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History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling


History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling

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History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling


Published on March 26, 2020

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The People in the Trees book covers

The key to a credible analysis of history is for historians to credit their sources. The most efficient way to do this is to add a footnote. A footnote, as all of you probably know, is a small, elevated number that is placed after information taken from another text. At the bottom of the page there is a corresponding number, and next to this second number the information about the source can be found. Here, historians sometimes also include commentary that is not immediately relevant to the discussion, but needs to be said to make sure that all flanks are covered.

We historians spend a lot of time getting our footnotes right before we send a book or article off to being published. It’s painstaking and pedantic work—but love them or hate them, footnotes are crucial for scientific rigor and transparency.

Footnotes can be found in SFF, as well. But where historians use footnotes to clarify or to add additional helpful commentary, fiction authors have the freedom to use them to obfuscate and complicate their story in intriguing ways. Let’s look at a couple of examples…

In Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the narrator uses footnotes to back up her story. The footnotes include information about primary sources, legends, and research publications. This gives the impression that we are reading a researched account of what happened among the magicians of England during the age of the Napoleonic wars. But if we pick apart the dynamic between the narrative and the footnotes, we discover that we are, in fact, not being educated; we are being deceived.

On the very first page of the first chapter in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, we find the following paragraph:

A great magician has said of his profession that its practitioners “…must pound and rack their brains to make the least learning go in, but quarrelling always comes very naturally to them,”1 and the York magicians had proved the truth of this for a number of years.

Footnote 1 at the bottom of the page gives us the following information: The History and Practice of English Magic, by Jonathan Strange, vol. I, chap. 2, pub. John Murray, London, 1816.

The paragraph begins with the phrase “a great magician.” At the bottom of the page, we learn his name: Jonathan Strange. This is the narrator taking sides in the drama that is about to unfold on the pages ahead of us; she makes no mention of Mr. Norrell.

The narrator then goes on to quote Strange making a derogatory statement about magicians being slow to learn and quick to quarrel, adding that the York magicians are the worst in the bunch. By including this quote, the narrator is setting up the rivalry between, on the one hand, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and, on the other, all other magicians in England. She also sets up the relationship between Strange and Norrell as collaborators and as antagonists. What’s more, she lets us know her personal opinion about the magicians of York. Because of the use and placement of the footnote, her game of deceit slips right by us.

If the footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are meant to make us believe in the authority of the narrative, the footnotes in Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees do the complete opposite.

The People in the Trees is the memoir of the fictional scientist Norton Perina, famous for discovering the mechanism for eternal life. The story of Perina’s life comes to us edited and annotated with footnotes by Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s self-proclaimed closest friend and his ardent defender after Perina’s prison sentence for sexual assault.

Incapable of acknowledging any flaws in his own character, Perina tells the story of his life as he sees it—which in a twisted way makes him the honest one out of the two. Kubodera, on the other hand, bends over backwards to defend Perina’s reputation, and to make himself seem more significant in Perina’s life than he probably is.

According to Kubodera, Perina wrote his memoir after Kubodera convinced him to. He backs up this claim with the following quote by Perina,

Although I can’t say I wish to spend what may be the final years of my life trying to convince anyone that I am not guilty of the crimes they have decided I am, I have chosen to begin, as you say, the “story of my life.” My trust [in you] is … [very] great.3

Footnote 3 informs us that the quote is from a letter Perina sent Kubodera on May 3, 1998. The authority of the footnote is contradicted by the redacted sentence in the quote. Words placed within brackets mean that they have been added for clarity. The ellipsis means that words have been removed. In other words, we have no idea who or what Perina places his trust in, but Kubodera wants us to believe it’s him.

The footnotes also make us doubt who is editing and annotating the memoir. Footnote 17 is inexplicably written in a different style from the rest, and it refers to Perina by his last name, when all the other footnotes refer to him by his first.

Footnote 27 is written in a way that seems to be mocking the reader. After explaining the different parts of a complicated religious chant of the fictional people that Perina studied, the Ivu’ivuans, Kubodera puts the parts together, which gives us a chant that reads, “O la la la.”

The purpose of a footnote is to provide credibility to a statement. Because of this, as readers, we are predisposed to place our trust in footnotes. A historian’s professional integrity hinges on the accurate use of footnotes, while the author is free to use them to manipulate, complicate, and introduce doubt into a narrative. The fiction author’s use of footnotes could be seen as a means of potentially undermining our trust in footnotes, but in fact, it has the opposite effect: By showing how a narrative can be manipulated, we are given a useful reminder to never to take anything on face value—even something that comes in the shape of something very small. After all, historical narratives and scholarly arguments are telling their own stories, and the closer we look at the way those stories are shaped and supported, the better we understand them.

Erika Harlitz-Kern is a freelance writer and historian with a PhD from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. When not reading and writing about fantasy and science fiction, she teaches history at Florida International University in Miami, and spends her free time in Florida’s wetlands, silently thanking the alligators for not turning her into a snack.

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Erika Harlitz-Kern


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