Fiction and the learning of history

SV Iyer

Teaching a practical class is a bit like trying to juggle cats – tricky business with uncertain outcomes. You can never know in advance if a new experiment is going to wow the kids or end in complaints and tears.

So, picture this: 7th grade, social science class. Our teacher tried something new. He whipped out these huge maps, packets of coloured pencils and a pile of stickers. Our mission (and we had no choice but to accept it) was to track and highlight major rivers, pinpointing key towns and tributaries.

It wasn’t exactly a thrilling start. We had to memorize names – like we did off textbooks in regular classes – and at that age, maps are little more than abstract art. A handful of town names on a map? They might as well be a clutch of random computer-generated numbers.

The follow-up classes though were magical! Our teacher raised the maps up and turned them into storyboards. He created three fictional characters who lived in a BC era long, long ago – a merchant, a soldier, and a scholar – and traced their journeys across the land, highlighting key events and people of that time.

Suddenly, we had stories that breathed life into the names. A wealth of possibilities opened up as we learned something unique about each location that transformed it into a hub of human development. The once mundane pink and yellow stickers took on new dimensions. They now represented an action-packed larger-than-life connection to a past that seemed very present!

We dove headfirst into the battles that shaped the rise, fall, and resurrection of cities, learning of ancient trade routes teeming with silks, spices, ivory, and gold. We marvelled at the tales of geniuses and the curious practices of bygone schools. Alongside tales of triumph, we stumbled upon stories of bandits and tyrants who shook empires to their core. There were even quirky tidbits, like the absence of horses in ancient India, and passing nods to ideas such as taxation, which would loom so large in adulthood!

These stories fostered a thirst for more knowledge. What happened with these long dead people? Did they live happy lives? Can we still see their works today? Walk where they walked? And see their battlefields, their palaces, their pots and pans?

These stories were also very different from the “official” history we learned for our board exams later on. Our formal history classes presented the past as a set of indisputable facts and dates. There was a comforting certainty and matter-of-fact pride in our textbooks. They were also fairly one-sided, as if the outcomes of historical events were predetermined, and people’s behaviours and decisions devoid of nuance or debate. They portrayed humanity in broad stereotypes.

For instance, emperors were always either ruthless conquerors or sickly despots. Like Genghis Khan, who was painted black for sweeping across Eurasia looting, raping, and indulging in violence all round. How many of us were taught this surprising aspect of his reign: the Khan’s vast empire was ruled by his daughters – and in time, by other female relatives. Even widows in his family wielded considerable authority1.

Genghis Khan had a distinctive practice upon conquering new territories: he arranged marriages between his daughters and the defeated rulers (or their heirs). Subsequently, he would enlist the groomed prince to serve in the Mongol army while entrusting governance to the bride. These daughters of the Khan played crucial roles in defending and administering the Silk Road highways, ports, cities, and strategic points throughout the empire. They interacted with dignitaries and couriers from courts across Persia, China, India, Russia, and Europe.

In an era where women had little agency over their own lives, Genghis Khan empowered them with the authority to govern entire cities and regions. They wielded the power to levy taxes, negotiate trade agreements, correspond with envoys, authenticate official documents and mobilize soldiers for defence. However, most historical textbooks and encyclopaedias available to children reinforce a “barbarian” stereotype along with a limited view of nomads and medieval times.

It is through the lens of historical fiction that most children first gain insight into the complex interplay of factors shaping human action. In these narratives, the reputations of revered rulers are not cast in stone. Take, for example, Ashoka2, a figure lauded as “the Great” in textbooks. And indeed there is much for which he deserves praise. However, his unchecked power seems to have allowed him to perpetrate astounding acts of cruelty with minimal repercussions.

I use “seems to” because our understanding of Ashoka is largely drawn from conflicting Buddhist and Jain accounts, leading historians to approach definitive statements with caution. Concrete evidence, like stone inscriptions and monuments extolling his triumphs, offer more certainty. However, this bias has seeped into our school books, leaving major gaps in the narrative. For lay readers, historical novels have bridged the lacunae, shedding light on aspects such as Ashoka’s brutal punishment of hundreds of wives and ministers for challenging his authority, or his genocidal campaign against Jains even after his purported contrition and conversion to Buddhism.

