Artistic License History / Literature


  • Dan Brown: Too many to list here — Dan Brown's research failures (in history in particular) have made him a trope namer, and have their very own page.
  • The Necronomicon: The Dee Translation by Lin Carter has a scene where Abdul Alhazred ingests Black Lotus in order to see visions of the past. Among other things, he sees scenes from The Crusades where Saladin fights at Jerusalem. The problem? The text states clearly that Alhazred died in AD 738. Saladin was born in AD 1138. (Granted, Time Travel is a part of the Cthulhu Mythos, so it is possible that the Black Lotus can show visions from the future as well as the past. But Alhazred describes the Crusades as a perfectly well-known event that the reader is expected to be familiar with. If he were seeing scenes from the far future, you'd think he would remark on it.)
  • Ellis Peters slips up in the Brother Cadfael novel The Raven in the Foregate. One of the (many) complaints about Father Ailnoth is that he refused to come when a man's wife is having a rough delivery, and as a result the newborn dies unbaptized. Under canon law, midwives (or anyone else) were (and are) allowed to baptize infants if there wasn't time to call in a priest, and indeed, you were expected to keep water on hand for exactly that situation. The situation Peters describes definitely qualifies. There is no reason for that child to have died unbaptized, other than the need to have yet one more suspect when Ailnoth turns up dead. She is also in error when she implies in The Hermit of Eyton Forest that an ordained priest must preside at a licit wedding ceremony. Today this is true (if you can get a priest in a reasonable amount of time), but not in the 12th century — and a long time thereafter — when a declaration of intent, with or without witnesses, followed by consummation was sufficient for canonically valid marriage. However a boy under fourteen could not make a valid marriage, and the issue of free consent would have made this a no-brainer to any canon court.
  • For in-universe history Lord Rust, particularly in Terry Pratchett's Jingo, falls to either this or errs regarding military history. Examples include believing their army can defeat the Klatchians, citing similar battles from history as evidence. His aide is left the job of pointing out details such as "One side was mounted on elephants", "There was an earthquake", "They lost", and "That was just a nursery story".
  • My Heart Is On The Ground by Ann Rinaldi failed history. The book is about Nannie Little Rose, a Lakota Native American girl who is sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Firstly, Nannie probably would not have been given a diary in the first place, which discounts the whole book. But, let's say she was. She would not refer to herself as "Sioux", instead she would use her area or band. Rinaldi also gets many Lakota customs wrong, mainly by using American descriptions of them rather than finding out what actually happened. She even makes up the more "Indian" sounding words for Lakota words that already exist, such as "night-middle-made" and "friend-to-go-between-us". A detailed list of the historical inaccuracies can be found here.
  • John Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer compares the experience to "stout Cortez" becoming the first European to see the Pacific. Actually, Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first guy to do this.
  • Alex Cross novel Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson. This book, set when Teddy Roosevelt was president (i.e., between September 14, 1901 and March 4, 1909) and which claims to be historically accurate, makes the following mistakes:
    • The book focuses on lynchings taking place in the South, stressing that this is unusual and is not happening anywhere else, even though lynchings have taken place EVERYWHERE in America—the South, the Midwest, the West and yes, in the North.
    • Roosevelt sends the white hero, Ben Corbett to his hometown of Eudora, Mississippi and report on lynchings and Klan activities. The modern version of the Klan was not founded till 1915, in Georgia, and wasn't any kind of a really big deal until after World War I. The Reconstruction Klan was dissolved after ca. 1877. (Patterson admits that it had been disbanded officially, but maintains that it existed at the time of the story (possible) and that its impact was so great as to merit Presidential investigation (not supported by historical record)).
    • Three "White Raiders" (read: Klansmen) are arrested (by a sheriff who's a Klansman and who believes in what they're doing) and Roosevelt sends one Jonah Curtis to prosecute the case. Jonah is a black man. It's not that Jonah's black and practicing law; the first African-American to be admitted to a state bar was Macon Bolling Allen in July 1844. The problem is that Jonah is a black man who, between 1901 and 1909, apparently works for the federal government and is recognized by the state of Mississippi as an attorney. To find a situation that's more or less analogous, the first black man to serve as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Mississippi since Reconstruction was Tyree Irving. He was hired by the Northern District of Mississippi in 1978.
