FanFiction and Re-Telling Myths

This has been a serious myth-week for me. Friday, I was in downtown Campbell LARPing (Live Action Role-Playing) with a friend’s Vampire: The Requiem group, which draws from a mass of vampire legend sources for its world-shape (it was my second time and great fun!). Sunday, I toured another friend around Fanime, and if most anime’s don’t draw from the communal stock-pot of archetypes and myth I know of no genre that does. Through all this, I’ve been reading J.A. Pitt’s Black Blade Blues which is equally steeped in Norse myths, Society for Creative Anachronism adventures, and smith-lore.

Finally, today I read a delightfully foul-mouthed retelling of a Norse epic poem from Myths-Retold (hat-tip to Anthea for pointing me to the site). Here are a few choice quotes:

[when asked by the giant Utgard-Loki what his skills are]
and thor says i am the best at getting drunk
so utgard-loki is like ok here
and he gives him a drinking horn
the manliest of all drinking vessels
and is like ok
if you are a good drinker you will down this in one try
two is the average
and even the biggest pansy in the castle can do it in 3
so thor looks at the horn
its pretty big
but thor is like world champion of alcoholism
so hes like psh no problem
and he starts chugging
In the past four months, the author of Myths Retold has tackled a wide range of myths, trying to recreate the spirit of the myths as he sees them: spoken in the vernacular, full of cussing and sex and violence. I love it. I also love Lombardo’s take on The Iliad:

[Agamemnon to Calchas (prophet)]

[…] You damn soothsayer!
You’ve never given me a good omen yet.
You take some kind of perverse pleasure in prophesying
Doom, don’t you? Not a single favorable omen ever!
Nothing good ever happens! […]

Many authors who play in the myth sandbox tend towards the subversive and irreverent. One of my favorite writers growing up–Robin McKinley*–made her name retelling Beauty and the Beast (Beauty, Rose Daughter), Sleeping Beauty (Spindel’s End), and Deer Skin (Deer-Skin). What made her works delightful was the ways she subverted some of their sexist themes and made them into stories of female empowerment (except for Deerskin, which took the myth in the most disturbing direction possible. Incest is never ok).

This irreverence and subversion are only possible because authors can assume their readers already know the world and its usual rules (witches are cruel, wolves are hungry, princesses are beautiful). The good authors can take these assumptions and work against them, play with them, add consequences where there were none (Into The Woods) or tweak the back story in interesting ways–Beauty’s name was a cruel joke (Beauty), Sleeping Beauty might have hated her 21 birthday gifts (Spindel’s End).

That is the power of fairy-tales–they give their listeners a common language. The wolf will eat you. The apple is poison. Keep to the path. Don’t eat the witch’s cabbage. Be kind to sparrows.

The way that authors draw on myth to fill out their worlds feels a lot like how fanfic writers draw on popular culture to fill out their worlds. A commenter on the last post put it quite well:

Is origami from purchased paper uncreative because other people make paper and then make origami out of it? Telling a good story about people and making characters are two totally different skill sets. Stories about ancient gods and goddesses were often FanFiction, William Shakespeare wrote FanFiction about historical characters, and even some musicals (Wicked, hello) definitely qualify as FanFiction; would we dare call any of that uncreative?

Fanfiction of most myths, fairy-tales and folk-stories avoids most of the thorny copyright issues of works still under copyright because their sources are in the public domain. Though they do not share a common peril, published authors who write in worlds defined by communally held myths have much in common with fanfiction writers to my mind (even if, as Lilly pointed out, they do not think so).

Writing for an audience that already knows the structure of the world–regardless of whether you’ll allow that structure to stand or disassemble it brick by brick–gives authors a different sort of freedom than they will find in a world wholly of their own creation. The problem comes when the people who first wrote the rules for that world need rent money and have megaphones to complain about how you’ve subverted their plans. It gets ugly when those people come to the opinion that they have the right to try to erase the effects of their worlds on others’ minds, to chain the creative limbs of those who walk in the paths they have gardened.

Their right to those megaphones and those checks is part of copyright law. Their right to wall and chain are still being decided. How we treat myth and retelling is part of how we construct our culture. It is important to everyone who wishes to tell fairy-tales in the future.

*Unfortunately, Ms McKinley is teetering on her perch as my favorite author because of her stance on fanfiction. It’s funny how many people who make their playing in worlds they did not build refuse to share.

Inspirational Quote:

“We can keep from a child all knowledge of earlier myths, but we cannot take from him the need for mythology.”–Carl Gustav Jung

PS: The fifth season of Dr Who has also been long on myth:


  1. This, of course, causes one to wonder what would happen if Loki appeared and demanded ownership of all unlicensed use of his name and personality. Or if Zeus claimed copyright of Greek mythology, since at least part of it sprang forth full-formed from his head. 🙂

    I have most common translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and have been recommending Lombardo’s as the best for a couple of years. Except for the audio Fagles translation of the Odyssey read by Ian McKellen — can’t go wrong with that!

  2. MMMMmmmmm Matt Smith. What was I saying again? OH! I remember.

    I want to point out a difference here they I find really interesting.

    The works your commenter in the text refers to, (Shakespeare, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked) are “derivative works.” They are adaptations of Plutarch (and various other stories and histories Shakespeare read in grammar school) and L. Frank Baum, all of which are in the public domain both legally and sociologically. Most people who read Wicked haven’t read Baum, but thanks to Judy Garland and other adaptations, they know the basic plot. That’s the difference between derivative/parallel works and FanFiction. FanFiction derives from a protected work that has an author (or zher’s direct descendants) that we can talk to, who can look us in the eye and say “It really upset me when you turned my heroine into a racist scumbag.”

    Loki would have no right to ownership, nor would Zeus because the stories are so old and have been retold so many times that we have group authorship. That is what mythology and fairy tales are. Joseph Campbell says we keep coming back to myths because they’re the way we see our daily lives, the way we wish our lives played out. So there are lots of stories that derive from mythology but if you’re going to create “new mythology” (looking at you Mr. Gaiman) you have to know it won’t actually be mythology until we don’t remember who you are anymore, until we start wondering if you even existed at all and maybe we (as a society) just kept adding things to the story until it became what it is now. That’s when the story belongs to us. Until then you’re just John Webster stealing from Shakespeare and Marlowe and adding violence and sex to “make it more awesome.” (Did I say that? Sorry John Webster but you really did.) Or your that mom in 15th century Germany who forget how “Deer-Skin/Many-Fur” went and added incest to make it more disturbing. Thanks for that Mutti!

    Authors have a right to decide whether they want to enter myth or not. Wouldn’t you want to decide?

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