And first, in case people are tired of serious poetry, here’s some really bad poetry, the first three stanzas of “Ode to the Mammoth Cheese” by James McIntyre:
We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.
Keep in mind: There’s always a better writer than you out there somewhere, but there is also always, always someone worse.
1) Keep in mind that books don’t last forever.
They crumble, they rot, and if they’re left in a cold or wet place for long enough, they’ll decay faster. Other times the writing may become blurred, or perhaps the ink they’re written in runs, or pages get detached or attached in the wrong order. If you don’t have books but scrolls instead, it seems that it would be very easy to get them mixed up; all it takes is someone putting the scroll back into the wrong scrollcase in a vast library. A book or scroll that’s been maltreated should not give you heroes that perfect piece of information they’ve been waiting for- still less be clear as day if it’s thousands of years old.
There should be some method of preservation in place. Perhaps you have a monastery system to copy books and preserve knowledge. (If not a monastery system, make sure it’s one with a compelling reason to copy the books they choose to copy). Or perhaps your hero’s society doesn’t have the means to preserve the books, but has trained memorizers who long ago stored the contents of the books in their brains and pass them down via apprentices. In fantasy worlds slightly off the beaten path, there may be mages who will copy books for a fee with their magic, or printing presses to handle the problem. Either way, though, there should not be random thousand-year-old tomes lying around in perfect condition.
2) Keep scribal error in mind.
All that copying takes its toll. Scribes get bored, get careless, and write down notes in the margins for the lack of anywhere else to put them. Historians studying ancient documents have read the scribal equivalent of doodles mixed in among vital and important information. Fantasy history books never seem to have that problem, though.
Depending on the writing system of your world, there may also be problems with simply reading it. Latin was often written without the vowels and without spaces between the words, making it extremely hard to translate. Other times two documents were written on facing pieces of parchment or the same one, to save space, mingling religious documents with ones on natural history.
Such a writing system may not exist in your world, but normal human error should. And there are all sorts of fun ways to play with that, given the vital information the scribes in a fantasy world may be copying (prophecies, answers to riddles, magical theory, cures for diseases…). Perhaps it could even serve as a more plausible loophole than Amulet the Heroine Forgets She Has Until the Last Minute.
3) Historians should not be paragons of truth.
History is written by the winners…everywhere except Fantasyland, apparently. There will always be carefully copied and preserved information about “the truth” available somewhere nearby once the heroes start to look for it, and it will always be detailed and clear and 100% true. No one ever seems to consider that the side who lost the War of Long Ages might have just as much reason to be biased and bitter as the side that won.
As for the side that won, if they’re not guilty of oppressing and suppressing a magical minority (it’s almost always magical, with witches being the shoo-in favorites), they are telling The Truth, and nothing but The Truth. Their reasons are always just. Why? Well, because that book says so!
Historians may easily lie, either in the interests of keeping knowledge from the light of day or just to make themselves look good. There need be no grand, overarching purpose, and the person may not be evil. Personal motivations can have a devastating effect on the transmission of knowledge, if the person who has them is important enough. Allow human pettiness some reign.
Historians may also be sincerely mistaken. Perhaps everyone really does believe the Scarlet Plague was a natural event, and it’s up to the hero to discover the demon who caused it.
4) Give your heroes a good reason to get suspicious.
The villains may have done as thorough a job as they can of hiding the prophecy, but they can’t be perfect. A noticeable gap in a book or story can get a hero curious, and at that point someone trying to kill or warn him off would just convince him that there’s something more there to be found.
The problem is justifying the gap.
Too often, heroes seem to become intuitive geniuses when confronted by this kind of problem, even if up until then they’ve done most of their thinking with their…swords. They decide that their people’s history in suspicious, when it never occurs to anyone to wonder about this before, and start investigating in what is always the right place. Or they’ll start thinking that witches are unfairly persecuted after believing all their lives that witches were responsible for failed harvests and dead babies. Or they’ll decide that there’s an “untold story” just because a bard happens to get drunk and sings the wrong words one night- and they’re correct.
This kind of mystery is an excellent addition to fantasy, but it needs evidence from the world around it as well as just because your hero’s smart like that.
5) No convenient libraries/loremasters appearing out of thin air.
It’s one thing to know there’s a library on the other side of the continent, or in the next city, and have your characters travel to get there. It’s another thing entirely to give them a piece of the puzzle, then say, “Oh, wow! There’s this wonderful library around the corner!” or “You know what, I bet the hermit who lives in this cave would have something to say about that!” It’s also cheating if you have the heroes teleport to meet the library or sage when so far they’ve been walking around.
If you’re going to use vast stores of knowledge like libraries, mention them early and mention them often. Libraries are fairly rare in most fantasy worlds, and it’s unlikely that anyone who had traveled outside their village at all, or who lived in a city with one, would be ignorant of it, even if they’d never been inside it.
6) Experiment with other ways of calling up the past.
This works especially well in a world where almost everyone is illiterate. There are bards, of course, but perhaps your fantasy culture doesn’t really support them. Variants on common objects in fantasy could, though.
There are usually pools, fountains, crystal balls, people, and the gods know what else in fantasy that can foretell the future (even if in obscure or badly apprehended ways). Why not make corresponding objects and people that can tell the past? Retrocognition is the fancy name for the corresponding ability to precognition, and there are parapsychologists who study it. Perhaps your world has retrocogs to match its precogs. Or perhaps certain fountains or pools, instead of being tuned to show the future of those who happen across them, are tuned to the history of a particular region or family. Or- simplest of all- perhaps there are immortal creatures, like elves, who have good memories and can provide that one vital clue the human characters forgot long ago.
Fantasy is a wide field, and it certainly doesn’t hesitate to exploit precognition or clairvoyance (seeing things in the present from a distance). No reason it shouldn’t use that kind of vision to see the past as well. And not just for finding out clues to mysteries; think how useful it would be in justice cases, to know exactly what happened. An accurate retrocog could probably get a pretty cushy position.
Just some ideas.