What is the role of fiction in history? That is a real question posed by a History Oxford don at interview to a prospective student.
The idea of a sharp line between ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’ has deep roots in Western thought, most likely rooted to a Judeo-Christian heritage. Many religions, after all, rely on the premise of accessing a ‘higher truth’. We can see it in Morpheus presenting Neo with the choice between the red and blue pill, and in his own reference, Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole.
Yet, the line between fiction and fact, history and myth, is a question relevant to many academic disciplines, and one crossed over by writers seeking to whittle different paths to ‘truth’.
For [near]fiction-writer Hilary Mantel, history is something tied to the fictions we are attached to, and much of what should be included in the historical record – fears, fantasies, sensuality, desires – is sinfully absent.
In this fascinating article (link below), Michael Durrant, lecturer at Bangor University, questions the line between history and fiction, proposing that perhaps the condition of ‘blur’, which literature captures so well, is necessary to ‘smooth over the complexities’ of history, especially distant history. As Shakespeare’s influential ‘history plays’ have shown us, the fictional can slip in to factual and vice versa.
This piece is relevant for all English and History applicants, but equally so for all applicants for law and social and political science subjects. From a political perspective, for example, we are reminded how the shrapnel of ‘fake news’, and invented truths bouncing through the kaleidoscope of social media, can – despite their fabrication – have dramatic affective power. But fiction can also illuminate; as Ralph Waldo Emerson succinctly surmised, ‘Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures’.