Fiction and historical accuracy tend to go together like oil and water. That is to say while many aspects of history tend to inform the fiction writing process, facts tend to get in the way of the fun. As does researching the facts sometimes and so often making sure a work of historical or history-based fiction is a historically accurate falls to the wayside.
I’m reminded of when my freshman year teacher tried to teach us about the Greco-Persian Wars and specifically the second Persian invasion of Greece. In retrospect it would have been smart for him to simply leave out the Battle of Thermopylae. As such a few of the less intelligent students asked questions mostly about the movie 300 and the historical ramifications of Uber Immortals on Persia’s socio-political structure. The sad thing is I’m being facetiously kind to those idiots.
So, yes, as a bit of a history lover it gets under my skin a bit when certain aspects of history are removed from a story to make things “cleaner” to write about. But also as an aspiring professional writer I understand that not all stories can adhere to perfect historical accuracy. Sometimes adding the slightly more morally gray aspects of the Crusades is harder and more off message that just simply painting all the crusaders as racist glory whores.
Even some of the English language’s favorite sons have used history as a jumping off point and then added unreal details. Julius Caesar did not say “Et tu Brute?” upon being stabbed my Brutus. Most likely he was too busy bleeding out on the Senate floor gurgling on his own blood. But even some of what we know to be true of history is lies in and of themselves. Alexander the Great probably didn’t die of alcohol poisoning or regular poisoning; instead he probably died of normal sickness because dying at 33 was normal at that time.
That being said, sometimes the need for historical accuracy goes to far. I was recently watching a few videos discussing the accuracy of swords in popular culture because that’s just what I do in my free time. Swords were rarely worn on the back as it’s an unwieldy way to retrieve a weapon. Instead simply keeping a sword on the opposite side of one’s dominant hand was common practice. Drawing a blade across the body and having it end up in the wielder’s strongest hand was just the wise way to do it. Swords that are too large for conventional sheaths at the side could be held in one hand and rested atop a shoulder.
So as I watched two or three thirty-somethings on Youtube demonstrate to me why wearing swords on the back was both historically inaccurate and logistically unintelligent I realized something. For one, having cosplay-able characters have swords on their backs is probably smarter and safer to avoid any needless nerds accidentally cutting themselves. And two, these sorts of inaccuracies can serve the story in certain ways.
Most characters who have swords across their backs are generally one of two types of character. Kratos, for example, keeps his chains swords across his back. This is designed to make the character look more badass. He doesn’t need to keep his weapons close to hand because he’s so cool and badass he can draw his blades from the unwieldy position quick enough that it doesn’t matter. He’ll still kills his enemies with them no problem because he’s just so awesome.
Then there are characters like Link who also wear the swords on their backs. In the pseudo-Europe fantasyland he lives in that wouldn’t be accurate. However, keeping the sword on his back shows that he’s more of a pacifist, only drawing his sword when needed. The last thing he needs to do is kill and so the sword is kept more out of reach. Also to be honest the sword is rarely the best weapon in Link’s arsenal for most the fights he gets in.
So historical inaccuracies are ok when they serve the story or characterization, then, or when it’s quite clear that historical accuracy is nowhere even close to the goal of the story. As in the two above stories, no one going into God of War or any Legend of Zelda game is expecting to see accurate representations of Greek mythology or history or Medieval European cultures respectively.
What are completely egregious are games like Ryse: Son of Rome and quite a few of the Assassin’s Creed games. These games boil down complex ideas into simply good or evil choices. Yes the Celts managed to sack Rome, Ryse, but Boudica was more or less fighting against the Roman occupation of her lands and was married to Prasutagus not she was not the daughter of King Oswald. In fact there’s debate if she was even royalty. And boiling down crusaders versus assassins into the black-and-white morality that many Assassin Creed games do—besides oddly enough the most hated one Unity—is just unfair because both parties were kind of horrible people.
“But surely,” you, being represented here as a person made of straw, say, “both those aspects serve the story.”
The stories, flimsy as they are—given the only actually good Assassin’s Creed story was Assassin’s Creed II—are built on these aspects so they do technically serve the story. The problem being that these are major historical inaccuracies and both games purport to being at least somewhat historically accurate despite their fantasies what with Ryse’s accurate armor sets and legion formations and Assassin’s Creed’s almanac of history information.
But worst of all isn’t that the points are inaccurate; they’re idiotic. Both examples boil down some morally grey events into easy to swallow truths for the idiot masses. Rome is a cornerstone of modern Western civilization, and so demonizing it in any way is a big no no. Of course it ignores that Boudica’s daughters were raped and her peoples conquered, but in reality she was just an evil barbarian who wanted to take down Rome because she was evil and barbaric right?
These are the historical accuracies that need to be brought to justice not the ones where characters are wearing swords on the wrong parts of their bodies. The ones that shape history unfairly against peoples or cultures are wrong. Getting weapons wrong isn’t.
P.S. Some warriors did actually wear swords on their backs. Most notable were ninjas, though they did so because they were assassins and sneaking about and climbing things is hard with a sword at the side. So wearing it on the back was just smarter for these dark blue clad people. So there before anyone jumps down my throat for being historically inaccurate while complaining about historical inaccuracy.