Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne
This is a follow on from the post Why the study of history is relevant for the fantasy writer. It should not be read before that one.
Below is a very brief account of a part of Henry the VIII’s life, probably the most famous part, which is why I chose it. Many of you will already know or have an idea about it. A proper study of this part of Henry’s life and time will allow you to see the complexity of the characters and their setting. But we cannot go into any depth in a blog post and, anyway, this is not a history lesson. Here we have a small snapshot from which we may deduce some basic conclusions regarding the attitude of some of the chief actors involved in this drama. We’ll use them as a blueprint to kick start a set of similar characters that the fantasy writer could, if they wished, go on to develop into a set of fresh and original characters within a fantasy setting.
Katherine of Aragon was unable to provide Henry with a male heir. Henry desired a son not only in order to properly establish the Tudor succession, but also for the sake of his (pride). Henry wanted his marriage to Katherine annulled (sees marriage as a means to an end), and Ann Boleyn his mistress. Ann refused the role, but kept his interest in her high while holding out for the role of queen (calculating and massively ambitious).
Henry wanted to convince the Pope that his marriage to Katherine had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother (not afraid to challenge the highest religious authority). The king of Spain, Charles, Katherine’s nephew, wanted her to remain in her influential position, so he let the Pope know he’d be angry if Henry was granted a divorce. The Pope postponed any decision regarding Henry’s marriage, knowing that to please either Henry or Charles, he would upset the other.
Anne Boleyn had strong opinions about religion. She wanted Henry to allow the Bible to be published in English (more ambitions and strong opinions regarding religious belief and practise) and she introduced him to Protestant writers, one of whom argued that kings had authority over the church (manipulating and audacious, leading Henry to see that he could have his marriage annulled and marry her if he became head of the church). Ann grew increasingly confident that if she became pregnant by Henry he would commit to her and divorce Katherine. So she accepted his bed (confident, risk taker).
With Ann pregnant, Henry wanted the child to be seen as legitimate. Thomas More, Henry’s Lord Chancellor, made famous by the film A Man for All Seasons, resigned his position in opposition to the king’s plans to divorce Katherine (convictions and courage to stand up to the king; firm believer in the law and that none should manipulate the law to their own ends, including the king; no one was above the law).
Henry married Anne, even against the threat of an invasion by Charles. But Ann did not give Henry a male heir as he had hoped. He received a daughter instead. When at last the Pope let Henry know that his marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid, Henry reacted by removing the Pope’s authority in England and through an act of Parliament made himself head of the Church of England (stubborn; wants his way; defies the Pope). Thomas More refused to support this move and was subsequently convicted of high treason and executed (proved his courage and convictions to the end).
Ann went on to have a son, born dead and badly deformed. In those days, people believed a deformed child meant God was punishing the parents for committing terrible sins. Henry worried the country would see it this way for his divorcing Katherine and marrying Anne.
Ann made a crucial mistake in attacking and humiliating in public Thomas Cromwell, a powerful man, and up to that point, her supporter. (0verambitious, turns against supporters for her own ends, miscalculates). Now Henry turned to Thomas Cromwell for help in releasing him from his marriage with Anne. Cromwell suggested that Henry declare he was not the father of the deformed child. To do this, they had to charge Ann with having had sexual relationships with other men, including her brother. As a result of the charges, she was executed in the Tower. (What does this say about the character of Thomas Cromwell, but especially Henry who had married and bedded this woman?).
The dissolution of the monasteries was a key feature of Henry’s rule. The monasteries were seen as the bedrock of the Pope’s authority in England and Wales. Once Henry had stripped the Pope of his authority in England, he was not going to leave the wealthiest institutions in England and Wales alone. Thomas Cromwell was a key player here in the persecution and destruction of religious people and institutions. The north rebelled against the attack on the monasteries. The instigators were tricked into backing down and subsequently punished by death for daring to challenge the king. Eventually, the Pope excommunicated Henry from the Catholic Church.
Now we’ve got some really basic but poignant outlines of the relationships, attitudes and environment of the characters involved in the historical drama and the conflict that goes with it. So let’s drop them into a new setting and tweak everything just a little for the sake of creating a fantasy story out of it.
The desire for a child is the elemental desire to pass on one’s genes. In Henry’s case, this can be seen as a need for the immortality of his kingship. The most important cause in the drama is Henry’s need to have a son.
King wants a divorce from K so he can remarry and have a male heir – to be certain his succession will continue and also for his pride.
