This is our truth, tell us yours
The divine Jem is that delicious mix of geek and goddess, with the result that she’s sometimes to be found critiquing TV series for veering too far away from the canonical texts in favour of whatever makes the scriptwriter happy.
Now, it’s a trait we share in some things. I can’t watch some of the versions of Day of the Triffids without being outraged at the way the text is reduced to a mere plot device on which the director and writer hang their ideas.
At the same time though I’m quite happy taking old songs and changing the lyrics, and not just in the usual gender and pronoun way essential to make sense of some tracks. (Although I can do a very camp version of Terry by Kirsty McColl when required with the original lyrics). So what’s the difference between, say, Sherlock’s meanders away from the original plot and my writing new verses for ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?’
In songs the idea of shifting the lyrics has a long and honourable tradition, one that I learned as soon as I heard ‘I Shall Be Released on the B side of 2-4-6-8- Motorway and noted that it had ‘additional lyrics’ by Tom Robinson. Anyone who’s ever tried to learn House of The Rising Sun on guitar from the Animals version as opposed to the version in older folk collections soon learns’ almost collateraly, about gender shifting in lyrics, too. Arguably, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a grand example of the use of canonical tales to create new fictions, and that’s a description that explains much of the medieval Arthurian literature, which was Celtic history appropriated by the paid apologists of feudal monarchs keen to legitimize their position. There are always appropriations and re-writings; the way the tale of Bendigeidfran ends up being written into the lore of the Tower of London is fascinating and an object lesson both in appropriation and assimilation.
So why do Conan Doyle fans get excited when Sherlock wanders away from canon to a new place? I’d argue that actually, it’s a product of interaction. I’ve no doubt that Chaucer went through a few versions of his tales before they were finally written down, and much of that interaction would have been verbal, instant and and ephemeral – we can only surmise it happened. In our current environment though,every fangirl or fanboi can record their views online, in public view, and the ephemeral becomes the highly visible. It’s a process that was acknowledged in Sherlock the TV series, and is exemplified by fan fiction breaking out into the mainstream, but it’s actually a very ancient tradition that is simply becoming more visible.
Now one wonders if the fangirls and fanbois will actually be happy with that idea, that they’re simply representatives of a much older tradition, and that fan fiction is not new but as old as the hills, but next time you read about the interaction between fanbois and fangirls and authors, ask yourself this. Is it possible that the Canterbury Tales was a work of fan fiction based on the Decameron and the Divine Comedy? (If you’re doing A level English lit this summer and struggling for a new angle on Chaucer you can have that one for free, even if I think it’s verging on hyperbole.) Is it possible that the various versions of the Tales were simply different iterations of the same body of work as it bounced round the various participants in a community of fans?