Columbus sailed the ocean blue
Got completely lost,
ran into the Caribbean islands,
and went home thinking he’d found East India.
History isn’t always the romantic stories we grew up with. The reality of Uthor Pendragon or Sir Robin of Locksley bear little resemblance to the legends that have been told and retold in just about every genre.
Uthor and his son Artur were (most likely) war lords more akin to Ghingis Khan than the chivalry and honor usually associated with Camelot. Oh they had honor and a code of conduct and all that, it was just a lot cruder than we like to think. They came from a time of “might makes right” and short life expectancies. History hasn’t done a very good job of preserving the facts of Sir Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, so it may be best to just accept that his story is a fairy tale.
Sir Robin of Locksley has a bit more going for him in terms of actual records. We know he existed, and even where his family estate was. We know that he went on the crusades with King Richard the Lionheart, and returned home before most of the rest of the survivors. We know that Prince John was a poorly respected leader and did raise taxes unreasonably. As for the antics of “Robin the hood” in and around Nottingham… Not so much. Truth is, we don’t know much about what went on in Sherwood Forest. The likelihood of a knight of the crusade coming home to lead a band of peasants in a campaign of guerrilla tactics against a corrupt government isn’t that great.
So if history can’t hold up to these wonderfully romantic tales, what’s a writer to do?
Take their example for what it is. A good tale doesn’t have to be historically accurate (as long as you don’t claim it is). In their times, all three of these stories (Columbus, King Arthur and Robin Hood) served a purpose. Each of them told the people who started the stories and their audiences something important about their world.
So if history isn’t cooperating with your story, remember you are writing fiction.
Alternatively, look for different history.
In the case of Columbus, you also have Leif Erikson. Leif, a good Viking of his time, knew that they needed to expand their territory. The Vikings were out growing the Northern Islands at the time. So he loaded up a few longboats and set out in search of new lands, and found them in what is now Canada. He and his crew set up a small colony and started trading with the locals. Not just goods and services though – they also traded germs.
The Viking village survived for three years before an epidemic wiped out too many of the colonists. Some returned to Iceland with the tale, and some joined the local tribes. Legends and archeological evidence on both sides of the ocean confirm the broad strokes of this story.
So if your story needs a successful adventurer, you could base your story on Leif Erikson. You’ll still have to take some liberties with the details.
Or you could do like I do – skip history all together and just make the whole world up.