A tribe of outsiders, possibly elves, wants to bring their influence to bear on the land of Angle. They set about doing this through their religion. But in order to accomplish this, they must destroy the old religion. They know of Henry’s desire for a son and they see it as an opportunity to create a wedge between Henry and the old religion/shamans.
The elves understand that the new religion must flatter Henry and must certainly help to provide him with a son. If the new religion accomplishes this, it will have a big influence on Henry and after his death the elves may even be able to control the country through his heir. They will have certainly weakened the old religion and destroyed its influence in this land of Angle (the old religion may be plaguing their kind in other lands).
Thomas, intelligent, ruthlessly ambitious (could be an elf, or a convert to the new religion) acts as counsel for Henry.
An elf, or woman convert, Ann, who might be a genuine supporter of the new religion, seeing it as a force of much-needed change, is introduced to Henry by Thomas. Henry becomes obsessed with her and wants to marry her. She is ambitious and calculating, refusing just to be his mistress. She uses her intellect, her charm and light magic to keep him interested in her. Her end game is to marry him and bear him a son. The other elves, those of the new religion, including human converts, want this, too.
Henry puts it to the High Shaman that his marriage to K had been invalid. (For whatever reason the writer wants to make up). But K has a powerful brother king abroad who threatens invasion if the High Shaman insults their family by granting Henry a divorce. The High Shaman puts off making any decision regarding Henry’s marriage, knowing that to please one side he upsets the other and possibly encourages war.
Ann encourages the king toward the new religion, pointing out the practical benefits: he might be the head of the new religion in Angle and not have to ask anyone for permission to divorce K. Increasingly confident, she gambles that she will be the new queen and so gets pregnant by him to force him to make a move in divorcing K and marrying her.
Henry wants Ann’s child to be seen as legitimate, but Henry’s Lord Chancellor, TM, resigns his position in opposition to the king’s plans to divorce K.
Because of TM’s brave stance against Henry, the magic of the old religion gets a boost. (Powerful magic may come about through an individual’s courage combined with a strong moral outlook.) The old queen, K, appeals to a shaman of the old religion to help her strike her usurper with a curse. The shaman prepares the curse, not just for his queen but also as a blow against the new religion.
Henry marries Anne, even against the threat of an invasion by C, Katherine’s brother. But Henry is disappointed to receive a daughter instead of a son.
To make matters worse for Henry, the High Shaman now lets him know that his marriage to Anne is invalid. Henry reacts by removing the High Shaman’s authority in Angle and through an act of The High Council makes himself head of the Church of Angle.
This was what the supporters of the new religion wanted. The old religion’s hold on the country has weakened.
TM refuses to support Henry’s move to make himself head of the Church, seeing it as against the law and his conscious, and is subsequently convicted of high treason and executed.
His execution gives the magic of the old religion a massive boost and K has a shaman make another curse on Ann.
The new queen gets so full of hubris that she attacks and humiliates in public Thomas who has been her supporter all this time. Then she has another baby, a boy, still born and deformed. The people believe a deformed child means the Gods are punishing the parents for committing terrible sins.
The king is struck with fear. He also believes the Gods are disfavouring him for going against the High Shaman’s decision, and he knows the country will view him this way for divorcing K and marrying Anne. Now he realises his new marriage is a mockery of the Gods. But what can he do about it?
Afraid of his own future and that the new religion will lose influence with Henry as a result of this, and wanting revenge against the new queen for the way she humiliated him in public, Thomas suggests very subtly that the stillborn child is not the king’s; that, in fact, Ann has cuckolded him. Worse, she has not only done it with several men, but also with her brother, which is why the child is deformed. Thomas convinces Henry that the old shamans plotted to bring Ann and her brother together because the result of their infidelity would more likely be a deformed birth, which would discredit him as it would be seen as judgement from the Gods. But the old shamans could only succeed in their aim because Ann was having several affairs, anyway. The shamans fed off the immorality of her infidelities to create powerful magic and bewitch both her and her brother into sleeping with one another.
This idea solves Henry’s problem for now he believes that it is nothing to do with the Gods disfavouring him but man plotting against him. (Does he believe it in his heart?) He must have Ann out of his life now. Acting on Henry’s authority, Thomas concocts charges against Ann. She is subsequently executed.
The first queen’s shamanic curse has gone a long way; perhaps further than she meant it to go.
