid
Showrunner for Pycera/Social Media for BWP
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Hi, readers!  I’m very excited to begin a new series of posts about things that can be learned from reading Fantasy and other fiction genres. To me, reading is more than just idle, passive entertainment, and I’ve found that I’ve learned a lot from books some dismiss as fluffy or shallow. These topics include history, relationship advice, and ethics, so I’ll cover the three of those in three different blog posts (though I touched on relationship advice in my post about birth control in Tamora Pierce’s canon.)

Part 1 Or; Time-Travel Romance is So Much More Interesting Than History Class

This post is going to discuss history through the lens of fiction, more specifically the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Now, I have a lot of respect for historians and the study of history. A few fellow members of BWP have studied history and I recognize how important it is, but I’ve always been more of a ‘big-picture’ person when it comes to history: I don’t tend to have a memory for names or dates, and I didn’t take many history classes besides the required ones. The information that tends to stick in my mind comes from personal experiences — i.e. visiting a historical site, speaking to a survivor — or from stories. I went through a phase in middle school where I read a bunch of  YA novels about children during the Holocaust — maybe not a normal hobby for a 10-year-old, but I was able to gain a greater understanding of a very important period of history. For me, knowing the story of someone who went through the experience helps me remember, and care, much more than taking notes during a lecture.

As I said, I’m simply not one for names and dates, and have never been great at memorizing historical events.

But when I was walking around Seattle a few weeks ago and overheard a song about the Bonnie Prince Charlie, I was the one who delivered an impromptu lecture about Jacobite Scotland. I was able to summarize two rebellions (1715 and 1745) and the suppression of the Highland culture after their defeat on Culloden field in ’45. The only reason I could remember these names and dates was because I felt like I had lived it due to reading Outlander and its sequels. These books are captivating, fascinating, romantic and… educational?

Yes, it’s true!

A series that was the inspiration for my Maid of Honor speech at my cousin’s wedding, a series that was made into a Starz TV show with lots of smoldering glances and muscled legs in kilts, a series that can be summed up as, “WWII nurse falls through portal in time and ends up married to a sexy Scottish highland laird while running from her previous (future?)  husband’s evil ancestor, also there is magic and sexcan be educational. Because, see, said time-traveling nurse and sexy Scottish laird end up embroiled in politics, rebellions, and actual historical events in the mid-1700s. Aside from the battles, the books also shed light on beliefs at the time (though Gabaldon informs us that folk legends about fairy hills and water horses are just as prevalent in the 1940s and today,) fashion (though the fashions on the TV adaptation are not quite as historically accurate as those described in the books,) and daily life in a time and place I had never studied in school.

These historical accuracies delight and inform other aspects of my life besides knowing some trivia: my aunt sent me some yarn for knitting that was spun and dyed at a historical reenactment village. It was dyed with cochineal beetles, because this reenactment village uses natural dyes and materials accurate to the 1830s. But the beetles are native to South America and the village is in Massachusetts, so not knowing much about trade in the era, I wondered if this was a bit of a stretch for the ‘natural materials available to villagers’ theme. Imagine my surprise when Jamie and Claire (in Voyager, book 3 in the series) arrive in the Caribbean in 1765, and find, among other goods being sent to the colonies:

“Fruit and coffee, dried fish and coconuts, yams and red cochineal bugs, sold for dye in small, corked glass bottles.”

Learning this way, being naturally exposed to this information through characters and stories I care about, is so much more likely to remain in my mind than reading a wikipedia article or a dusty list of natural dyes. I won’t question “did I read that about the 1600s, 1700s, or 1800s?” because I know where Jamie and Claire are in history: between the Battle of Culloden and the American Revolution. Gabaldon’s books are so rich in detail and so well-researched, that they inform readers’ views on the era, and once you look past the whole ‘time travel and magic’ thing, are very realistic.

We all know that different learning styles work for different people: some learn well from videos, some from text, some by building or creating things related to the topic at hand. There’s nothing wrong with learning from a historical fiction novel — even though Outlander features time-travel, magic, and other non-realistic shenanigans, the battles and historical figures are real, and can translate back to real life and help a reader participate in a more informed conversation. For me, being able to explain “what was the whole deal with Bonnie Prince Charlie” to my friend, and to appreciate a song about him being sung in 2016, makes me a more well-rounded and informed person. I’ll never claim to be as informed as someone who has actually studied a certain historical topic, and would fact-check before getting into a serious discussion about the Jacobites, but I can thank Diana Gabaldon, Jamie, and Claire for the understanding that I do have.

(header image credit: iDigitalTimes– link is about a particular episode of the show and may contain spoilers)


*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.


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