LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

on April 4, 2013 11:26am

This week a topic that has struck me as interesting is the concept of borrowing and/or being inspired by other authors.   In Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It we see lots of references to other stories as well as general plot lines that she borrows from other authors.  The Last of the Mohicans is used to inspire the children to wish for Indians to exist.  Even though Nesbit’s works are filled with borrowed ideas and she is referred to as “the great borrower” does that make her work any less original.  Nesbit herself is said to have been a source of inspiration for many authors, including C.S. Lewis.  J.K. Rowling herself has been quoted as saying that she pulled inspiration for others authors and Greek mythology.  Most fantasy authors will say that J.R.R Tolkien was there primary source of inspiration and that without his land of Middle Earth they would not have been able to do what they do.  Having seen all these examples I think it is pretty acceptable to say that it is all right for authors to borrow or look towards these pioneers in their fields since without these precursors in their particular genre they would not have written their own works.

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Having said this though I would like to examine the world of Fanfiction.  Fanfic is when writers… aspiring writers? … use others movies, books, video games, etc. to further the story that has been created.  For this blog I explored some Fanfiction sites and there is an enormous amount of stories ranging from topics about an alternate ending to The Hunger Games to stories about the children of the Golden Trio in Harry Potter.  Some of the stories are lackluster continuations or alterations while others seem to have nothing to do with the original text except for the character names and world.  Since I am not a Fanfiction reader I can only assume the spectrum that truly exists on these sites.  However, I do feel I can make an opinion about how I feel towards the idea of Fanfiction, which would be to let them do it.  These sites are huge and have such a large fan base that perhaps it is not a bad thing to let these people continue on a little longer in these fictional worlds they love.  On the other hand though I do think that it is important to consider how the author’s feel about Fanfiction.  George R.R. Martin the author of the series A Song of Fire and Ice has said how much he detests Fanfic and how he feels it is plagiarism to an extent.  I would normally think he is overreacting but with recent events that have gone on I think perhaps he may have a point.  Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight Saga was the inspiration for one Fanfic writer’s stories.  E.L. James’ has recently gained the spotlight for her trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a novel version of a Fanfic story she has based off of Meyer’s Twilight series.  This seems to be a little to close to copying someone else’s works for me.  Which raises the question, where is the line between inspiration and direct imitation?

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2 responses to “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

  1. viceligar says:

    I really like how you mention the influences you remember from Five Children and It. There were so many themes in Five Children and It that I can see in other children stories. Something that really stuck out at me was the theme of time. The Psammead only grants wishes with the caveat that the wishes will turn to stone at sundown. This theme of wishes only being allowed for a certain amount of hours is prevalent throughout a lot of stories. Some that initially come to mind include Cinderella, The Swan Princess, and Shrek. I am really interested in what the idea of wishes having caveats mean and only being allowed a certain amount of time means. More than just “everything comes with a price,” comes the notion that the characters will learn something from receiving something, and then it being taken away. Above all, comes the notion that “everything is not what it seems,” because the ramifications that come with a wish are simply transient and temporary.

  2. I think that your question about what the difference between inspiration and imitation is a deeply profound one, and I actually want to do several different things in my answer.

    First, I want to talk about a modern day series: the Inheritance Cycle. If you’ve read them, you know that the first book was excellent, and set up for what could have been an absolutely marvelous series of books. But then the second was not quite as good, and by the time the third and the fourth book rolled around, we ended up with Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings. (We had the elves, the dwarfs, a made up language, a semi-epic but ultimately anti-climactic battle with the super villain in which the remorseful “bad” family member chooses family over power, the now quintessential “protagonist, I am your father” [TWICE!], and the protagonist leaving the land of the story forever to set up a new era of peace and prosperity.)

    Is that inspiration, or is that imitation? Does it count that he imagined all of the details of the world? Is the fact that the plot is the same really that important? After all, it has been argued before that there are really only about ten archetypal stories that exist, and literally every story falls within that. What about the fact that Paolini spends a great deal of time exploring the concept of responsibility (Eragon didn’t choose to be a dragon rider, the dragon chose him. Does that mean that he HAS to save the world? Or can he just chill somewhere?)

    The next thing I want to talk about (I promise I’ll tie these together) is medieval intertextuality. Intertextuality is a term used to describe when medieval authors would make reference to other works in their own works. For instance, there is a scene in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” when the lady of the house is attempting to woo Sir Gawain and he is resisting her, and the lady says, “You don’t seem like the Gawain that I’ve heard about.” (paraphrase). Gawain and the rest of King Arthur’s knights exist in (at least) two traditions, the French and the English. In the English tradition, Gawain is a stalwart knight, the archetype of the chivalric code. But in the French tradition, he is a womanizing, lust driven soldier. The lady is referring, in the canonical story, to the French tradition of Gawain.

    Another thing you see in terms of medieval intertextuality is the straight up stealing of text. Authors would, quite frequently, simply lift lines right out of another work and drop them, verbatim, into their own. There were no plagiarism laws at the time, so there was nothing to stop them from doing so. At the same time, these authors were often taking old stories and doing something new with them.

    For instance, Chaucer spent the first years of his career translating Dante and reading various “great” authors, and imitating them a great deal. Eventually, he moved on to doing his own thing, having learned a great deal from them. However, even late in life, while travelling in Italy, he heard the tale of Walter and Grisilde. The tale had previously been told by Petrarch and Boccaccio (it was actually the 100th tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron). Chaucer brought it back to England and told the same tale, but he told it in a radically different way (Petrarch used it as a pamphlet to teach men how to treat their wives [the tale involves sending her kids away and telling her you had them killed, beatings, and not-quite-rape-because-she-doesn’t-say-no], but Chaucer’s rendition is almost proto-feminist).

    Is this imitation or inspiration? Should such practices be allowed? King Arthur, as we know him today, simply wouldn’t exist if copyright laws had been in effect. He does not exist in a single tale or book, he is a sprawling figure written across several centuries and several dozen writers.

    Is the only difference between inspiration and imitation a copyright? Does a copyright really protect a work from being “destroyed”? Or could lack of a copyright mean that a character can survive and grow? While it may not be canon, could it be that Harry Potter having a story written about him during his time in muggle school would simply add a facet to his character that J.K. Rowling hadn’t thought about or brought to the forefront? Does it matter if a different author writes a story? While J.K. may have invented the world, does she get to say what can and can’t be put into it? Who says I’m wrong if I imagine Professor McGonagall as having a wart on her nose or as being raised by a werewolf?

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