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Going medieval

When Spouse started playing World of Warcraft, I wasn't so much interested in the game itself as I was in how he and other people interacted with it. How did players set rules, enforce them when there's nobody "in charge"? How do guilds evolve norms for their members? And so on and so forth. Yes, it's all very anthropological, and he's been very patient about answering my questions, as long as I allow him to vanish for hours into the Feast of Wintervale, appreciate his reindeer mount and laugh when he sheeps someone.

My involvement with fanfic has been much more, shall we say, "hands on" since I enjoy writing it and reading it, but I've also had a long-standing curiosity about why we write it. Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers does a good job describing the world of fandom but doesn't really explain the motivations. (It's a great book though and I highly recommend it -- I'm not remotely any kind of media scholar so I can't speak to the accuracy of his theories or analysis, but it was great fun to read.)

So what's the appeal? Why do some fandoms spawn literally thousands of fics and others only a few hundred? Why is slash mostly written by women? More fundamentally, why does this stuff exist at all?? It can't be just that we're bored, or that we're frustrated novelists, or that we're sekrit sex addicts (pr0n evidence to the contrary). And obviously it has NOTHING to do with the fact that I find two particular Death Eaters impossibly sexy *ahem* *ahem*

Turns out it all goes back to the Middle Ages.

I'm reading Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, a collection of essays exploring the literary roots of Tolkien's writing. Editor Jason Fisher talks about "the cauldron of story," a sort of potion brewed of the myths, folktales, archetypes, tropes and so on of a region or country or ethnic group or what have you (later, when literacy became widespread, books, movies, songs, poetry and so on were added to the cauldron). One of Tolkien's reasons for writing was his interest in recovering from this brew the "lost world" of Northern and English mythology. His fellow travelers in this quest, Fisher says, included Grundtvig (Denmark), the Brothers Grimm (Germany), Lonnrot (Finland), and William Morris (England). Each of them was addressing this goal differently: Tolkien through history, Lonnrot through poetry, the Grimms through folk tales, and so on.

The point is that they were writing because they sensed a gap, an absence, a lacuna, what Fisher calls it "a hole in heroic legend" -- but they were filling it by drawing on the existing cauldron of story. Fisher then quotes C.S. Lewis on medieval writers:

[T]heir treatment of [written material] is very cavalier. They do not hesitate to supplement them from their own knowledge and, still more, from their imagination -- touching them up, bringing them more fully to life...They are so unoriginal that they hardly ever attempt to write anything unless someone has written it before [but] they are so rebelliously and insistently original that they can hardly reproduce a page of any older work without transforming it by their own intensely visual and emotional imagination...They can no more leave the originals intact than we can leave our own earlier drafts intact when we fair-copy them. We always tinker and (as we hope) improve. But in the Middle Ages you did that as cheerfully to other people's work as to your own.

Likewise, Fisher says, medieval writers expected their own works to be borrowed from and adapted in turn. Fisher cites Tolkien as a medieval writer in this classic sense, quoting him as saying, "I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme...leav[ing] scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama."

Hmm. Sensing a "heroic gap" and filling it by drawing on existing material, well mixed with your own imagination. Well, if that doesn't sound like fanfic, I don't know what does. So there you go: none of this is new: it's positively medieval. What a nice feeling, to be part of such a long and noble tradition :)


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Dec. 2nd, 2011 08:20 am (UTC)
No nods, it's only the introduction of copyright that really stops this desire to reshape stories.
Dec. 2nd, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC)
Well, it might stop the SELLING but clearly it hasn't stopped the desire, as witnessed by the hundreds of thousands of fics everywhere :D
Dec. 3rd, 2011 04:57 am (UTC)
Very interesting. Thanks for posting this. I really enjoy your posts. :D
Dec. 3rd, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC)
I especially love the "rebelliously and insistently original" part :)
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