I originally intended to write a post about the hyper-rigidity of fantasy and science fiction fans. I’ve read my fair share of theoretical analyses of fictional works, and generally speaking, all theories are beholden to a canonical standard in their analysis – no suppositions can be made outside of what is officially accepted and sanctioned by the author – the creator. The text is fixed with copyright laws, and the story is fixed by the veneration of a fandom. Movie adaptations are harshly judged on their adherence to the canon, and anyone who takes up a story element without explicit credit is derailed for “stealing” from the canon, as though the derivation constituted heresy.
I don’t put a lot of store in the sacredness of fictional canon. I don’t mind when movies alter the story to fit the medium of film (though I do mind when they alter the story and make it worse). It’s a modern convention to apply this standard to contemporary works of fiction while our contemporary authors freely borrow from the ancient past without mention. In the Ancient/Medieval/Renaissance traditions, the opposite was true. Authors venerated their forebears as creative authorities, and then borrowed freely from their own contemporaries without so much as a note in the margin. Originality wasn’t a concern for Chaucer, Boccacio, Dante, and the like, as they happily drew from folk tales and from other authors and poets. Likewise, myths could be used and reused, as they belonged not to any one author, but to a culture of people.
And even then, they made changes. Even the most venerable of ancient myths show up in a variety of forms throughout ancient and medieval literature. Myths are living texts, designed to grow and change through the retelling. While there is an almost canonical cultural identity unifying myths, they’re often conceived as “cycles” that allow for variations on central themes, divergence of details, and even contradictory accounts of the same events. The Irish Fionn mac Cumhaill has several death stories, all of which “count” (including one theory that suggests he’s still alive). All of which suggests to me that treating a piece of fiction as a concretized, canonical source is an utterly limited way to view stories and storytelling.
But then I thought of Cuchulainn, another Irish mythological hero, and suddenly my thoughts were more complicated. In particular, I thought of this statue in the Dublin Post Office:
And then this mural in Belfast:
And I’m conflicted. I’m no expert on the topics of Irish mythology or the conflict in Northern Ireland (and there are plenty of places to find a better analysis of this controversial mural), but it just feels wrong to see Cuchulainn with a Union Jack. The UDA’s use of the Irish Achilles isn’t just a variation on a theme – it’s a radical recasting. It feels like it shouldn’t count.
I don’t bring this up to start a political debate, but to instead suggest that perhaps there’s a reason to strictly protect characters, images, and stories, and that my desire to allow for new versions of a story to “count” may not be as simple as it originally seemed to me.