    • Roosevelt claims that the above lawsuit will ensure him the black vote for all time. Patterson hasn't heard of common ways that white people of the period kept blacks and other minorities from voting. Like, oh, the poll tax and literacy tests.
    • At the end of the book, Ben takes Moody Cross (Alex's ancestor) into Eudora, walking hand in hand with her and walking into restaurants and stores demanding that they be served—and actually expecting the store owners to comply. Because it's not like segregation and Jim Crow laws existed, or that an attorney would know about either.
    • Special mention must be made of the treatment of black civil rights leaders in this book. Leaders of the time, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Wells-Barnett, are mentioned, but the book doesn't say who they are or what they did. Consequently, all we have are names and no context. And in the end, they're reduced to leading a group of blacks through town, chanting. Although it's never stated, it's implied that they're doing this because that's what civil rights leaders do. It's not like they found things like the NAACP (which Du Bois did in 1909) or work as journalists for Chicago papers and write books and give lectures throughout Europe about lynching (which Wells-Barnett did starting in 1893).
  • Anne S. Lindbergh does this a lot.
    • In The Hunky-Dory Dairy which features some families from 1881, trapped in the present day, the families still believe in witchcraft. When they hear of modern technology, such as helicopters, they believe it is powered by devils. Never mind that, by the 1880s, the Industrial Revolution had started a century before, and experiments in human flight were already underway.
    • She does this in The Prisoner of Pineapple Place as well. Mr. Sweeney, the stodgy isolationist conservative who, fearing U.S. entry in World War II, took an alley with six families out of time, is so conservative that he objects to the newfangled concept of "introducing foreign substances into the body" (medicine). Never mind that ingestible medicine has been around for centuries, if not longer.
  • Philippa Gregory tends to zig-zag this trope in her Tudor and Plantagenet novels - she clearly does her research and there's definitely scenes taken directly from the historical record, but while she can be excused somewhat for making full use of the juiciest rumors of the time given Rule of Drama, such as Richard III wanting to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, or the fiddling with history and rumor in order to create the Magical Realism vibes of The White Queen, The Lady of the Rivers, The Queen's Fool, and to a somewhat lesser degree The White Princess and The Red Queen, other things are less forgivable. Two good examples are Henry VII raping Elizabeth of York prior to their marriage to ensure she's fertile before he marries her and, from her best-known work, painting Mary Boleyn as an innocent young teenager when she becomes Henry VIII's mistress. She was already a grown woman and had previously been the mistress of Francis I of France and some of his courtiers, having been given the name the "Great Prostitute". Although Mary's willingness with regards to some or all of her sexual experience in France is unclear. Anne Boleyn is also demonized beyond what she likely deserves in the same book, just as her daughter tends to be in Gregory books set later on.
  • Twilight. While there's a fair bit of general history fail, Carlisle's story is particularly bad. The sewers where he found fellow vampires didn't exist at the time, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. Rosalie's history is also a bit cringe-worthy: apparently her family remained prosperous during the Depression because her father worked in a bank, apparently ignoring the fact that banks took one of the hardest hits after the Stock Market crash (that said, it's plausible when you take into consideration that there were over 30,000 banks in America before the Great Depression, and only about 15,000 banks failed. Realistically, only about 50% of American Banks failed while the other 50% stayed afloat and managed just fine).
  • The Oera Linda Book claims the Greek alphabet was based on a North European (Frisian) alphabet, among other things.
  • Detectives in Togas (set in Ancient Rome) has some of them. One boy claims to have goldfish (can't be, they originated in China). Or when one boy calls another one a turkey (which came from America).
  • Within the story, in G. K. Chesterton's "The Curse of the Golden Cross", where Father Brown recognizes the murderer's made-up "history" as nonsense. "To anybody who happens to know a little about the Middle Ages, the whole story was about as probable as Gladstone offering Queen Victoria a cigar. But does anybody know anything about the Middle Ages? Do you know what a Guild was? Have you ever heard of salvo managio suo? Do you know what sort of people were Servi Regis? It was never a story of the Middle Ages; it was never even a legend about the Middle Ages. It was made up by somebody whose notions came from novels and newspapers, and probably made up on the spur of the moment."
  • Occasionally shows up in Time Scout. Some historical facts are mangled, particularly glaring is the presence of Aleister Crowley in Victorian London as a Satanist. He was alive, yes, but he was only nine years old.
