We are so very cataclysmic nowadays. We talk of the death of this, and the end of that without any regard as to what exactly “END” means. The Oxford dictionary gives five different meanings to the word “end” when used as a noun, one of which has numerous sub-meanings. Webster gives seven, of which many have sub-meanings! All of which, to some extent, relate to a stopping or ultimate something. And what does this have to do with an outdated genre of literature? Not much, as I hope to prove.
The history was once a rather important and revered type of literature. If anything, all early literature with origins in oral tradition was considered to be a history. This was how history was transmitted, and if it happened to get a bit exaggerated to the point of allegory so be it. Beowulf, The Illiad, et cetera would fall into this category. Of course, the History which I speak of, and which others would agree with, would be most know in the form of Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentary on the Gallic Wars). Books by Livy and Tacitus would also fall here. These were accounts of events as they happened. And this tradition continued on past the fall of Rome into the Middle Ages. Humanity wanted to write down events as they happened to preserve them.
But then two divisions happened. Not to say that they are in fact the cause of the decline of the History, but they were a part of its life, Shakespeare, and the common person. Shakespeare wrote his famous Histories, and wonderful accounts of events they are. But with one issue–they are first great entertainment and literature, and factually sound, second. The common person, when they gained the ability to write also found a troubling realization about writing a History, subjectivity. When these concepts were later realized by critics the genre of History was as good as dead. But this isn’t the Mikado, where being good as dead, and being dead are the same thing.
Literary genres are a bit like actual animals. They evolve over long periods of time, at almost unnoticeable degrees, until, at last, there is enough distinction between two points on that spectrum that two separate species can be identified. The History was as good as dead because it’s purpose had been mutilated. If someone else wrote a History about something (Shakespeare) there would be clear mistakes as to factual reality because the author was not part of the events, but if a person who partook in the events writes the History then it is skewed because it is subjectively written through the authors own perspective of things.
The history would come full circle with itself when Robert Graves produced I, Claudius. Here the History flipped its purpose which had been shattered by logical reasoning. Before, the facts would make a good story which was believed to be factual events, but now the facts were used to make a good story, and that was all. The story could help the reader better understand those events that happened, but the fact that the work was a piece of fiction was never hidden. Thus, Historical Fiction was born. And because the author did not claim to be telling the exact truth (or sometimes sarcastically claimed they in fact were) they were able to create even better stories in the vein of those old myths and fables.
The History then didn’t “die” or “end” but was merely evolved into something very different, yet much the same. I remember reading I, Claudius and understanding the motives and characterization much better then when I heard of the very same people in a World History class. But when I return to history I do not cite Graves’ book as fact, but see how the facts left to us by the Romans influenced Graves to write the characters as he did. This opens up the mind to new perspectives of history which is exactly what history need. Not for the victor to decide what is remembered–who is the Roman and who the Barbarian, but for the facts to be laid out and for the individual (or group) to decide how humanity progressed from the previous stage, to then, to now.
The History lives the same way. It was once the oral tradition of passing on important events, then the myth and legend, through the Greeks and Romans quite all the way through until recently it was hard fact, and now it is mere an interpretation of fact as Historical Fiction. The genre will continue to change and evolve as time continues, though for now its current form seems quite stable.