Today my friend Tam asked whether fanfiction can exist without the original material, and this question, it turns out, is perfectly targeted Casey bait. After going on a lengthy Twitter tangent I decided it might be time to dust off the ol’ blog.
Hi friends! LET’S TALK ABOUT ARTHURIANA AND FANFICTION.
(I am so excited you guys. Buckle up; I’m going on the long side here. =D =D =D)
One of my favorite things in medieval Arthuriana is the trope of the “original” version of the King Arthur legend.
Note that I put “original” in quotation marks, because this is important: THERE IS NO ORIGINAL KING ARTHUR LEGEND.
(There’s no original, historical King Arthur, for one thing. But that is a whole other digression for another time when I don’t have important medieval fanfiction matters to talk about.)
Aside from references to King Arthur as early as the 6th century (Gildas), the oldest surviving story is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, written around 1136—or, possibly, the Welsh Mabinogion; scholars are still arguing about the dates for that one. Both are so intertwined with mythology that it’s difficult to take either as the “authoritative” version in any real sense, or even to believe, given the prominence of oral tradition, they were the first or only stories.
But Monmouth does this thing where he starts out by claiming his source material is a mysteriously no longer extant ancient book, and he’s going to helpfully bring the story to the people of his time.
Monmouth, apparently, was a medieval trend-setter, and this became THE thing to do when taking on the Arthurian canon. Later writers made this into a trope of the genre, referencing an ur ancient record that DOES NOT EXIST.
I mean. It is technically possible that at one point such a record once existed, but, it’s not likely. And it’s especially unlikely someone like Sir Thomas Malory, whose work Le Morte D’Arthur, the earliest known print edition of which dates to 1475, is the basis for most of our contemporary Arthurian adaptations, had any knowledge of it whatsoever.
In other words, the thing to do was basically go, ‘oh, so inconvenient my source material is not accessible to the public, what a terrible shame, oh! but don’t worry guys, I happen to have studied it in detail before it mysteriously disintegrated and can tell you all the best DEFINITELY TRUE bits OMG IT’S SUCH A GOOD STORY ARE YOU GUYS READY’.
People made up, over and over, an original ur-Arthurian legend that never existed, referencing it for the sake of legitimacy to give them a kind of license to do whatever they wanted with the stories. And EVERYONE wanted to do their own thing with Arthurian legends:
Wace takes the HRB and translates it for an Anglo-Norman audience in 1155, expanding all the descriptions, and Laȝamon follows with his English Brut. Then in the late 12th century the French get a hold of the King Arthur legend, and with the adaptations of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France the epic tradition transitions into the romance tradition.
Lancelot? One of the core figures of Arthurian myth? DID NOT EXIST until this time. Gawain had previously been the canonical Mightiest Knight, but medieval French romances demanded someone less surly and more shiny, apparently. So a couple hundred years after our earliest record, we have a new main character.
The Lancelot-Grail Cycle (French Vulgate) in the early 1200s explodes the Arthurian canon even further, giving rise to the Stanzaic Morte Arthure. In the 1300s the English language recaptures the genre with the Alliterative Morte Arthure, much more in the epic tradition, and Gawain and the Green Knight. There are many more medieval adaptations, but these are among the most prominent prior to Malory (who worked mainly with the French Vulgate).
But Casey, I thought we were talking about fanfiction, you didn’t ask, backing away slowly from my enthusiastic medieval literary history lecture.
Here’s the thing: authors took what they liked from the adaptations they read and left out the rest; they changed characters and plot or created their own original characters as they saw fit with no regard for “authenticity.” Or rather, claiming in fact to BE the authoritative version.
Look at the time periods there, the different countries, the different literary modes (history, epic, romance, etc.). Each writer adapted the Arthurian legend for their audience, for their cultural values, for their literary trends. And they did it so well that hundreds of years later, most people familiar with Arthurian legend at all have no idea that Lancelot was a fanciful late-addition OC.
Arthuriana is fanfiction. All of it, straight-up, fanfic.
This is already long, so I don’t want to go into too much detail right now about the modern valuing of originality in storytelling over the way a story is told (but DO I EVER want to go into it sometime). But to a medieval audience, there would have been no conflict of authenticity between The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, a 15th century poem, and Chaucer’s version in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”; both were re-tellings in a tradition of “loathly lady” tales.
Fanfiction, as a concept, is, accordingly, a pretty modern concept, and no one seems to agree on exactly where the line should be drawn. Today, if I were to write an Arthurian adaptation of my own, would it be fanfiction, or would it be original fiction? It depends on how you define “fanfiction,” of course, but I think it would be both.
At some level, all fiction is in conversation with other fiction. Art and scholarship are mimetic, using work that has been done before to create new ideas.
In this particular case, I think it’s useful (artistically; I’m not talking legal rights here) to think of fanfiction and fiction as more of a continuum rather than two separate boxes of art. In A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon writes that the point of adaptation is to be “repetition but without replication, bringing together the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty.” In that sense, fanfiction and fiction aren’t at odds; the main difference is the weight of the “comfort of ritual and recognition” is heavier in fanfiction. But fanfiction still brings novelty, and if fiction only brings novelty it’s not likely to resonate with a large audience.
The tropes of, say, grimdark fantasy can’t work without the tropes of high fantasy to subvert, but how many tropes can you steal before people start making accusations of being derivative? How much do you have to change? At one point does a trope become such a part of the cultural consciousness that you don’t have to do the same artistic work to either establish or distinguish it in the text? And it’s possible to write, read, and enjoy fanfiction without ever having engaged with an “original,” just with the fanfic “canon,” so do you even need the ur material to write fanfiction?
I think not, and I think Arthuriana is clear example of why not.
But depending on the execution, the fanfiction might ALSO be fiction.