“History is best taught through stories. Hearing a teacher lecture on history is like crumpling a piece of a paper when you want to hear a waterfall.” – Old Ming, Jade Empire
God damn I love that line. And it’s not just because it reminds me of the good old days when Bioware was still free of EA’s tendrils. I love it because it’s a truth wrapped up in a lie, and as Alan Moore wrote in V for Vendetta “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” It’s also great because just as history is best told through stories, stories are best told through the use of history. Not always of course, but often.
For instance, you’ll find many parallels between the war depicted in Lord of the Rings and World War 1 (in which Tolkien served). For instance you have two factions for evil, Sauron and Saruman. Sauron is Germany, the big bad that everyone is fighting against. Saruman, however, is more opportunistic and is taking advantage of the chaos around him just like Italy in World War I. It’s also the first to be defeated. Then you have the mysterious Easterners and the Haradrim, the villains that are often referred to but never seen. The Easterners are your Austria-Hungary and the Haradrim are the Ottoman Empire. Tolkien served on the Western Front, which means he fought German almost exclusively. He probably heard about Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, but to him they were just names. The rest is where creative license comes in, cause I don’t think the Ottoman Empire used Elephants during WWI.
Let’s look beyond the surface though. World War I was the first industrialized war, the first War that involved countries devoting their entire economies to pumping out armies. Remember watching Saruman tearing up Fangorn Forest in the movies? How the once white tower of Saruman turned black, with columns of black smoke pouring from black pits in the earth? Not unlike England during the industrial revolution, where the once rural English countryside was turned into ash as more factories and coal mines went into operation.
World War I also has the distinction of having the most atrocious casualty rates of any war ever…well, except for that other war, I forget what it’s called. People were dying the by truckload, tens of thousands of soldiers would die trying to take ten meters of land and the pointlessness of it all was on clear display to the poor men fighting the war. If you’ve read the books, you’ll notice that Tolkien spends an inordinate amount of time talking about soldiers serving in Gondor’s armies. Particularly before the battle of the Pellenor Fields he focuses on seemingly random soldiers only to have them unceremoniously killed by Orcs, or worse still, never mentioned again. These scenes might seem completely unnecessary to us, but if you see where Tolkien is coming from, it’s actually quite touching.
To the governments of the major powers in World War I, soldiers were just numbers on a spreadsheet. This has always been true of course, for all of Shakespeare’s King Henry V romanticism, soldiers have always gotten a bum rap. This was different, however, this was slaughter on an unprecedented level and no one gave a damn. So when Tolkien was writing these seemingly meaningless scenes, he wasn’t just going off on a tangent, he was pleading with people to remember that soldiers are people, with their own histories and families and hopes. They were out there for four years, sitting around in their own filth, getting trench foot and getting blown away by artillery if they were lucky or dying a slow, painful death from pneumonia, flu, or spending days in no-man’s-land bleeding to death.
Tolkien was trying to give those soldiers a voice, which is the great thing about writing, you can bring attention to issues that you’re passionate just by telling a story. Just like Charles Dickens’ s A Christmas Carol was about the indifferent cruelty of London at large, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was about standing up to evil and remembering the sacrifices of those who gave their lives…and those that didn’t. Frodo, scarred by his experiences during the war, decides he can never go back to the world he knew. Just as many soldiers return home from war forever changed. Getting back to history though, you don’t even need to borrow specific events.
Look at the Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ve enjoyed talking about this series of books before, but damn it I’m gonna talk about it again. What makes Song of Ice and Fire interesting is the use of the feudal system to create drama. Who remembers studying the dark ages in high school? You remember having to write about the feudal system right? All the boring crap about vassals and serfs and knights? Well this is why history is best taught through stories, because I learned a hell of a lot more about the feudal system through George RR Martin’s opus than my high school history class. Political intrigue was once the lone property of spy thrillers, most likely penned by Tom Clancy, but GRRM showed us political maneuvering is just as thrilling, if not more so, even when nukes and sniper rifles aren’t involved.
Then of course video games are in the unique position of telling us historical stories as well. The reason I liked the first Call of Duty so much that it was the first game that showed us just how horrible it must have been to airdrop into France on D-Day or storm up the shores of the Volga river trying to take back Stalingrad from the Nazis.
You can find historical parallels in most stories because truth is always stranger than fiction. Seriously, I mean a horde of Orcs rampaging across the world sounds unbelievable until you take into account that the Orcs were based on the Mongols and their conquest of Asia, the biggest continent on our planet. And the horror of WWII and the holocaust? Even Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft couldn’t have thought up something as horrifying as an entire nation participating in industrialized slaughter.
So yeah, next time you’re enjoying a good book, take a look and see if you recognize any events, places or people. You never know, the Elven Assassin in that book or Shakespeare quoting Dragon might be based on an actual person!