Tradition and the Individual Fantasist

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I was going to extend my writing for middle grades series with this, but the point is a general one. The prompt did come from my recent MG novel though, and took the form of a snarky review which suggested the story was unoriginal because it was about a boy at school, his two friends, some bullies and a parallel world.

Have these ideas been used in children’s fiction before? Sure. Have they been used the way I’m using them in Darwen? No.

I’m not going to go through the ways my book is different from Harry Potter or the Narnia books or whatever because we’d be here all day and such a defense would rather miss the point.

So let’s think about originality for a moment.

As we have said before at MW, there’s something slightly disingenuous about all those agents and editors and movie producers who are always saying that what they’re looking for is something entirely fresh and new. What they usually mean, once you strip away the understandable but self-edifying mysticism, is that they’re looking for something that feels like a new take or spin on something that has a proven track record. Now, we can all come up with plenty of examples of overtly derivative work which is obviously piggybacking on the success of some other book, but those aren’t really my focus here. I’m talking not about those obvious band-wagon jumpers, but about those which tap into elements of stories we’ve heard before, character struggles, thematic concerns or plot devices which ring bells we heard elsewhere.

In other words, I’m talking about books. All of them.

Because while I’m a big fan of originality in execution, there is surprisingly little which is genuinely new under the sun, and all literature—yes, ALL literature—is part of what we might call a tradition.

Sometimes that tradition might be simply a genre seen historically as it swells and changes, evolving as the discourse around it, the culture which shapes it in the minds of its authors and readers, shifts and grows. This is good. It is necessary. It is a basic condition of literature and helps to make it comprehensible, speaking to us of things we know as well as things we don’t.

Lately I’ve been re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and since that’s a touchstone for our genre, let me use it as an example, on the understanding that I’m in no way denigrating Tolkien’s achievement as a writer when I say that even this seminal piece of modern fantasy, a novel which in many ways defined the genre for decades (still does, to an extent) owes a great deal to writers past. Some of this debt is overt, like the numerous borrowings from Beowulf of which Tolkien was the foremost scholar of his day: a character like Unferth, who is lifted bodily from Hrothgar’s hall and renamed Grima Wormtongue, for instance, the ents whose name Tolkien also takes from the poem as he does the “ubi sunt” motif—a nostalgic mourning for times past—which defines his elves. (Beowulf’s dragon, of course, makes a fairly significant contribution to The Hobbit!) LOTR uses ideas from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from Chaucer and from the chivalric tradition reinvented by Edmund Spenser, by Mallory, and later and more romantically by Walter Scott. Like his friend, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien also borrows heavily from the Bible and from core elements of the Gospels in particular (the “resurrection” of Gandalf and his friends’ initial failure to recognize him is one obvious instance). The specifics are less important than the general point, that the most original of works has its roots elsewhere just as other aspects of culture (think music, for instance) grow and develop from what was seeded before them.

Tolkien—like Shakespeare (about whom I could go on at length on this subject, but won’t) and any other great writer who pushes the frontier of his or her genre—is connected to other authors and their work, however much they redirect, tweak or modify their tradition. Sometimes books are an homage—an imitative complement—to the original. Sometimes they are a response to—even a rejection of—things the author has read before (Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books seem to me a specific response to LOTR, for example, a rethinking, even a respectful critique, as are my Will Hawthorne books). All books are in a sense commentary on what went before, part of a larger conversation which builds on the tradition and moves it forward, and it is not a bad thing for that to be made explicit in a work. Indeed, while a certain arrogance might be an essential part of getting a bookw ritten at all, it is simply absurd to believe any book (including yours) is so original that it exists somehow outside literary tradition. They say no man is an island. Books aren’t either.

So today, just for fun and since I rarely do this kind of interactive thing, I wonder if we might come up with books which in some respect remind us of other, earlier works. Let me be clear that I’m not looking to bash authors for being unoriginal, but rather trying to position them within a tradition which informs them. Let’s talk in specific terms about tone, plot points, character traits, ideas… whatever, particularly where the subsequent author has somehow tweaked whatever they have gotten from the original, refining it, complicating it and making it their own. And if you think you can think of a book which is entirely original, offer it up, and see if others can’t come up with some analogues elsewhere.

[And yes, for you clever-clogs English majors I’m lifting (and modifying) my title from T.S. Eliot, which is sort of my point… 😉 ]

Have at it.

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17 comments to Tradition and the Individual Fantasist

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’d like to offer up “Interview with the Vampire” although I don’t know that I’m well-read enough to quite properly identify its sources. Of course, the erotic/alluring aspects of vampires were already there in “Dracula”, and Anne Rice presents the story sort of as growth from childhood to adulthood, which could almost be reminiscent of some Dickens. Other thoughts?

  • Ooh fun! When I teach Beowulf I point out the connections to Tolkien, and I’ve taught both in the same course, with some good (and bad) results. And this phenomenon isn’t just in books, or just in fantasy book, of course. The Lion King is a kind of softer Hamlet in some ways (without the infidelity of Gertrude or the suicide of Ophelia). I’ve got a paper waiting in my “to be graded” stack in which a student notes the similarities to Hamlet in (believe it or not) “Sons of Anarchy” (the biker gang TV show). We’ll see how convincing the student it.

    Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!” is a response to and reuse of classic arthurian/romantic stuff. I teach it at the end of a course on Medieval Romance, and my students really enjoy it because they get all the jokes. I like Pratchett’s use of it because he doesn’t fully mock the tradition–the characters that are heroic, are heroic (including the “swineherd” who wouldn’t be king). The great joke is that all the characters know how the stories go too… There’s something really successful in an author who can both poke fun at and see the beauty in those (admittedly sometimes silly) literary traditions.

  • Hep,
    it’s been a while since I read it and I suspect you’ve already nailed the major “sources” though I suspect we might add a whole strand of twentieth century “anti hero” literature which makes protagonists out of villains or characters whose moral failings are essential to who they are. For all the vampire allure in Bram Stoker, he likes his heroes pretty clean cut, and the appeal of evil is, in classic Victorian style, evoked and enjoyed but finally repudiated. Graham Greene, perhaps? Salinger? He really manifests that impulse to get inside a character’s head. Maybe even something like John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces which locates that character specific (albeit comic) approach and sets it squarely in New Orleans. That makes me wonder about classic southern fiction too, since that world is so central to Anne Rice. Other thoughts?

  • Pea,
    Pratchett is a fantasic example of someone in multiple traditions whi brings them together, in his case the high fantasy of Arthurian romance as you say and a specifically British satiric comic tradition which, in fantasy/si-fi is manifested by writers like Douglas Adams.As you say (and this is why I love his stuff) the humor is of the fantasy/historical world but also somehow about it, without ever leaving conventional and contemporary reality behind. So much of his satirical thrust is finally about things like consumer culture (dear also to Douglas Adams’ heart). Great example.

  • Hep,
    strike Confederacy of Dunces from the source material. It actually came out 4 years after VAMPIRE. My bad.

  • Well, since it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll bring up a newish hot title: THE MAZE RUNNER. (I was going to write a review to this effect on GOODREADS, under the D.B. Jackson account, and I still might.) It seems to me that this is very much in keeping with recent YA distopian novels, most specifically and most obviously Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES. But Dashner’s book also brings to mind two other titles. First, it is reminiscent of Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME, in that it depicts an isolated community of boys and young men (Card includes a few girls; Dashner includes one) who are playing — even perfecting — a game aimed at a much larger, darker purpose. The boys are controlled and guided in their efforts by adults who constantly change the rules of the game, often with dire results, but who remain largely unseen, as disembodied as that muted-trumpet voice of adults in the old PEANUTS cartoons. Second — and this may be more of a stretch — it reminded me of an updated version of LORD OF THE FLIES. Now obviously, Golding’s classic portrays as an abject failure the efforts of English school boys marooned in a wilderness to govern themselves. He creates a Hobbesian nightmare in which life is nasty and brutish and seems destined to be short as well. Dashner’s vision reflects, I believe, a more modern vision of youth and the ability of young people to adapt and adjust. This is a Lockean tale; the efforts at self-governance of Dashner’s lost boys are far more successful. But the boys in THE MAZE RUNNER still live in a harsh reality. They self-govern with fists of iron, fitting into their harsh surroundings in a manner that Golding might find illuminating, if not entirely convincing.

  • Terrific example, David. I haven’t read MAZE RUNNER, but I think your example of Lord of the Flies (LOTF ?) is a wonderful progenitor for so much of the dystopian kid-centred fiction we see these days. Great stuff. Thanks.

  • AJ, every single traditional murder mystery (cozy mysteries, despite the bad press that genre has) owes something to Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, and to Sir Author Conan Doyle.

    Every Dark urban fantasy fits within the formula of the modern day thriller.

    People who can’t see beyond the cultural bindings necessary to root the reader in the *now* (Immediacy = writer’s device) should not be reviewing books. IMHO.

  • F,
    totally agree on all counts, and I like your list of mystery writers. Add Chandler and Hammett and you’ve got the roots of pretty much all modern mystery!

  • A.R.West

    A truly original fiction is unbelieveable. Good fiction mirrors life with technicolor events. Write your story and name the trolls after your critics for originality. My favorite comment is “yeah, I liked that line too. Who wrote it?” on something I wrote and just had to share.

  • T.H. White’s THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING is a retelling and a repudiation of sorts of Mallory’s MORTE D’ARTHUR, which in turn is an attempt to synthesize all the disparate Arthurian materials Mallory could get his hands on and so brings together the French, British, and Celtic traditions, though the French dominates. The Disney movie made from White’s book takes out almost, but not all, the political commentary of White’s book. The book THE NATURAL is Bernard Malamud’s adaptation of the Grail quest to baseball.

