Monday Musing: Modern Myths

I’ve spent the last two months binge watching nearly every season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season 6 sadly got sent to a different address, forcing me to wait and watch the series out of order. I’ve seen every episode at least a few times, so no surprise is ruined. (Since I’ve bought my DVD sets, I’ve watched a few episodes a few times.) There is a certain satisfaction to watching the series of out sync, something akin to looking through photo album and remembering your life out of order.

Watching these episodes, I find myself more caught up in the world of BtVS. I certainly need more that the 7 seasons. I’ve found myself reading though the whedonwiki (after Joss Whedon, the creator of BtVS and the series Angel), hyperlinked episode guides, but mostly a lot of fan fiction.

Fan fiction as a genre is fairly well examined, although there are plenty of debates about what counts as fan fiction. Satire or works such as The Wide Sargasso Sea don’t really seem to cut it. The earliest clear instance of fan fiction may be Sherlock Holmes related stories. Apparently after Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in 1893, fans of the detective wrote tales of the Baker Street Irregulars, the street urchins that Holmes and Watson would turn to for information. It’s at least a century old. Contemporary fan fiction seems to have really taken off with Star Trek.

The effect of a work of fan fiction is simple. The fan of a television show, comic book, movie, etc. becomes a producer of the stories set in these worlds and not merely a consumer of them. That’s pretty straightforward. Another effect is that the storylines spin out of control, series become inconsistent and characters’ personalities follow arcs that seem at odds with that of the originals.

Fan fiction is not the only genre to suffer from inconsistencies. The other genre with similar problems, perhaps virtues is comics. Apart from a few foundational moments, it’s impossible to tell the history of Batman, for example. Part of this stems from the fact that many stories are written by many writers over the decades since the Batman character first appeared.

Verification becomes a problem in these universes. Being works of fiction we can only look to the texts themselves, and inconsistencies become contradictions when we try to a sense of what happened in a story universe. Movies, cartoon, and video games only compound the problem.

In the case of comic books, there are attempts every so often to try to re-write the history of the hero’s universe. The fact of the contradictions are faced head-on, but with a multi-universe caveat, and some authoritative “smoothing” is carried out. The results seem more confusing than the problem. With fan fiction, the studio or the author declares a canon, with everything outside being non-canonical. Of course, the “canon” is not a legal category, and ultimately it’s left to the community of readers to “decide”, as it were.

Fan fiction and comic books point to two opposing tendencies, one associated with antiquity and the other with modern narratives. At least that was my impression when I started plowing through some of the Buffy fan fiction and was hit with the lists of story synopses that were incompatible with each other. I got that sense largely because of a passage from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which I’d been reading recently.

Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture. But in each of these lives and death all the others are present, and we can hear their echo. Only when we become aware of a sudden consistency between incompatibles can we say we have crossed the threshold of myth. Abandoned in Naxos, Ariadne was shot dead by Artemis’s arrow; Dionysus ordered the killing and stood watching, motionless. Or: Ariadne hung herself in Naxos, after being left by Theseus. Or: pregnant by Theseus and shipwrecked in Cyprus, she died in childbirth. Or: Dionysus came to Ariadne in Naxos, together with his band of followers; they celebrated a divine marriage, after which she rose into the sky, where we still see her today amid the northern constellations. Or: Dionysus came to Ariadne in Naxos, after which she followed him around on his adventures. Sharing his bed and fighting with his soldiers; when Dionysus attacked Perseus in the country near Argos, Ariadne went with him, armed to fight amid the ranks of the crazed Bacchants, until Perseus shook the face of Medusa in front of her and Ariadne was turned to stone. And there she stayed, a stone in a field.

Only when we become aware of a sudden consistency between incompatibles can we say we have crossed the threshold of myth. And if there’s a sign that Holmes, Batman, Kirk, Picard, Dax, Faith, Spike, the others all crossed the threshold of myth, it may be this in the structure of their narratives and the feeling of consistency between incompatibles that you find reading fan fiction.