If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, the name Bathilda Bagshot might be familiar to you. You may even recognise her as the author of Hogwarts, a History, a book to which Harry’s friend Hermione regularly refers in the series. Whenever the characters need to know something about the ancient castle they go to school in, Hermione is there, spouting “historical” facts from Bagshot’s work to help them solve their problems.
This Hogwarts, A History book may seem like a nifty device, something Rowling can whip out when Harry and his friends need to solve a mystery about the school’s past (e.g. the previous opening of the Chamber of Secrets), or to explain why dark wizards can’t just apparate into the school and do away with Harry then and there. To some extent, of course, it is a useful device. It allows diligent book-loving Hermione to fill us in on the historical facts we need at any given time. However, I’d argue it also serves a greater role in the story, adding an element that has a long tradition in fantasy novels: invented history.
Fantasy worlds are made up of a variety of elements – cultures, customs, religions, places, characters, creatures, objects, weather, magical systems – but one of the elements that gives them depth is history.
Some of the best fantasy novels create worlds that make you feel as if you’ve leapt into them for a small fraction of a long and epic saga. They make you feel as if the book you’re currently reading is merely the tip of a vast iceberg, a glimpse into a world with a history as long and varied and dynamic as our own.
Sure, we’re all invested in Harry and his journey to defeat Voldemort, but we learn of other stories and historical events within the Hogwarts world that could capture our attention. Dumbledore’s fraught relationship with Grindelwald, the stories of Hogwarts’ four founders, the giant wars, the tale of the Deathly Hallows, the first rise of Voldemort… the list goes on. It’s all alluded to or shown in snippets. This history lends a complexity and an allure to the Harry Potter universe that makes it richer and more enjoyable to inhabit.
We encounter the same thing in A Game of Thrones... as a reader you get a definite sense that would-be kings and queens have been warring and killing each other long before the start of this book. The lead up to the Mad King’s (Aerys Targaryen’s) murder and Robert Baratheon’s ascent to the throne would make a fascinating tale in itself.
Not only do these invented histories make fantasy stories seem more deep and complex, they also make them seem more epic.
Of course, the plot lines of most fantasy stories are already epic, chronicling grand events and struggles between good and evil, and often extending into long series. The Harry Potter series, while seemingly lengthy at 7 books, falls short of many other fantasy series. For example, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series stands at 14 books, and was finished after its creator’s death.
However, illusions to a history that extends far back beyond the beginning of the story, together with illusions to potential future tales, can add an extra sense of grandeur and size. Even though we rarely get to explore those histories in detail (unless you’re a hardcore Tolkien fan and can read books like The Silmarillion cover-to-cover), a fantasy that provides glimpses into them often feels like more than one story. Instead, it feels like a diverse history that spans centuries.
Some of my favourite fantasy stories are those that pull this off expertly. They fascinate readers with not only the story at hand, but the complex history that has been woven around it.
It’s Not About Description or Exhaustive Detail
There’s often this presumption that world-building – of which history-building is a part – means long, flowery passages of description that divert from the action. People refer to elaborate Tolkien-esque passages as if these were the norm, implying that only fantasies that attempt similar epic descriptions are truly building worlds and creating histories.
But that’s not what world-building is about. Many fantasy authors have succeeded in painting rich worlds with the stroke of a few calculated words in the right places. The Harry Potter series doesn’t get laboriously descriptive. We learn a lot about the history of the world and of magic, but we rarely notice it. It’s woven into the characters’ experiences and problems, and is often integral to the plot and the solving of the mystery (or mysteries) at the heart of each book.
Of course, some fantasies do get more detailed and descriptive, and some can go overboard with it. For example, I love Dart-Thornton’s Bitterbynde trilogy (history and time become vitally important in this series in a way that left me quite breath-taken), but I became practised at skipping whole paragraphs and long lists of objects while reading it. That said, there are readers that love detail and thrive on lengthy descriptions, just as there are readers that like their fantasies more sparse and direct.
The Better For It
Ultimately, whatever path a fantasy takes, I’ll always enjoy it if it weaves in a fascinating invented history. I’ll always love the feeling of jumping in at page one, and knowing that even if I don’t see it straight away, a complex web of events has happened to bring the story and the world to where it is now.
And even if you’re a fantasy reader who doesn’t salivate over extensive world-building, and you skipped all the appendices at the end of The Return of the King (I think this stream of consciousness review highlights how most people would feel if they actually forced themselves to read those), I’d argue that if you’re still returning to stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, part of the reason is that you want to feel like you’re in those worlds again… and a sense of history is integral to those worlds.
So if you gave me a copy of Hogwarts, A History (if such a book existed), I probably wouldn’t read it… but I’d still be glad Hermione had, and would happily let the past histories she shares expand and enrich the world of Hogwarts in my mind.