Last week, I asked for reader response regarding the “moe-ifying” of tragic events, with particular emphasis on WWI. JeskaiAngel, one of our regular guest contributors, couldn’t keep his thoughts to a single comment—he sent us this entire article!
Charles asked, “What do you think about making cuteness out of WWI? Of moe-fying some tragic event in history? Of the greater questions of art and war?”
This is basically just a specific application of the much broader question of how we ought to depict all historical figures & events (whether in art, non-fiction, or whatever). I know it may seem like a stretch, but I’m not sure that moe anime girls representing WWII battleships are really different in kind from Shakespeare’s historical plays such as “Julius Caesar” or “Henry V,” or from a comic strip using stick figures (tangent: imagine how awesome it would be if XKCD were about history instead of science!).
First, let’s expand on the potential spiritual value in fictional stories of conflict and danger (whether the threats are historically inspired or entirely fictional). Since every conversation needs more G. K. Chesterton, I offer the following:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” (from Tremendous Trifles)
If we accept the profound significance that stories of battles and heroes may contain, I can devise no logical reason that we should not be free to draw inspiration from history as we create stories. Likewise, I can devise no logical reason to distinguish between different mediums for depicting history-in-fiction. It’s arbitrary to say that depicting historical events through a play written in Elizabethan English is fine, but doing so using moe anime girls is inherently unacceptable.
Okey-day, but why would we want to use history in our fiction? History can be employed for world building and increase a story’s verisimilitude. It can help the creator more powerfully depict something neither creator nor audience has ever experienced personally. Assuming the audience is familiar with the historical subject, it can provide the creator a shortcut for helping the audience understand what’s going on in the story. It even has the potential to be genuinely educational in some small measure! I’m sure there are other potential benefits, but those are a few possibilities.
In terms of what is acceptable for history-used-in-fiction, we still need to ask about the specifics of each particular story. What is the aim of an individual work of fiction? What is its tone, message, or lesson? Does it market itself as historically accurate or merely as being loosely inspired by history? Is the average consumer going to be seriously mislead about historical truth via this work, or will she fairly easily discern that the story is taking great liberties with its source material? Exactly how respectful / disrespectful, accurate / fictionalized, serious / comical is the historical figure or event portrayed? And what specific historical event or figure are we talking about? Are we slandering a saint? Are we justifying a villain? Also note that not focusing on something isn’t necessarily the same as actively denying or mischaracterizing it. There are many conditionally wrong ways to portray history (in nonfiction, fiction, visual art, etc.), but we need the nitty-gritty “what” and “how” questions to help us discern what is appropriate in the case of the specific portrayal of a specific topic.
How we answer many of the questions above is a matter of temporal distance. One of the greatest benefits of historical study (as opposed to contemporary, eyewitness or journalistic accounts) is distance in time. Physical distance changes our perspective toward an object. A mountain can fill my entire range of vision when I stand at its foot, but can be a speck on the horizon when I’m many miles away. Likewise, temporal distance gives us the chance to appreciate the people and events of the past in a way that was simply impossible for contemporary observers. Primary source accounts have incredible value, of course, and without them history would be impossible. Nonetheless, because historians are distant in time from the topics they study, they can perceive the past differently than those who experienced it, and can understand and comment upon it in a way that contemporary figures couldn’t or wouldn’t have.
All this is true not only of non-fiction historical works, but also of fiction-that-uses-history. As we grow more distant in time from events and people, we tend to view them more dispassionately – we feel less connected because we ARE less connected, and thus are not emotionally invested in those events / people to the degree that earlier generations were. This change in perspective enables us to use historical figures / stories in ways that wouldn’t have been socially, culturally, or emotionally acceptable in the past. Of course, the statute of limitations on history in fiction isn’t the same for every historical topic. No one has a problem using the Cold War as a setting for humor (“In America, you get joke. In Soviet Russia, joke get you!”), but the Holocaust, which happened before the Cold War, is still absolutely taboo when it comes jokes. People of my (our? depending on your age, dear reader) generation aren’t like to write lighthearted stories about 9/11. But a baby born this year may very well grow up to pen such stories—because 9/11 won’t have the same emotional weight for him or for his society that it does to me others old enough to remember 9/11 and how it changed life in America.
One big argument raised by people who don’t want to see historical tragedies—especially war—portrayed in anything but the grimmest of terms runs something like this (probably not best phrasing the argument, but hopefully it works): “The real events were so savage that any depiction emphasizing something else and not driving home the true horror is a dishonor to the people who suffered.” To depict war as anything but grave evil is equivalent to glorifying evil and callously disregarding human suffering.
The problem with this argument is that ignores all the parts of history outside suffering and evil. War is terrible, but that’s not all there is to the experience of war. The same men who wrote home describing battlefield horror during the American Civil War also wrote of nature’s beauty. They depicted acts of compassion they witnessed and expressed compassion themselves. They shared humorous anecdotes. They penned flirtatious letters to their wives. They mused thoughtfully about love and marriage and raising children and war and God and life and liberty and human nature. This complexity of both history and human nature is at least part of what enables us to depict historical events in different ways, e.g. “cute girls doing cute things…in the trenches at Verdun.”
Finally, to treat war as *nothing but* an immense evil is to do an injustice to the people who experienced it. It ignores the truth that those people in part triumphed over all that horror and evil and suffering by not letting those things wholly define their existence. The same is true in our own lives with the suffering we face. The proverbial cancer patient who cracks jokes about their condition isn’t being flippant or morbid – they’re showing that their illness doesn’t dominate their life and putting it in its place. And I suspect this is also true of how we deal with historical events. We are literally a century removed from the horrors of the First World War, but I would argue that there is yet an element of good overcoming evil to be found in our ability to take something so terrible and transform it with cuteness.
But this whole “making something good out of something bad” business isn’t something that started with us humans. It began with God himself, who throughout the Bible is constantly bringing good out of evil. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Joseph said of his brothers selling him into slavery. The story par excellence of God bringing good out of evil is the crucifixion. God took the worst, most evil deed that could ever be done – humans viciously murdering their perfectly innocent, good, loving Creator – and used it effect the greatest good ever: defeating sin and providing a way for us to be reconciled to him, and defeating death through the resurrection of Jesus. Using bad to achieve good doesn’t negate the suffering of the victims, nor does it negate the guilt of the evildoers, but it does say that wickedness and ugliness and pain don’t get the last word. Mixing war with moe anime girls isn’t remotely on the same level as the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, but I believe that whenever we manage to make something good out of evil, we are in some small way imitating our Creator. And that’s always a good thing.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Featured art by Nagu (artist allows reprints)