While it’s understandable for Buddhist historians to praise a Buddhist ruler, modern curricula must not overlook such significant events. Why did a figure of absolute power across wide territories feel compelled to engage in such egregious behaviour? While we cannot claim to know with certainty, historical fiction provides developing minds with the opportunity to explore the possible motives and decisions of monarchs and dictators, fostering critical thinking and a deeper understanding of human complexities and motivations.

This freedom to wonder, explore, and find perspective is a necessary investment of intellectual energy. While authors spend months, sometimes years, of painstaking research to craft atmospheric and plausible historical novels, students can experience this on a smaller scale by being asked to write short stories or create group projects with counterfactuals and clearly crafted rules/questions.

Most crucially, exploring historical fiction does not always mean reading, analyzing, or expressing oneself solely through novels.

Photo: Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Source: Superb magazine, The Désirs & Volupté exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André ,

Take for instance, the oil on canvas The Rose of Heliogabalus. This depicts the banquet of Roman emperor Elagabalus as he honours his guests in such profusion of petals that some are smothered to death by the sheer weight. Did this actually happen? We cannot be sure. But it has been immortalized in the 19th century Dutch painting, as a warning to beware of the generosity of kings and the perils of absolute power. (Emperor Elagabalus seems to have been something of a practical joker: he supposedly invented the whoopee cushion, placing them under the seats of his snootier guests to take them down a notch or two!)

A wide variety of art plays the role of historical fiction. The poem A Roman Lawyer in Jerusalem3 presents a rare defence of Judas Iscariot, forcing readers to question if he really was the traitor that two millennia of history make him out to be. Or, on a lighter note, we have the cockroach-poet Archy whose world – and verse, in The Life and Times of Archy and Mehitabel – is filled with reincarnated celebrities, from Shakespeare to Cleopatra, offering perspectives of once mighty spirits, now fallen into the bodies of animals.

Among the very best historical fiction – though this is somewhat genre-defying – is the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, which approaches issues of guilt and racial discrimination by using cats, mice, and pigs to portray Germans, Jews, and Poles during the holocaust. And Japanese pop art simply cannot be overlooked in this area: from Academy-Award-nominated biographical animes like Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) to time-travel mangas like Nobunaga no Chef (a delight alike for foodies and fans of the Warring States period), creators from the island nation are nothing short of brilliant in tracing the flow of time through surreal what-if plots.

Introducing children to these wide-ranging narrative forms from across the globe are not just about studying the past – they are about sharpening those mental muscles for the challenges of tomorrow. Many of our present-day conflicts, whether on hereditary matters, land rights, or individual freedoms, are complicated by long-established perspectives and precedents. By delivering history to students in the form of questions, to explore, rather than as indisputable facts to memorize, we can hope to raise broad-minded and liberal individuals guided by reason and empathy. The best historical fiction can help create a tolerant society with free thinkers and freedom of expression.

Rogues and Rajas: Dark Tales for Tumultuous Times is an engaging collection of historical fiction offering a rare window into ancient India’s shadowy past. Prompting reflection on human nature and our modern world, the stories explore the gambles, betrayals and plots of everyday folk as well as famous figures like Ashoka of Magadha, Shashanka of Bengal, Didda of Kashmir and Karikalan Chola of Tamilakam. Whether exploring the lives of kings or commoners, these stories delve into timeless themes of power and morality. Introduce your students to these gripping narratives and spark their imaginations with historical intrigue and ethical dilemmas.
Watch out for our full review of Rogues and Rajas in the July 2024 edition of Teacher Plus magazine.

If for nothing else, consider that most facts come with an expiry date. This is what academics call the “half-life of knowledge”. Coined by Fritz Machlup in 1962, it refers to the time in which half of the knowledge in a particular field is superseded or becomes obsolete. In a world increasingly ruled by big data, it has never been more important to hone the skills to navigate logically, creatively and with insight into the many networks and motivations that power our world.

Historical fiction: a few picks to get your students started
1. Any historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff (e.g., The Eagle of the Ninth, Dawn Wind, The Capricorn Bracelet)
2. The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
3. The Story of The Amulet, E Nesbit
4. Little House On The Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
5. Mary Poppins, PL Travers
6. The Inquisitor’s Tale: or The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
7. Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
8. A Stitch In Time, Daphne Kalmar
9. Heidi, Johanna Spyri
10. Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge
11. Treasure Island, RL Stevenson



The author is the author of Rogues and Rajas: Dark Tales for Tumultuous Times.

Leave a Reply