Drawing Inspiration from Historical Texts

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

This lesson explores how modern works of literature and film draw on historical texts. We will learn about the genre of historical fiction. Then, we will discover how the structures of fairy tales and mythic archetypes inspire contemporary writers.

Timeless Stories

From The Clash of the Titans (Greek Legend) and The Mists of Avalon (Arthurian Legend), to Jesus Christ Superstar (The Bible) and Into the Woods (Brothers Grimm fairy tales), modern works look to historical texts for inspiration and guidance. We are drawn to ancient texts because they tell universal, timeless stories. Humans survive. We struggle against adversity. People fall in love. Young heroes set out to right a wrong. A noble warrior saves a beautiful ingénue from danger. These are the backbones of stories that have stood the test of time: Homer's Odyssey, Arthurian legends, Greek mythology, and Grimm's fairy tales. Modern authors draw on historical texts for all sorts of reasons.  We continue to tell stories such as these because they get at the heart of what it means to be human.

Countless films and works of literature retell myths, legends, and fairy tales without adding new interpretations. But truly innovative and creative works aim to do more than simply adapt the earlier work. For example, Gregory Maguire's novels retell fairy tales from the perspective of the bad guy: Mirror, Mirror (2003), based on Snow White and Confessions of an Evil Stepsister (1999), based on Cinderella. Similarly, John Gardner imagined the epic poem of Beowulf from the perspective of the monster in Grendel (1971). Angela Carter's collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), applies a feminist perspective to fairy tales.

This lesson explores three main ways that modern works of fiction draw on historical texts: adaptation of theme or story, structure, and archetypal characters.

Historical Fiction

The genre of historical fiction defines novels set in a period prior to the time they were written. Works such as Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980), Number The Stars by Lois Lowry (1989), and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991) fall into this category. Historical novels draw on events, characters and stories from history, embroidering these tales with dramatic climaxes and epic journeys. They do not aim to be true to life and should not be used as evidence to support an understanding of real world history. Modern novels based in the past differ from classic literature, such as works by classic authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. Pride and Prejudice (1813) Oliver Twist (1838) and Of Mice and Men (1937) are therefore not considered to be historical fiction.

Homer's Odyssey, written in the 8th century BC, for example, is hands down an epic journey about the enduring themes of loyalty, temptation, and folly. The poem has been adapted many times, which testifies to the remarkable longevity of the story. Whether set in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or during the Great Depression in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, (2000) it holds up in different time periods and geographical settings. Zachary Mason's The Lost Books (2010) shows how authors today need to infuse older works with innovative new material while also contending with the now modern classic adaptations in order to be original. James Joyce set the bar for all of these works when he wrote Ulysses, (1922) the epic modern novel about a day in the life of Leonard Bloom in Dublin.

Cover page of The Odyssey by Homer
homer odyssey

Mythic Structures and Archetypal Characters

Modern works also rely on tried and true literary structures set down by old texts. Apart from familiar content to a story, readers also come to expect a certain progression of events in their favorite stories. We all know that novels and movies have a beginning, a middle and an end. Authors today draw from mythic structure to tell epic stories.

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