Christian Cameron on reenacting and Tom Swan
They say—write what you know. If I were an actor, I’d be a method actor, I suspect. I like to know—or at least have a solid idea—before I put pen to paper. I like to describe how people lived—how they ate and drank, how they rode horses. And yes, how they handled weapons. Even—I hope—sometimes capture how they made art, or how they thought. In many ways, I learn these things by carefully and immersively reenacting the period about which I’m writing.
The other day I had a long conversation with a very well-educated person who wanted me to understand that authenticity didn’t matter in historical writing, because history is all point of view, context, and written propaganda written by men. And the victors. This person’s perspective was, I think, that history is one vast fantasy landscape wherein the historical writer is free to say just about anything.
I’ve read Foucault, and I’ve read Derridas, and I think I understand the post-modern urge to deconstruct and to shun harsh terms like ‘fact’ and ‘truth.’ History—especially written history—is full of propaganda, from Herodotus to Thucydides and onward. Bias, embedded assumption, cultural manifestations—all there. So I understand the urge.
I understand it, but I don’t think it’s good for history. History happened. The Holocaust happened, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. Srebrenica happened. It is possible, I suppose, to argue about the exact values of the victims and the criminals who perpetrated these atrocities, but it is not correct to pretend that these things didn’t happen. As a military veteran—someone who witnessed things—I hold history, and the testimony of the past—archaeology and written history, red in tooth and claw, replete with human error and bias, to be very important. History is to nations as experience is to people. Those who cannot contemplate the past will not know themselves very well. Socrates is reported to have said that an unexamined life is not worth living, and I’d extend that to all of history.
And, I’d maintain experience—personal experience—is important, too. If, as a fiction writer, I could make a single contribution to the study of history, it would be this—to convince readers that people in the past lived quite well with the skills and technologies they had. A skilled person can light a fire with flint and steel in seconds. A skilled archer can place an arrow anywhere she wants within a few hundred meters. A skilled sempter can make a complex garment from ‘whole cloth’ in four hours—about as fast as most of us would do it with a machine. The possession of these skills distinguished people in the past. It is almost trite to say that the housewives of the past had dozens, if not hundreds, of skills we no longer have and oftimes don’t even value. The same is/was true of farmers, drivers, drovers, tailors, sailors and hundreds of other skills and trades and professions that were required to drive the civilizations of the past.
Recreating those skills—learning even the basics of them—often requires many hours. Mastery—even reaching basic competency—can require endless repetition. Yet this is exactly what reenactors do—and the craftspeople who support reenacting. There are, I confess, reenactors for whom the whole exercise is largely costume drama or static display—they put on the clothing of the past and wear it for a few hours, and march about, and talk to the public. But the essence of the hobby lies in the acquisition of skills, and the ability to use those skills to achieve some sort of understanding of how people lived in the past.
Reenacting has many forms. At the risk of watering down the term, it is a form of reenactment to play the music of the past; it is, in fact, a popular form of intellectual immersion. Listen to Clementi or Marin Marais or Guillaume de Machaut and you can hear what the past sounded like—without putting on a costume.
But wearing the clothes—the skin of the past—is itself immersive. You don’t need to be a philosopher, a psychologist, or a neurologist to see that clothes make the man—although all three agree that they do—and it isn’t much of a jump from there to admitting that wearing the clothes of the past might force us to some unique understanding. It is important to learn to make the clothes correctly, and to learn to wear them as people in the past wore them, and not as we’d adapt them to look as much like modern clothes as possible—but once that has been achieved, it is remarkable how quickly you can learn by wearing the clothes of a period. I can tell you froim experience that the clothes of Ancient Greece are ideally suited to wearing in Greece in August; more ideally than anything in my closet or suitcase, in fact. That late fourteenth century European clothes are uniquely well-adapted to life in the cold—hardly remarkable in the ‘Little Ice Age.’ That 18th c. Woodlands Native clothes are supremely well designed for the wilderness of North America—so much so that I wear leggings and moccasins by preference when camping.
If wearing clothes—the right clothes, made the right way and with the right materials—is immersive, then practicing the skills of the past is even more so. In every period I recreate, one of my first impulse is to make enough kit to go camping—to go and live in the period for a day and a night—and then longer periods. I like to learn to light a fire as they did—to cook with the limitations they had–to carry the gear they carried. Long before I start practicing a period’s martial arts or buying weapons or armour, I’ll have the equivalent of a backpack and sleeping roll.
Different periods in reenacting offer different joys and different curses. Enlightenment North America offers both recreated cities (Louisburg in Canada is an incredible recreation of an entire garrison town; unlike Colonial Williamsburg, it is not surrounded by the modern world!) and the same deep wilderness that confronted Armies, explorers, settlers and the original inhabitants. Medieval Italy offers an incredible depth of existing research on clothing and material culture—paintings by the likes of Giotto and Altichiero offer amazing insights; we have documents and music and porcelain and bedding and virtually everything preserved, described in inventories—and it’s a magnificent rich pageant. Ancient Greece is like a journey into complete darkness, to paraphrase an old friend—the documentation is spotty at best, the many of the original sites are preserved or better yet, abandoned and easy to access.
I wrote the Tom Swan adventures after a visit to Greece where I concentrated on visiting Medieval, rather than Ancient, sites. I spent a great deal of time looking at the Gattelussi castles on Lesvos, and I met up with some reenacting friends. We put on all of our kit, and we did a few hours of what reenactors like to call ‘Living History.’ Mostly we walked around—I climbed a tall hill and walked the perimeter of a 15th c. castle, and I ran up the hillside to feel what the stones were like in my 15th c. boots.
And the next day, my daughter and I rode across the countryside on horseback, and we had to pass through a big herd of sheep—probably an everyday occurrence in late Medieval Europe, but not one my horse enjoyed, and not one I was ready for. Good grist for the novelist’s mill, though!
Visiting the sites of major events of the past—whether battles or dances or pageants or feasts—is itself immersive. Isn’t that why we visit them? And going in kit—in period clothes—and practicing period skills—explaining them to the public—eating the food, drinking the wine, and running a few courses with lance or fighting at the barriers with poleax or riding a horse through five hundred head of sheep on a narrow path—these can offer the novelist a solid basis of the sort of actions and even motivations that help build unforgettable scenes and authentic, interesting characters.
Or—er—I hope so, anyway!
The first three TOM SWAN AND THE HEAD OF ST GEORGE ebooks are available now.
For more on the Tom Swan series visit the rest of the stops on the tour – starting with Fantasy Book Critic tomorrow.