Only connect…

Much of what has been discussed in this blog and the seminars has been all about connections – between texts, between authors, between readers and between people in wider communities of consumption and reception (where texts morph into films, songs, games and other stories). Those connections may be made through shared ideas, motifs, plots, characters or forms, creating new relationships which go far beyond the simple binaries of source/derivative, ancestor/descendant or even original/copy. If nothing else, I hope that it has thoroughly unsettled any assumptions about the possibility of really ‘original’ work and raised some questions about how such assumptions may be premised on the need for texts as distinct commodities which can be packaged and sold.

The ‘only connect’ phrase made famous by E. M Forster, however, in his novel Howard’s End, refers to a need for the individual to connect ‘the prose and the passion’ within, ‘the beast and the monk’ which represent extremes of the fragmented self: unbridled sexuality and complete denial of it. In connection, both cease to exist, and are transformed together into something else entirely: the potential for love. This seems to me to also be a description of the kind of process which fantasy often dramatises, not merely in the case of heroes who find (out about) themselves through both physical and spiritual journeys, but also in their interactions with the monstrous. It is not uncommon for fantasy protagonists to take on their extreme opposites only to find that they have more in common than they think – or to discover that disposing of the beast involves their own demise. Harry Potter is merely the latest in a long line of heroes who must make the ultimate sacrifice; note that Harry’s adult self, one finally capable of unselfish, mature love, arises out of the combination and demise of his child self (not monkish, perhaps, but certainly pre-sexual despite Harry’s crushes and kisses) and his monstrous other (the Dark Lord who has been very much less than human for most of Harry’s life, and is strongly associated with that most phallic of creatures: the snake). Right back where we started this discussion, Beowulf appears destroying a series of monsters: Grendel, who has been described as Beowulf’s ‘alter ego’; Grendel’s Mother, the monstrous, sexualised feminine challenge to Beowulf’s hypermasculinity and apparent asexuality; the dragon, whose instinct to hoard treasure alone is the extreme opposite to Beowulf’s role as a distributor of treasure in the community, and whose death is bought at the expense of Beowulf’s own life. [For modern fantasy takes on Beowulf and monstrosity, don’t forget Gaiman’s ‘Baywolf’ (the short story in Smoke and Mirrors) and ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ (the novella he wrote as a kind of sequel to American Gods, available from me if you’re interested).]

The kinds of connections that we make among fantasy texts, however, tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the texts. We connect things we already know, and shift them into patterns that respond to our desires for impossible challenges that can nevertheless be overcome, lofty destinies that are also products of our own actions and will, and that most unlikely and popular of outcomes: the happy ending! And fantasy can offer the reader the chance to ‘play’ the hero – both in the sense of occupying the hero’s subject position and in terms of moving the hero through the story, an active role which can then be expressed more strongly in the production of fanfic. Within fandoms, connections often (and rapidly) become codified into themes (hurt/comfort), exaggerated character traits (evil!Merlin) and storylines (the death of Arthur) that can be endlessly reproduced in varying combinations, but also then subverted all over again. Crossover fanfic is a good example of a sometimes peculiar but often strangely successful connection, bringing separate fictional worlds and characters into contact and producing something both new and hybrid as a result. The organisation of readers into fan communities often serves to privilege certain sets of connections, but this does not prevent other connections from being made.

Readers (and essay-writers) looking to connect sets of texts, both medieval and modern, need to remember that connections can operate on a number of levels and in relation to a range of textual features. In making those connections, however, it is worth first thinking through what kind of connection you are making, and then giving some consideration to the impositions that your own connective patterns and desires may place upon the texts. Make sure that you can argue your case thoroughly and through close reference to the texts in question; be alert to the ways in which shared language might lead you to connections which might otherwise be less obvious. And while there is no need to connect ‘prose with passion’ in an essay, thorough engagement with the material you discuss is always a good thing!

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