Magical Realism in Historical Fiction

When an author throws magical elements into a modern setting, its called paranormal romance or urban fantasy. But what about when an author injects magic into a historical setting? Usually we still just call it historical fiction.

The use of magic in historical fiction certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. The reigning queen of the historical women’s fiction genre is Philippa Gregory, who loves to play with magic in her otherwise splashy but scholarly novels. The heroine of The Queen’s Fool has some sort of mystical ability as does the heroine of The White Queen, who is able to use her witchery connection to curse Richard III and her connection to the water goddess Melusina to turn the tide of a battle. Admittedly, Gregory tends to use magic in a plausibly deniable fashion, but sometimes she’ll use it to allow her characters knowledge that they couldn’t have otherwise had.

It’s an effective literary device and one that I expect we’ll see more often as the lines between genres begin to blur in the age of the e-book. For me, the wholesome peanutty goodness of a historical setting lends itself quite naturally to ribbons of rich chocolate magic.

After all, it’s only recently that we’ve come to reject magic as part of our reality.

To the ancients, magic was real. Though rationalists existed even then, magic was attested to as an every day phenomenon. In short, the belief in magic was so integral to ancient culture that it made up a part of who they were. That’s one of the reasons I chose to inject magic into my historical fiction series, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra’s Daughter.

It fascinated me to see how eagerly the Egyptians embraced magic as a way of navigating the waters of a complicated world while the Romans greeted magic with suspicion and fear. While Egyptians were painting and carving magic spells in their tombs, the Romans were banishing fortune tellers from the Forum and cracking down on mystery cults that frightened them.

Given that historical background, it seemed inevitable that I should use magic as a way to juxtapose the two cultures within the framework of the remarkable life of Cleopatra Selene, who was ripped from her native Egypt at the tender age of ten and marched through the streets of Rome in chains. The historical Selene grew up a prisoner of war, a hostage in the emperor’s own household. She was a true survivor.

Giving her spiritual strength by way of Egyptian magic was my way of imagining her inner life: In my novel, Isis speaks to her in hieroglyphics that carve themselves into Selene’s hands. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. I could have just waved my hands over the whole thing and said, “The Goddess does it.”

However, when writing any work of speculative fiction, one has to create a consistent set of rules for magic. That it’s historical fiction doesn’t change that equation, and possibly makes it more important. After all, the world of history is no less mysterious and foreign than a fantasy world. The same dedication to world-building must be observed.

Consequently, I dedicated a lot of time to figuring out the rules of magic within this very real historical world. Hopefully readers will appreciate the effort!

Comments (4)

  • I definitely appreciated the effort. I’m also writing an historical fantasy novel about ancient Egypt, and you have to play by their rules when it comes to magic! In “Lily” I liked how magic was integrated into the Egyptian religion. Magic as we think of it today would be completely foreign to the ancients. There was no distinction between magic and religion. Magic was a normal part of religion. I really appreciated that and as I continue to write I realize it’s a lot harder than it seems!

  • Yay! More historical fantasy about Egypt. :) Thanks for the comment. I meant to respond earlier but I was a traveling fool.

  • I think one of the best examples of magical realism are in some of Isabel Allende’s books. She makes magic seem sort of like an every day occurrence.

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