Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ancient fandom and fan fiction

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a pile of episodes of Plebs and Atlantis I need to get to reviewing at some point, but am too snowed under with marking (not to mention two papers that urgently need worked on) to be able to do them just now. However, during lengthy sessions of sitting at the computer snuffling, rocking back and forth a little and occasionally marking something, I have been breaking up the work by poking around on Tumblr and being generally fascinated by online fan culture. And so, for Christmas, I thought I'd do a slightly silly post looking at possible ancient counterparts to modern popular culture, fan culture and fan fiction.

Something often bemoaned on film websites and in current film criticism is the fact that an awful lot of big films at the moment are based on pre-existing properties - sequels, prequels, re-boots, adaptations of popular books, adaptations of popular graphic novels, adaptations of obscure graphic novels about trees and raccoons, etc. As a complaint, this would make no sense to the ancient Greeks, since Athenian tragedy was almost always a prequel, sequel, re-imagining or re-boot of a pre-existing story. We have one surviving historical tragedy (Aeschylus' The Persians) and references to a few others, but they don't seem to have been terribly popular. According to Herodotus, the playwright Phrynichos was fined 1000 drachmas because his play The Capture of Miletos, about the titular military disaster, was Too Soon, and the capture of Miletos was outlawed as a tragic subject (Hdt. 6.121.2).

No one knows for sure why Athenian tragedy was nearly always myth-based. It's possible that this was part of the genre (just as satyr plays used comic mythological themes and subjects) or that it has to do with the plays being performed at a festival in honour of Dionysus. On the other hand, given that these plays were entered into competitions, maybe the ancients' motivations were the same as Hollywood's. Known properties come with a built-in audience and they sell. In the case of the Athenian drama, it's not necessarily about getting bums on seats - people would probably come to the festival anyway - but it's about getting people to enjoy your play so they give it first prize. Innovation was not the Athenians' thing - although Euripides' alteration to the plot of Medea, having her murder her own children, proved extremely popular and became the most widely known version in later years, it gained him last place in that year's competition. Give people characters they already know and love and a story that fulfills their expectations, and you're more likely to do well.

Of course, all this writing and re-writing of pre-existing characters and stories leads to works that take their inspiration from and build on the works of previous authors. Modern fiction draws a line between canonical stories, written professionally by people who own the copyright to the characters, and fan fiction, written not-for-profit by fans who don't own any rights to the characters and didn't invent them. However, even in a modern context, the line between the two is increasingly blurry - non-canon but professionally written TV tie-in novels have been around for years, and now there's a new set of Sookie Stackhouse short stories written by other authors coming out - and that's not even counting belated sequels to out-of-copyright properties, like Death Comes to Pemberly or Heidi Grows Up.

In the ancient world, not only were there no copyright laws, the mythological or folkloric subjects of most of the non-historical stories that appear in much of ancient literature had no individual author or creator in the first place, and anyone could do what they wanted with them. (Original Characters and stories do, of course, also appear in ancient literature as well. Novels like Petronius' Satyricon and collections of poems like the Latin love poems of the first century BC tell, so far as we know, fresh stories with new, contemporary characters, and Aristophanes' comedies are mostly fairly original). So, is a large part of ancient literature essentially fan fiction?

The answer is probably 'not really', because fan fiction implies being a fan of a specific thing and writing more of it, whereas most ancient literature takes pre-existing stories - but not particular authors or particular versions - and re-works them, as Shakespeare did. Still, it's a pretty fine line. Lucian has something of an obsession with Homer, but since it's a negative obsession, that's more spoofing than fan fiction. Seneca seems to have had a bit of a thing for Euripides, producing his own versions of Hippolytus (Phaedra), Medea, The Madness of Heracles (Hercules), Trojan Women and Phoenician Women. One of the most fan fiction-like bits of ancient literature, though, must be Ovid's Heroides. Although not based on a particular author's work, these letters from mythological heroines to their lovers do represent a common theme in fan fiction - expanding upon existing romantic relationships between fictional characters.

Of course, one of the most prevalent themes in modern fan fiction is shipping. The term apparently originated with fans of The X-Files who wanted Mulder and Scully to get together, while 'slash fiction' (male homoerotic shipping) was apparently used even earlier to refer to Kirk/Spock fiction (i.e. Kirk slash Spock fiction) but the concept far pre-dates the internet and may even pre-date Kirk and Spock. In Plato's philosophical dialogue The Symposium, Plato has one of the speakers (Phaedrus) explain his conviction that Aeschylus is wrong about Achilles being the active partner in a sexual relationship with Patroclus, since obviously it was the other way around. Since Homer's Iliad (which at least popularised the orally-told story) never explicitly states that Achilles and Patroclus are in a sexual relationship - there's plenty of phrases that could be read that way, but nothing definite - this surely makes Aeschylus and either Plato, Phaedrus or both Achilles/Patroclus shippers, and Achilles/Patroclus the first slash couple. (Hmm, there was probably Gilgamesh/Enkidu slash as well, but I doubt that's survived). Not sure what their ship name should be - Patrilles? Does this exist online as a ship? (I bet it does. Rule 34 and all that).

Of course, one difference between ancient treatments of myth and modern story-telling is that heroic myth was generally considered to be part of history in the ancient world, even if many people doubted the specifics of it. But then, I've broken the hearts of countless students with my insistence that King Arthur wasn't real over the years. Arthurian legend - whether specific re-tellings or the stories in general - has been subject to all the usual fan treatments over the years, including fan fiction attached to particular interpretations (most recently the BBC series) and shipping (definitely in the case of the BBC series - Merthur is pretty big on Tumblr).

I mentioned above the religious context of some of these texts (plays performed at the festival of Dionysus) and I've spent years showing students Aristophanes' Frogs (featuring the god Dionysus swapping places with his slave and a lot of fart jokes) and talking to them about how different ancient religion and literature was, since the ancients made fun of their gods in a way that modern Abrahamic religions generally don't. However, I confess that lately I've even had to re-think that. I watched all of Supernatural over the summer and (spoiler alert) here is how Supernatural portrays the Judaeo-Christian God:

He's called Chuck, He's a bad writer and he has regular phone sex with a woman called 'Mistress Magda' (he's got a 'virgin-hooker thing', it seems). The show also features the archangels Micheal, Raphael and Gabriel (all 'dicks', though Gabriel is the least dickish), Uriel (downgraded to regular angel), various other angels and, debateably, Jesus. Of course, that could just be Supernatural, but then I thought about the depiction of God in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail

and (one of my favourite screen depictions of God) in Dogma

not forgetting, of course, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty

and Whoopi Goldberg, who has played God twice (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and A Little Bit of Heaven).

Jesus is more likely to be treated respectfully, seen from a distance, or not appear at all, viewed chiefly through receptions of Him (like Dogma's classic Buddy Christ). But we don't really have that much of a problem depicting God in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the majority of the writers on these projects were atheist or agnostic, and several of them certainly attracted the wrath of organised Christian Churches or fundamentalist groups. But that doesn't mean they don't exist, and there are plenty of practicing Christians like me who enjoy these works even if it does mean they stand in church singing 'The Angel Gabriel' and picturing Richard Speight Jr's waggling eyebrows.

(gif from here)

Even if we want to restrict ourselves to works written by practicing Christians and approved by Christian leaders, we've still got a pretty famous depiction of Jesus as a lion with a (subtle) sense of humour.

So, to sum up, ancient and modern literature - possibly not so different after all.

Happy Christmas!

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