Henry has his revenge on what Thomas led him to believe was a plot by the old shamans to have Ann’s brother sleep with her in order to bring about a deformed child. The houses of the old religion are attacked and stripped of much of their wealth. These houses are seen as the bedrock of the High Shaman’s authority in the country. Once Henry has stripped the High Shaman of his authority in the land of Angle, he was not going to leave the wealthiest religious institutions alone. His need for personal revenge is both the trigger and an added incentive for the attack. Thomas is a key player here in the persecution and destruction of religious people and institutions. Eventually, the High Shaman excommunicates Henry from the Church of the old religion.
Maybe there could be a rebellion against the persecution and destruction of the old religion’s houses as part of the main plot or as a subplot (historically true).
K’s brother might invade around the same time, determined to help the rebellion and get his own back on Henry (not historically true).
The writer might make a three part narrative here. Possibly K gets feelings of guilt regarding the death of Ann which her curse brought about. Also, to get her back on Henry she decides in the second part to help the girl child, Liz, prepare for the throne. Part three might be about the young Liz’s ascendancy to the throne and her early years as queen. For more characters and ideas read more history. The overall story could be one of irony. Henry never has a son to fulfil his ambitions, but his daughter becomes one of Angle’s great queens and stops the disintegration of the state to civil war by making a compromise between the two religions in her land. By doing this, and by being head of the new church, the people take her to their hearts and so she first halts and then sees off the increasing power of the elves.
Or, for example, you can go in the opposite direction and focus in on a more detailed story out of part of what is outlined here. Ann’s accusation of adultery, and her subsequent execution, for instance, might be good material to use for a fantasy story in itself.
Note: historical type novels have focussed on just about every aspect of Henry’s life.
The main change I brought about by tweaking the realism into the realm of fantasy is the interpretation of cause and effect that the fantasy characters place on events. These characters believe that magic plays an important part in the natural order of things because they believe in the power of the Gods to intervene. It could be that big magic only comes about through sacrifice to moral or religious beliefs, as with the example of TM. This is similar to a real world scenario whereby co-religionists or fellow combatants are inspired to great deeds themselves by courage and sacrifice on the part of an ally. This is a form of magic, too, though we refer to it as inspiration. This is an interesting piece of psychology the writer can play with when creating character perspective.
Even with this skimming of the surface, have you noticed the complexity involved here? There is no obvious good versus evil. There is a massive shifting of sands going on where Henry is at the centre of it, but you see that cultural and religious changes are happening all round him, egged on by the elves and the new religion, all triggered by his desire for a son. Historically speaking, Henry’s desire for a son hastened big cultural and religious changes that were already edging onto centre stage. The writer can use some of the historical backstory to give his own story even more power.
Take note! The writer must decide how complex he wants his story. Does he want an obvious split play between good and evil? For instance, should one religion be good and the other bad? Or does he want it less simple and predictable? To make the story more fascinating, both the old and the new religion can have pluses and minuses, converts and martyrs, cowards and heroes, reprehensible and good types. This gives the story complexity and encourages great drama, just as the historical sources will demonstrate.
But the writer must still make a decision regarding heroes. He must have at least one hero for the reader to follow. This means there must be at least one morally upstanding person around which the narrative revolves. This morality must in some way match the morality of the modern reader. The character must at least be seen as good in their own time. The reader will not sympathise with a truly reprehensible character. Possibly, this narrative could revolve around K’s perspective as I hinted at above. It could possibly be the character of TM (Thomas More) also for part of the story (Or one of his children for all of it), or he might not die but be kept alive in a dungeon and under torture. The old religion’s magic can still receive a boost off his courage under suffering. Or the writer could develop another historical character from the host of characters in this historical drama. The writer might find a minor one he really likes and give that one a central role.
Our blueprint got us rapidly to the heart of the drama. The writer might love the feel of conflict he’s found but not feel comfortable with the historical set of characters and plot, and want to manipulate them much more than what I’ve done in my example. I deliberately didn’t stray too far from the historical sources so as to give the reader a clear example of how little effort is needed to tweak these sources in order to bring about a blueprint for a fantasy drama. The whole point of using the historical sources is that the writer use them as a means for helping create complex and believable character (and therefore they’re more likely to be original), and why not also an understanding of the cause and effect of social and cultural changes, and even storyline and plot. But he should manipulate the historical sources according to his needs. It is more than likely, anyway, that his own vibrant fantasy setting will manipulate the characters quite a bit on his behalf. Certainly, the writer should never become a slave to the historical sources. Only his imagination should enslave him, because to be enslaved by imagination is to be freed from mediocrity.
Good luck with your writing!
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