    As a young undergrad I was at first shocked and rather disillusioned to learn about Shakespeare’s sources. I felt like he’d been exposed as a cheater. Now I’ve come to enjoy those moments of recognition in reading. Books get richer and deeper when they are part of an interconnected web of evolving cultural meaning and identity making. It’s one of the things I enjoy about medieval literature – authors try to lend their work authority by explicitly pointing to their own sources as “auctorites.”

  • Thanks, A.R. good point!

    Sarah,
    agreed. I love that sense of interconnection. I wonder if the postmodern condition will erode the individualism so glorified by capitalist high modernism as we become more accustomed to the technologies (the literal interconnected web!) which privilege collage and extensive borrowing so that individual authorship itself fades as a mark of validation (as in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies etc.).

    That last sentence brought to you by all that David Coe despises 🙂

  • jiah

    Oh, thanks for this post! That Eliot essay was one of the first pieces of literary criticism we studied in college!

    I haven’t read Maze Runner (guess I should check it out!) but recently, I read this YA dystopic series called Gone by Michael Grant which has parallels to The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. There are elements of sci-fi and the supernatural, but it’s about how a town full of children copes when everyone above the age of fifteen suddenly disappears one day.

    And among movies, one of my favourite reworkings of a literary classic is Apocalypse Now. I started watching it, thinking it’s just another war movie, and then suddenly I found myself thinking, “hey, that’s Heart of Darkness!”

  • Thanks Jiah, yes, Apocalypse Now is taken directly from Heart of Darkness, but while I love the film tehre’s a part of me that thinks they kind of missed key elements of Conrad’s novel, all the deliberately anticlimactic and ambiguous unravelling of plot and meaning (more postmodernism), so different from the movie’s epic and theatrical finale. I also think you and David are right about teh centrality of LOTF to dystopian YA fiction, though I suspect that some of the difference between them and it, as well as the period in which they were written, stem from the fact that Golding’s novel was about children rather than for them. It seems to me ironic and perhaps a more problematic misreading that most people encounter the book in high school, and I wonder if the assumption (false, I think in this case) that books abouit children are books for children reflects a condescension towards such books and, probably children, as soemhow less serious than books about adults.

  • wrybread

    Lord of the Flies is one of those books that’s had a huge influence ever since it was published, I think because it’s such a simple story that asks a very simple question about human nature, namely what happens when we are freed from the constraints of civilization. However, it didn’t materialize in a vacuum itself, being a dark (I hate to use this word but here it fits…) Deconstruction of novels like “The Coral Island”, in which instead of succumbing to their innate savagery shipwrecked English schoolboys successfully build their own civilization on a desert island and even manage to defeat raiding natives (and convert some of them to Christianity) and pirates. Golding even named the characters of Ralph and Jack after the heroes of Coral Island to make sure the reader would make the connection. It’s one of those books that has become more well-known, influential, and iconic than the book and genre to which it responded.

    I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the book, but I know Robert Heinlein wrote an interesting novel which responded to Golding’s scenario. Being Heinlein it was set IN SPACE rather than a desert island, and being Heinlein it was entirely more optimistic about humanity’s prospects. The schoolboys who found themselves alone on a moon managed to set up their own ideal civilization of rugged heroic individuals, while those boys who would have gone savage were quickly killed off. The way Heinlein’s views contrast with Golding’s in that book is a really good summation of the ideals that permeate Heinlein’s work. This is probably the whole reason why LotF remains such a common influence for authors; one can know exactly what one’s views are and what kind of writer one is by the way they respond to its themes.

    Stephen King’s another writer who’s constantly alluding to LotF, naming the town of Castle Rock which appears in many of his novels after a location from the novel and often using the book’s themes of children encountering violence, depravity, and horror. My favourite use of LotF by King is in his Vietnam-based collection Hearts in Atlantis, wherein the constant references to the book early on foreshadow the jungle horrors and violence in which several of its’ protagonists become involved during the war.

  • jiah

    AJ, so true about the difference between books for children and books about children! I didn’t realize that LOTF was taught at school level, since in India (where I come from) it’s usually studied at Bachelors’ or Masters’ level. It was one of the most chilling novels I read! I found the Gone series interesting because, though it targets a YA audience, it also has a lot of stuff usually considered “adult” material, like violence, sex, torture, etc. Also, the characters are not very simply “good” or “bad”, but have complex motives; heroes and heroines have crushing weaknesses while villains evoke uneasy pangs of sympathy at times; and every character has at least one dark secret!

  • Yvette

    Hepseba,

    While Anne Rice makes Lestat the hero vampire whom we fall in love with and pity when his body is stolen in “Tales of the Body Thief”, I wonder if you recall any back stories from her other characters? I forget which book she discloses this information but Marius is supposedly the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side. The story of Akasha and Enkil is a bit like the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris (but without the dismemberment). Pandora was the one cursed by the box (duh) though it’s been at least 15 years since I read that story I forget how she explains that one. One thing I am thankful Mrs. Rice kept out of the vampire story is the “war” between vampires and werewolves. Stephenie Meyer has taken care of that recently (insert giggle for thoughts of vampires with sparkle and half-naked tribal were-boys).