Fanfiction Through the Ages: From the Midrashim to The Magicians

If you set out to write a fanfic, you are in good company.

Books | Annie Spratt

If you think fanfiction started with Harry Potter and Twilight, think again. The first written fanfics were the Midrashim, ancient commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures, dating as far back as the 2nd century. These rabbinical texts were doing exactly what fanfiction does – interpreting stories, filling in the gaps, and sending off pre-existing characters on new adventures. Guess which story the Midrashim were fanficking?  Why, the Bible, of course! Apparently, Jewish scholars couldn’t resist slipping in a few tales about the interesting relationship between Joseph and the Pharaoh’s wife (did he really run as soon as she came on to him, or did they manage to get one in?) or elaborating on how the Jewish girl Esther managed to become the Queen of Persia.

When the Jews spread through the European and Arabic states in the Middle Ages, local writers and poets picked up on the tradition, and produced a massive body of literature referencing both the original Biblical stories (since these are recognized by Muslims and Christians alike) and the commentary on them. The Catholics called their own fanfics the Apocrypha, to which we owe such works as the titillating tale of Daniel, Susanna and the lecherous elders, and the great adventure of “Bel and the Dragon.”  

Stories from the ancient Greeks were generally never allowed to rest, what with their salacious plots and no copyright attached to them. Eugene O’Neil updated Aeschylus’s Oresteia for modern times and James Joyce made Ulysses (so, The Odyssey) incomprehensible forever. Famous French dramatists didn’t bother changing anything, but simply rewrote the myths for the theatre (Pierre Corneille did Médée, Andromède, and Tite et Bérénice, while Racine used up Phèdre, Andromaque and Bérénice again, among many others). 

Speaking of theatre, Shakespeare’s – not really Shakespeare’s – Romeo and Juliet have been dragged from book, to stage, to film and back to book again. Shakespeare had taken the original story from a 1562 narrative poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. But he couldn’t have felt too badly about it, because versions of the tale had popped up all over Renaissance Europe: in Boccacio’s Decameron, Salernitano’s Mariotto e Ganozza, Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeo (which he claimed was autobiographical, to boot), and Matteo Bandello’s Novelle.  

But the tale itself – the star-crossed lovers, killed by their parents’ feud – is that of Ovid. Well, not Ovid. Ovid was just the first to put his name on the retelling of the etiological myth. Pyramus and Thisbe lived in the city of Babylon, in houses separated by a wall, and were not allowed to marry because their parents were feuding. So they arranged to meet at night by Ninus’s tomb. Thisbe arrived first, but ran away from a lion who was hanging out in the cemetery. When Pyramus showed up, he concluded the lion must have eaten the whole of Thisbe without a trace (don’t ask me what he was smoking – Pyramus, not the lion) and he killed himself. Thisbe came back (attracted by the agonised gurgling, no doubt) and killed herself too. Everybody died, except the lion, but the tale became immortal. In fact, not only did Shakespeare write it up in Romeo and Juliet, he also spoofed it in the play within the play of Midsummer Night’s Dream. And then, of course, it became many other stories, like the West Side Story, with feuding gangs instead of parents, and Jan Otčenášek’s Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, set in Nazi-occupied Europe.       

Both Christopher Marlowe and, later on, Goethe, fed off the German legend of Faust. Hans Christian Andersen reworked Danish folktales for many of his fairy tales, saying that “those stories of others have entered my flesh and my blood, and I could not rest till I made them my own.” So he can’t complain about Disney marrying off his Little Mermaid. Évariste de Parny’s The War of the Gods, written during the French revolution to mock religion, featured Greek and Christian deities at war with each other, a crossover fanfic if there ever was one. Lord of the Rings bundles together Norse and German myths, but it most resembles Wagner’s The Nibelung’s Ring, so we politely say the opera’s influence on Tolkien’s work is “debated by critics.”

Examples of fanficking are so numerous, I could fill pages. But I will stop at Percy Jackson, which had come full circle to the Greek myths and spawned its own fanfic following, and Lev Grossman’s New York Times bestseller The Magicians, which jumbled together Narnia and Harry Potter, to the outrage of both books’ Goodreads fans. But shhh! That one is not a rip-off. It’s post-modernist.

So if you set out to write a fanfic, you are in good company. Although, given who is in that good company with you, you’ve got some huge borrowed shoes to fill.

About Rachel Cohen (6 Articles)
Rachel Cohen is a lawyer practicing in the field of international criminal law. Since she has to stick to the truth in her day job, when she writes fiction, she lies.

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