I spend a fair bit of time frolicking about in Middle Earth, or Westros, or Narnia, or Discworld, or any number of other pseudo-medieval realms. I like to time travel this way, and take a tourist’s visit through what seems like the past. I enjoy the silly costumes, the fortified architecture, the bad food and worse sanitation, the lack-of-guns, and then I’m all too happy to return to the present.
Fantasy does a lot for me, but on top of the entertainment and metaphorized drama it makes me grateful. Despite all our present troubles, we live in an age of miracles. They might have bawdy taverns and nut brown ale, but we have electricity, flush toilets, and the World Wide Web.
Yet sometimes I want a more authentic experience. I head back into history on the arm of someone like Diana Gabaldon, or Ken Follett, or Philippa Gregory. Someone who has done his or her research, and is happy to introduce me to the celebrated places and persons of the past. And it isn’t just us moderns who have exercised the time-traveling powers of good fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Alexander Dumas were both more interested in writing about the past than the present. Victor Hugo was painstaking with his research for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, set three centuries before his own time.
But I’m fooling myself if I think I’ve really left history’s tourist traps this way. For all their research and imagination, no author can really introduce me to a time older than their own. They can only gloss, give impressions, or stereotype. Hugo was making it up when he introduced me to 16th century Paris.
If I want to really time travel with Victor Hugo, I have to read Les Miserables.
Then history isn’t just a fun place to visit. It becomes real. I walk 19th century Paris with Jean Valjean, and see how our current conflicts between rich and poor, state and populace, are old conflicts indeed. I read Othello, and learn that white men have feared losing their daughters to the arms of black men for four centuries. I read the Bhagavad Gita, and realize that we have struggled with our own transience and purpose for thousands of years.
I’m no tourist then. This is real time travel. I’m living history on ancient words, and my empathy grows as I realize that we are, and have always been, only human.