Essays Fiction Issue

Notes on the History of Fiction

Who would give up the Iliad for the “real” historical record?

Historically, there was something like a Trojan war, maybe even several Trojan wars in fact, but the one Homer wrote about in the eighth century B.C. is the one that fascinates us, because it is fiction. Archaeologists doubt that any Trojan war began because someone named Paris kidnapped someone named Helen from under the nose of her Greek husband, or that it was a big wooden horse filled with soldiers that finally won the day. And those particularized gods running the war for their own purposes, deflecting arrows, inciting human rages, turning hearts, and controlling history, might have kept the Greeks and Trojans at it for years and years, but they have no authority in our monotheistic world, and you can find no trace of them in the diggings in northwest Turkey where the archaeologists turn up the shards and bones and sling bullets of what might have been the real Troy.

But Homer (or the stable of poets incorporated under the name Homer) was either given to polytheistic fantasy or was the genius adapter of a system of cosmological metaphors that no one—not Dante, not Shakespeare, not Cervantes—has ever matched for sheer imaginative insanity. Read Homer’s hexameters and you find gods made in the image of man—jealous, mendacious, erotically charged, vengefully disposed, gender-specific know-it-alls, with empowering aptitudes that they wield as weapons in heaven as they do on earth.

But who would give up the Iliad for the historical record? Evidence suggests the Homeric epic was transcribed after generations of oral transmission. The historical facts came down through the ages fused into blinding bardic revelation.


A Richard III Society in England (with a branch in the United States) would recover the reputation of their man from the damage done to it by the calumnies of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare derived his portrayal of a misshapen serial-murdering king from Raphael Holinshed, whose chronicle was strongly influenced by the account of Sir Thomas More, a Tudor propagandist, among other things, the Tudors having brought an end to the Plantagenet dynasty, and to Richard himself, at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

The Ricardians argue that their king was not the deformed creature portrayed by Shakespeare. They say that the murders attributed to Richard—specifically those of his two nephews imprisoned in the Tower—are not proven. They find evidence that this was a good king who ruled wisely. Yet whoever Richard was, and how unfairly mythologized, he is now, and has been for centuries, the dust to which we all return, and there is a greater truth for the self-reflection of all mankind in the Shakespearean vision of his life than any simple set of facts can summon. The enormous popularity of this Grand Guignol of a play, from its very first performance to the present day, comes of the reality it performs: that all men would claim for themselves a pre-emptive existence. We gain the knowledge, only half admitted in our strange fascination for this immensely vital, vengeful, murderer of men, women, and children, that his is the archetypal tormented soul that can never find shelter from the winters of its discontent.

What men will do for power, the monumental death and devastation they wreak in service of their malign monarchal spirits, is borne out by the events of this past century. So if Shakespeare’s Richard III may not be heeded for the instruction it gives, his prophetic identification of this kind of human possibility is recorded by his inimitable language.


Napoleon, as a character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is more than once described as having “plump little hands.” Nor does he “sit well or firmly in the saddle.” He is said to be “undersized,” with “fat thighs … short legs” and a “rotund stomach.” And he holds court smelling of “Eau-de-Cologne.” The issue here is not the accuracy of Tolstoy’s description—it seems not that far off from nonfictive accounts—but its selectivity: other things that could be said of the man are not said. We are meant to understand the incongruity of a warring imperator in the body of a fat little Frenchman. Tolstoy’s Napoleon could be a powdered boulevardier putting a pinch of snuff up his nose—and that is the point. The consequences of such a disparity of form and content can be counted in dead soldiers strewn across the European continent.

It is a stratagem of the novelist no less than of the playwright to symbolize physically the moral nature of a character. And it turns out that, as Tolstoy has it, Napoleon is a preening pompous megalomaniac. In a scene in Book Three of War and Peace, the Russo-French wars having reached the crucial year of 1812, Napoleon receives an emissary from Tsar Alexander, a General Balashev, who has come with peace terms. Napoleon is enraged: doesn’t he have the numerically superior army? He, not the tsar, is the one to dictate terms. Having been dragged unwillingly into war, he will destroy all of Europe if his will is thwarted. “That is what you will have gained by alienating me!” he shouts. And then, Tolstoy writes, Napoleon “walked silently several times up and down the room, his fat shoulders twitching.”

Still later, after consoling himself by parading before adoring crowds, Napoleon invites the shaken General Balashev to dinner: “He raised his hand to the Russian’s … face,” Tolstoy writes,

and taking him by the ear pulled it gently … To have one’s ear pulled by the Emperor was considered the greatest honor and mark of favor at the French court. “Well adorer and courtier of the Tsar Alexander, why don’t you say anything?” said he, as if it was ridiculous in his presence to be the adorer and courtier of any one but himself, Napoleon.

Tolstoy did his research, but the composition is his own.


Homer was Homer, a bard of the late Bronze Age. In the Bronze Age stories were the primary means of storing and transmitting knowledge: they were the public memory; they preserved the past, instructed the young, and created communal identity. So we’re prepared to make allowances. We do that also with those other writers of the era, the writers and redactors of the Hebrew Bible. For them as for Homer, there was nothing like a purely factual discourse; there was no learned observation of the natural world that was not religious belief, no history that was not legend, no practical information that did not resound as heightened language. The world was perceived as enchanted.

Presented by

E. L. Doctorow’s most recent book is The March, winner of the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His forthcoming collection, Creationists, will be published in September.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In