I love history because I am nosy. I love people and studying the way they relate to one another. My only other option is gossip and celeb watching. History feels like a more wholesome way to indulge my nosiness, and historical fiction provides an avenue for it to be further satisfied.
There is something very special about historical fiction. One of my own significant moments of historical realisation came as a 15-year-old reading Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘House on the Strand’. In the novel the narrator is involved in testing a drug that enables him to mentally time-travel to C14th Cornwall where he becomes absorbed into the lives of the people he meets. I too became utterly absorbed by their lives and completely obsessed with finding out more about the time in which they lived. This sense of immersion from historical fiction was a key factor in drawing me into history; I felt its force as a child, and I recognise its power now as I read with my own KS2 aged son.
The Power of historical fiction
Recently my son and I have been reading Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘Arthur Trilogy’ together and he is similarly enthralled by the world of Arthur and Gatty. After reading ‘The Seeing Stone’ I asked him to describe how he thought things worked in the 1199 manorial village of Caldicot. His explanation of the societal structure is pictured below (annotations are the words he used as he described what his pictures represented):
I think the power of historical narratives can be seen so clearly in this visual description of feudalism, a concept he has not encountered in his education or reading before. He hasn’t needed to have feudal relationships explained to him. He is developing ideas about medieval society – the role of God and the church permeating throughout – without having been taught it directly. He’s understood it because his imagination has lived it by inhabiting the story. As Christine Counsell (2004, p.56) argued, “fiction takes some beating as a tool for historical thinking. It is as if another world breaks into this one.” Historical fiction can help children to world build (Hill, 2020) in a way that can be difficult for them when working with partial evidential material which needs to be compiled jigsaw-like into a comprehensible form. It can enable them to make short-cuts through which they are then better able to make sense of the inevitable ‘gaps’ in the historical record and place abstract concepts into more concrete frameworks.
Our reading of the Arthur Trilogy, and their sequel ‘Gatty’s Tale’, has been slow. In the year and a half during which we’ve enjoyed these book, I’ve noticed how the world created by the story has enabled my son to make connections. It has allowed him to dwell and inhabit the story of these characters and in doing so become immersed in a ‘medieval way’ of thinking and being. It has allowed him to make meaning from the narrative by building connections with other aspects of his learning and experiences. This has meant making connections with work at school on the Vikings, “That’s before Arthur isn’t it?”, or when on a family visit to an English Heritage Medieval living village display, “Is that the same as the make-up Gatty is given by Signor Umberto?”. It has also led him to implicitly develop the building blocks of his disciplinary thinking in history. For example, when watching Disney’s Robin Hood he could identify that it felt jarring and not quite fitting in the Medieval world he’d assembled as part of his schema for this period. In turn, this led to lots of comparisons and questions in relation to its depiction of Prince John – it naturally inspired his historical curiosity. This dwelling in and with the series over an extended period means the Arthur narrative has become a point of reference for the new information he is learning and the observations he is making in his own world. It is helping to make sense of the past in relation to his present.
We need to engage with historical fiction
It is precisely because it is so powerful that historical fiction can also be dangerous, and that is why I think history teachers must engage with its use in classroom. Historical fiction based on scant evidence can world build in ways that are ahistorical and embed dangerous misconceptions. For example, on Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 The Guardian ran a prominent report entitled: ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas ‘may fuel dangerous Holocaust fallacies’’ based on a 2014 report from IOE’s Centre for Holocaust Education. History teachers have long warned of the dangers inherent in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, a book which presents everyone as a victim and encourages sympathy with the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and yet it continues to be widely taught in schools. History teachers therefore have a role to play in exploring what fiction texts are being taught in their school settings. We should embrace curricular thinking that stretches across the subject boundaries and seek to understand the rationale of another subject for wanting to use such a text. Importantly, we need to make a case for selecting ‘great literature’ which is also ‘great history’.
Clearly the ‘slow reading’ of four full novels over year and half isn’t possible in a classroom setting but selecting and embedding meaningful extended extracts within a scheme of work is possible (as beautifully illustrated by Teni Oladehin in her 2022 SHP conference workshop). Where historical fiction is at its best ‘the writer may invent characters, conversations, circumstances, but if the book is a good one, the invention will all be with the grain of the known historical evidence and will illuminate.’ (Paton- Walsh in Martin & Brooke, 2002, p.30). Where high quality historical fiction’s use is planned for carefully in the context of an historical enquiry, children are given an amazing opportunity to grasp the chronological and societal context in which historical events occur in a way that is meaningful and rewarding for them. If we never use historical fiction, we also evade our responsibility to help children think of such texts as a form of historical interpretation.
My son and I have now moved on to reading Children of the Kingdom of Benin by Dinah Orji, a book set in the Edo City around the same period as the Seeing Stone. Our conception of the Medieval world is being further stretched and built. It is a joy.
Check out a brilliant selection of historical fiction books here: https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/404/news/3700/historical-fiction-list
Crossley-Holland, K. (2000) The Seeing Stone, Orion.
Crossley-Holland, K. (2001) At the Crossing Places, Orion.
Crossley-Holland, K. (2001) The King of the Middle March, Orion.
Crossley-Holland, K. (2006) Gatty’s Tale, Orion.
Hill, M. (2020) Curating the imagined past: world building in the history curriculum, Teaching History 180.
Orji, D. (2020) Children of the Benin Kingdom, Dinosaur Books Ltd.
Paton Walsh, J. (1994) The Story of the Past: Historical Fiction 4 to 14 years, Penguin, quoted in Martin, D. and Brooke, B. (2002) ‘Getting personal: making effective use of historical fiction in the history classroom’ in Teaching History, 108, Performing History Edition.
Bateman, C. (2018) ‘I need to know…’: creating the conditions that make students want knowledge Teaching History 173
Martin, D. and Brooke, B. (2002) ‘Getting personal: making effective use of historical fiction in the history classroom’ in Teaching History, 108, Performing History Edition, pp. 30–35
Worth, P. (2011) Which women were executed for witchcraft? And which pupils cared? Low-attaining Year 8 use fiction to tackle three demons: extended reading, diversity and causation, Teaching History 144