    • As for Crowley being a "Satanist"... well, he essentially started his own religion; and there is no more support for labeling him a "Satanist" rather than a Buddhist, an atheist, an Egyptian polytheist or even an extremely heretical Christian. This was done to death on the old Magicknet boards, eliciting the comment "Satanists worship Satan, Crowley worshiped himself."
    • In a crossover with Artistic License Religion, Satanism is Newer Than They Think and mostly came about only after Crowley's death. LaVeyan Satanism, the most well known sect in the United States, was founded in 1966. The Temple of Set came about in 1975. Our Lady of Endor Coven was founded in 1948, one year after Crowley died. Most Satanists also practice a form of humanism and see Satan as an allegorical figure or a good way to troll Christians.
  • In The Silence of the Lambs sequel, Hannibal Rising, Hannibal Lecter is shown watching the opening of Operation Barbarossa—the German invasion of the USSR in WWII... from his parents' aristocratic estate in Lithuania. Lithuania had been annexed by the Soviets a year or so before, and by that time, the Lecters and all other local aristocrats would have probably been off in Siberia.
  • Destroyermen author Taylor Anderson freely admits to fudging a couple of details for the sake of the story. In Real Life, the destroyers USS Walker and Mahan and the battlecruiser HIJMS Amagi never actually fought in World War II. The Amagi depicted in the series was badly damaged by an earthquake during construction and was scrapped in 1922; the one that appeared in WWII was a different vessel. The real USS Walker was scuttled seventeen days after Pearl Harbor, while Mahan was scrapped in 1931. He said in the afterword to book one that he used these ships because he didn't want to disrespect any sailors who actually did fight in the war. Otherwise carefully averted: Anderson is a historian by trade and does the research.
  • In The Heroes of Olympus, the Lare Vitellius claims to have been around Julius Caesar and to have fought in the Punic Wars. This is lampshaded when Hazel points out Caesar was around after the Punic Wars, though being a Ghost means Vitellius could have fought in the Punic Wars and been around Caesar.
  • Happens sometimes in The Royal Diaries series, about historical famous princesses. A rare justified example because quite a few of them existed during a time period that not much is known about, and the authors will admit to taking some artistic license.
  • Pam Jenoff The Kommandant's Girl is set in Nazi-occupied Poland, and yet features the Polish characters living in luxurious apartaments with refrigerators, as well as casually purchasing ice cream, oranges and chocolate.
  • Clement Attlee was not, as one character in World War Z suggests, a "third rate mediocrity" whose only claim to fame was unseating Winston Churchill, but one of the most efficient and effective British politicians of the 20th Century and a key figure in peace and war. This can be forgiven, though, as the speaker was an old, semi-senile, hard-left American politician nicknamed "The Whacko" who was known for getting very, very excited in debates.
  • Harry Potter states that Hogwarts was founded roughly one thousand years ago and that Merlin was one of its graduates. At the same time, King Arthur's rule is dated four or five centuries earlier, at which time Merlin was already a skilled wizard. Whether Merlin attended the school when he was already roughly five hundred years old is not addressed. (Unless, of course, he used a Time Turner to go back to King Arthur's day.)
  • In Jurassic Park, Grant muses that if 60 years were compressed into a single day, 80 million years would become 3652 yearsnote , which according to him is older than the pyramids. The pyramids of Giza are more than 4500 years old.
  • In Maximum Ride, Max said she chose her last name (Ride) to name herself after Sally Ride, the first woman in space. Actually, Sally Ride was just the first American woman in space; Valentina Tereshkova was the actual first woman, a Soviet explorer.
  • In The House of Night, Kalona was bound thousands of years ago by a group of Cherokee wise-women — in Oklahoma. Thousands of years ago, the Cherokee lived in Florida. They're only in Oklahoma because they were forced to move.
  • The Sano Ichiro series gets most of the details of 17th century Japanese society correct, as well as many major events and disasters, but plays fast and loose with the Historical Domain Characters in the shogun's court, particularly towards the end of the series. The last book actually changes at least one person's cause of death, causes another to undergo massive trauma they never had, and moves the death of a third up by five years.
  • The Bible has a few of these. Not helped by the fact that its contents were written by very different people at very different times.
