Fantastic History #58: When the Ordinary is a Fantasy by Kate Heartfield

The Black Death hit Florence hard. At least half the city’s population died, and maybe more.

By 1350, the plague had burned itself out. Many of the city’s grand houses sat empty, a temptation to anyone who would take the risk of touching the furnishings. Giovanni Boccaccio was already writing what history came to regard as his great work, a collection of bawdy or clever stories told with perfect turns of phrase and deftly drawn characters.

It’s tempting to think of classic texts as though they were archival records, missives from the past. But when Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, I doubt he had us in mind. It’s a little difficult to say for sure who, exactly, he had in mind. In his introduction, he says he wrote it as a comfort for ladies to ease their suffering – but the suffering he’s talking about is the suffering of being in love! The first chapter is a description of the plague’s effects on Florence, the ditches full of corpses with no one to mourn them. But Boccaccio reassures his putative female audience that all the unpleasant parts will be out of the way at the beginning, that reading the book will be like climbing a mountain and emerging onto to a beautiful plain.

In that notional meadow, his readers come upon a group of fictional storytellers. The conceit is that these characters have left plague-ridden Florence for the countryside, where they decide to wait out their apocalypse by telling each other stories. It was just barely historical fiction when Boccaccio was writing it in his half-empty city; it would be like someone in 2022 writing a novel set in the current pandemic.

What strikes me, as a historical fantasy writer re-reading the Decameron now, is that there’s not a lot of fantasy in it. There’s the occasional ghost, mythological milieu or strange happening, but the stories are mostly about ordinary people tricking each other, having affairs, showing up hypocrisy, learning life lessons.

In fact, the realism of the stories told by the Decameron’s somewhat allegorical frame characters has led many people to see it as a sort of snapshot of the transition to the Renaissance. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2013: “I see the Decameron as a picture, with the ten elegant Florentines, in their silk gowns and embroidered doublets, joining hands and dancing their lovely circle dance, the carola. And in the middle of the circle are monks and merchants and painters and prostitutes eating dinner and having sex and kicking one another into ditches. In other words, we see the Renaissance embraced by the Middle Ages, like a planet orbited by its moons.”

Dividing anything into the Renaissance and the Middle Ages is always fraught, and that debate doesn’t really concern me here. But the dogged ordinariness of the stories does. After all, in our own time, we’ve been told over and over again that the literature of comfort and escape is fantasy. Some, like Tolkien, have defended the “escape” function of what he called “fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” More often, though, it’s dismissive or derisive, meant to signal that what is escapist is not challenging or thought-provoking or elevating, that it merely allows us to forget our troubles for a while, like a glass of wine.

The Decameron, which long ago joined the ranks of Serious Art, was written with the express purpose of allowing women to forget their troubles. It is literally, avowedly, escapist fiction, anchored in the very disaster his readers had just survived: the reader is asked to imagine escaping that disaster and going to an idyllic landscape, where they have ten days to remember life in all its pain and hilarity: life without the plague.

How many times have you heard or read someone say, over the last few months, that all of this feels unreal, that we’re living in a science fiction novel? Such moments remind us that all fiction has an escapist function – or, to get away from the derogatory, let’s call it a transportive, function. Writers struggling to write “contemporary” stories at the moment, anchored in some floating nebulous “now”, are having to confront the axiom that all fiction is either historical or science fiction. It’s just easier to kid ourselves about that when there isn’t a pandemic happening. By the time any novel written during this pandemic is published, it will imagine a world that is gone, or a world that the writer can’t know yet. Either choice will transport the reader, either to the past, or to a fossilized conception of the future. All fiction moves us from one room into another.

Perhaps the novelist who writes the escapist fiction of 2022 will do as Boccaccio did and write about ordinary people having affairs and not worrying about anything else, and it will seem like a throwback to a more innocent time. Edith Wharton wrote in her memoir about the end of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic that “before I could deal objectively with the stored up emotions of those years, I had to get away from the present altogether, and though I began ‘A Son at the Front’ in 1917 it was not finished until four years later. Meanwhile I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and I wrote ‘The Age of Innocence.’” That novel was set in the 1870s and published in 1920, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve had a story stub sitting in my ideas folder for a while, with a setting inspired by The Age of Innocence, set in New York in the 1870s, with magicians. It seemed somehow fitting that that story should be my contribution for The New Decameron Project, a wonder conceived of by Maya Chhabra, and organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton and Lauren Schiller. So I finished it up, titled it “A Hansom Cab Outside the Liberty Street Ferry Terminal” and it was published on May 4. All the stories in The New Decameron Project, including the charming frame narrative by Jo Walton, are free to read, but Patreon subscribers support payments for the authors and Cittadini del Mondo, a charity running a library and clinic for refugees in Rome.

Personally, I want all my stories to be an escape from the reader’s current frame of mind, so that they return from the experience changed, even if that change is only one of mood. Because the escape in fiction is always a temporary one, and what it’s really doing is guiding our return, to the city that needs rebuilding, to the life that is to come.

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Kate Heartfield writes science fiction and fantasy, including the Aurora-winning novel Armed in Her Fashion and the Nebula-shortlisted novella Alice Payne Arrives, along with dozens of stories. She is the author of The Road to Canterbury and The Magician’s Workshop, both of which were shortlisted for the Nebula in game writing. Her next novel is The Embroidered Book, a historical fantasy coming in 2021. A former journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.