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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Fact and Fiction. A Novel Experience

Montfort Castle facing north-east (photograph courtesy of Or Fialkov)

For those interested in the subject matter of my upcoming book The Sulphur Priest, and without giving too much away and leaving the title to preserve an element of mystery, let me just say that, as some will have guessed (or have read on the cover photo that I put up recently) it is indeed a novel about the German castle in the western Galilee that I have been studying and excavating for the past decade and a half. It takes an imaginary look at two periods in the castle's history and consists of the fictionalised accounts of actual people and events, alongside much that is entirely the product of my imagination.

I wrote The Sulphur Priest a decade ago, then with a different and somewhat less cryptic title. After a half-hearted effort to find a publisher I decided to follow the advice of a colleague and put it aside. Unless one is in a literature department, a novel might be regarded as inappropriate for someone still struggling up the ladder of academic advancement. For an archaeologist/historian (I speak as someone who believes that an archaeologist is a historian), writing texts that are based not only on facts and theories, but also on imagination - a cognitive process that academics often either entirely lack or fear to admit possessing - is regarded as going beyond the pale. There is a clear logic behind this. When historians do not stick solely to facts and factually based theory, they open themselves to charges of producing work that is tainted and unreliable, even dishonest. Some critics of the English historian Simon Schama's Dead Certainties (artfully subtitled Unwarranted Speculations) have condemned it being "subversive of the integrity of history as a discipline", although Schama himself pointed out that his book was an undisguised work of fiction. Fiction that does not hide the fact that it is fiction, can with perfect legitimacy dress itself in historical costume. What we might call fictitious history, as opposed to historical fiction, is another matter altogether.

The archaeological parallel for fictitious history is found in examples of architectural restoration. The reconstruction work by Arthur Evans and the artist Piet De Jong at Knossos in Crete is a salient but far from unique example of how imagination is sometimes given excessive free rein, and the same is true of many of the eighteenth and nineteenth century reconstructions of medieval castles. Violet-le-Duc* has been subject to such criticism. Another great "castle-builder", Walt Disney, cannot be condemned (at least not on this account), for he was candidly dealing in fantasy. Nor should we criticise the inventors of Château de Guédelon, the "medieval" castle that is being constructed near Treigny in north-central France, for they too are honest in their aim, and it is a commendable one of gaining knowledge through historical re-enactment. The restorer, however, like the historian should never invent, however great the temptation, except in his mind where his fabrications must remain as abstract aids to his comprehension, never to take on concrete form.

Having throughout my career kept my imagination in its right place, I have in my novel attempted to create the illusion of history, but at the same time have made it clear to the reader that it is nothing more than an illusion. I have added the standard safety clause of fiction writers, stating that this is a work of imagination and that names, characters, places, quoted texts and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Does that cover all bases? Hopefully, but perhaps not. People are happy to believe that the world is more mysterious and more adventurous than it often is. When a long time ago ago I lived for two years in London I spent a great deal of time going around the city seeking out the locations of places I had read about in novels, and the popularity of literary trails for tourists points to the fact that readers often find it hard to accept that fiction is indeed fictitious. While I hope that my little adventure into the realm of novel writing will meet with some success, I admit to having a mild fear that there may be some misguided individuals who will go off to Montfort in search of secret passages, which, let me state quite clearly, to the best of my knowledge do not exist.

* Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the French architect and restorer, among whose restorations (and inventions) were such prominent monuments as Notre-Dame de Paris, notably the beautiful spire destroyed in the fire of 2019, the Basilica of Saint Denis, Mont Saint-Michel, Saint Chapelle, and the medieval walls of the city of Carcassonne.

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