Last week we were looking at the ways in which some twentieth-century texts used the tropes and motifs of medieval romance but mixed them up in new ways. This had us asking questions about the ways in which fantasy can rewrite quests and king’s sons and fairies and magic in contexts that interrogate ideas about good government, identity and otherness, the role of the arts and the nature of madness, and the truthful lies that are the core of all fiction. The traditions that surround the story of Arthur have some of these themes and ideas already evident; even the very earliest glimpses of a medieval Arthur are connected to ideas about the relationship between a people and its leaders and the defence of land and identity. As the story develops into a huge body of works in the later Middle Ages, the complexity of these ideas becomes evident: what makes a good king (a question we have already seen addressed in Beowulf), and how can he be identified? How can a person discover and maintain an honourable way of life which answers to the needs of both the individual and the community? Is it possible to defend a realm against the most dangerous threat of all: human relationships and their propensity to end in disaster?
Modern Arthurian fantasy approaches these in a number of ways. Some texts are focused upon the nature of leadership in its varying contexts, others on working through the implications of combining the natural with the supernatural, the very human with powers that go not only beyond the human but at times slip into the realms of the sub-human. The basic story has been rewritten from different perspectives and placed in varying contexts of time and place, while its characters – always available for ‘spin-off’ romances even in the medieval period – may be altered in numerous ways or even replaced by completely new characters.
These kinds of operations on the Arthurian story mirror many of the workings of fan fiction, with its emphasis on a canon to which all its productions relate. And, usefully, fanfic writers have developed a series of terms to explain the transformations which are performed in each of their appropriations. You can find an extensive list of them here. These constitute a descriptive vocabulary which reveals each new work as located on the circumference of a circle whose canonical centre necessarily both defines and rejects them. They are not canon, but they are meaningless without it, and in return they also make it visible as they circulate around it.
Hence this model and its terminology are particularly useful for us when thinking about fandoms in relation to the reworkings of Arthurian fantasy. That there is a canon of Arthurian legend, and a group of people who build and develop upon it – and, increasingly, interact around it – is evident. We will be looking at the ways in which this happens in a couple of texts this week, and some of the same issues will follow us into the consideration of Merlin too. In the meantime, however, think about the ways in which you could apply the terminology to your reading. Are you, for example, dealing with OCs? Is the text set in an AU or AR? Can Arthur and Guenevere really be thought of as the OTP of the story? And is it possible to sidestep the fact that the canon is at base a deathfic? This is more than just gimmicky: it opens up the possibilities of some questions which, without this context, we might not have thought to ask.