    • Almost everything in the Book of Exodus. There is no evidence that the Israelites (or even a minority) lived in Egypt. The biblical account of forty years in the Sinai has no archealogical or contemporary historical evidence, in fact there is no evidence of any significant habitation in the Sinai for the entire 2nd millenium BCE. Exodus states that there were around 600,000 fighting men, combined with women, children and the elderly, this would put the number at 1.5-2 million, estimates of the entire population of Egypt are about 3-3.5 million.
    • Battle of Jericho: according to the Bible the Israelites conquered Jericho after God knocked down the walls. According to archaeologists the Israelites were conquering this region in 1400 BC and by 1562 BC Jericho was abandoned and didn't have any walls. So the Israelites were over 150 years too late.
    • That may depend on the archaeology. Jericho has been recorded at dozens of varying locations, because it was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt (hence why in the Gospels Jesus was recorded as both "entering Jericho" and "exiting it" at the same time). At one site, though, they did find the walls. They were completely sunk into the ground.
    • The Book of Esther: Although there really was a King Xerxes (actually, a couple of them, the one from this book is usually identified as Xerxes I), he did not have a primary wife by the name of Vashti. His primary queen was named Amestris. Although he did have a Royal Harem full of other, "lesser" queens, there is no record of any "beauty contest" held to obtain them. He most likely obtained these wives and concubines in the same way that most kings of that time and place obtained their wives and concubines: through Altar Diplomacy. Nor did Amestris ever get divorced by him, or deposed from her position as queen.
    • King Herod's massacre in Bethlehem is only recorded by Matthew; even chronographers that didn't like Herod don't mention it.
    • There is still the problem that the explanation given for Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem in the first place is fictional; the Romans never demanded anybody return to the home town of their ancestors for the sake of a census (the logistics of that would be a nightmare, obviously-every census in recorded history also notes where people are presently living too). Since the whole Bethlehem episode is only present in the Gospels aimed at the Jews (to fulfill a prophecy stating the messiah was to be born there), modern historians consider it more likely that Jesus was actually born and raised in Nazareth. It's further supported by the custom of the period to name people after the town of their birth, not the one they settled in (where Nazareth was, on the other hand, is an open question).
    • Another curious fact: the word "cross" is never used in the original manuscripts of the Bible. To this day we don't know the exact shape of the piece of wood that the Romans nailed Jesus on. What we see in churches is the general approximation, and has several variations in different denominations.
    • As a general rule of thumb, the older the events described are, the harder it is to tell the difference between truth and fabrication. As such most of the Old Testament is very difficult to verify either way, but most of the New Testament can be put to a test, and parts of it have been verified quite reliably, while others have been found extremely suspect.
    • Many cases of anachronism come from authors using dubious oral traditions or reading things wrong (Matthew's account of the triumphal entry is based on the author misreading Zechariah in Greek translation). Other times, the writers simply know that their original audience wouldn't know or care about details. For example, Luke is very confused about the geography of 1st century Palestine, but it was written for a non-Jewish readership for whom the geography didn't much matter. Other times, details are changed to better fit a narrative device or theme. Ancient historiography was more concerned with the story being told and its meaning than with accurate reporting.
  • The Red Tent, which takes place in Bible Times mentions a Rite of Passage for girls in Padan-Aram called the "Ritual of Opening." When a girl has her first period, she is dressed in simple garments but elaborately made up and decorated with jewelry, then given large amounts of fortified wine as part of the celebration. Then, after dark, she is taken outside, stripped naked and placed in a prone position on the ground, and masturbated with a fertility idol until she orgasms, in order to break her hymen and offer the resultant blood to Inanna, as well as to encourage her to dream about what her destiny holds and find her "personal goddess." The ritual's purpose is simultaneously to prepare the girl for marriage and to keep her worth under the control of Inanna, not under the control of men vis a vis her virginity. There is no record of such a ritual existing there, or anywhere in the Fertile Crescent. And considering that Mesopotamian society was very patriarchal, with women's chastity held as a reflection of their fathers' and husbands' honor, it's not likely that such a ritual did or would have existed there.
    • Also, Inanna was not a supreme Mother Goddess; she was one of many gods and goddesses. She was invoked for fertility and protection during childbirth, but her main dominions were war and sex.
  • In The Alienist, several characters refer to "homosexuals." At that time homosexuality was not something one was, but something one did. Many works of late nineteenth-century written erotica had protagonists who, while mainly focused on one gender, would cheerfully cross gender lines; in some of them this is so ubiquitous that it seems that Everyone Is Bisexual.


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