Are fan fiction and mythology really the same?

Tony Keen

Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—This short piece addresses some of the assumptions about the connections between Greek and Roman mythology and fan fiction that underlie this special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, arguing that the connections are not always as simple as they are sometimes made out to be.

[0.2] Keywords—Greece; Rome

Keen, Tony. 2016. "Are Fan Fiction and Mythology Really the Same?" In "The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work," edited by Ika Willis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 21.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The call for papers for this issue of Transformative Works and Cultures says, "Fan fiction is often compared to the literature of Greco-Roman antiquity." This comparison suggests that Greek and Roman retellings of mythological stories essentially are fan fiction. In 2012, someone adopting the persona of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE) posted Edward Fairfax Taylor's posthumously published 1907 translation of book 1 of Virgil's epic The Aeneid on, describing it as "A fanfic of my favourite story ever, the Iliad, written in the epic style of my favourite author ever, Homer" ( In a 2010 LiveJournal post defending the concept of fan fiction from the attacks of authors who see it as "criminal, immoral, and unimaginative," Bookshop identified the lost trilogy Achilleis of the fifth‐century BCE Athenian dramatist Aeschylus (?525/4–456/5 BCE) as "a 'missing scene' from the Iliad," and Helen, a play by Aeschylus' younger contemporary, Euripides (ca. 485–406 BCE), as "fix‐it fic of Helen's entire backstory" (

[1.2] It is easy to see the motivation for such claims. Fan fiction authors, often treated as if their work is a big joke, suitable only for being mocked at public readings, understandably seize the opportunity to argue that they are writing in a tradition that stretches way back to the Western tradition of storytelling—and to a significant extent, they are right. Writers such as Aeschylus, Euripides, and the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) regularly used characters and situations that had already been created by other hands in much the same way fan fic authors do, and as did later writers such as William Shakespeare. Yet the privileging of the idea of creating entirely original works is something that postdates the invention of copyright. Plenty of modern professional authors still enjoy working with preexisting characters, either through the use of out-of-copyright figures such as those in Victorian literature or when licensed to do so by copyright holders—hence tie‐in novels for such ongoing franchises as Star Trek (1969–), Doctor Who (1963–), and Star Wars (1977–). To attack the reuse of preexisting characters as being inherently wrong is to deny something central to the storytelling impulse.

[1.3] I want to argue here, however, that there are qualitative differences between what Greco-Roman writers did and what fan fic authors do. False equivalences risk misunderstanding texts. The implication is that the thought processes of, for instance, Virgil were similar to those of a modern fan fic writer. Entering into discussions of the connections between fan fic and mythological writings without an awareness of the differences results in less helpful discussions of both, with unpredictable effects.

2. Ground rules

[2.1] I will not be discussing here the cultural legitimacy of fan fic or of Greco-Roman mythology. This is well addressed by Ika Willis (‐andas‐fandom‐part‐1‐knowing‐the‐past/); I leave it to her and others to discuss this topic further. Rather, I want to argue that fan fic and the writing of mythology are different, but I have no interest in making any sort of case that the writing of mythology is better.

[2.2] Greco-Roman mythology, with all its many tales and multiple versions (note 1), is often seen as the archetypal megatext, a large, connected construct that encompasses multiple narratives (Kaveney 2005, 5). However, the question of the relationship between mythology and megatexts is a different issue from the relationship between mythology and fan fiction. There are ways that Greco-Roman mythology is more similar to the canonical megatexts of the modern world than it is to the fan fiction that surrounds those megatexts.

[2.3] I take it as axiomatic that myth has no existence beyond the texts (written, visual, or other) in which it is recorded. This seems obvious, but plenty of accounts of mythology seem to assume a Platonic ideal of a myth, of which the texts we have are reflections (Campbell 1949; see the discussion of this idea at Kastan 2001, 117–18). This oversimplifies the evolution of myth. Of course, there will have been a time when the stories of Odysseus or Oedipus were first told, but such moments are in most cases irrecoverable. Any attempts to do so merely create new versions. (The rare exceptions are myths such as that of Atlantis, where it is possible to read the fourth century BCE texts in which Plato invented the myth, the Timaeus and Critias—unless one believes that Plato is recording an older myth that has not survived in other texts.)

[2.4] In what follows I concentrate on examples from Greco-Roman antiquity (roughly the eighth century BCE through the fifth century CE). However, the story of Greco-Roman mythology did not end with the collapse of the western provinces of the Roman empire. That story continues today, through constant retelling—for example, the 2014 movie Hercules. There is fan fiction about Greco-Roman mythology; its existence complicates the picture argued here, but space does not allow me to fully address this topic. It is also important to make clear that what I offer in this piece are broad generalizations. There are undoubtedly exceptions to all the statements I make, but it is the general shape to which I wish to draw attention.

3. The issue of canon

[3.1] Almost all fan fiction is constructed around a central canon of texts. Even in the case of real person fiction, fandom's perception of that person forms the canon around which the fan fiction is formed. Texts generally become canonical instantly upon their release into the public arena, and they are canonical because they are produced by whomever controls the canon. An episode of Supernatural (2005–) becomes canonical the moment it is broadcast. Only the owners of the canon can add to it. In this respect, the claim sometimes made that Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–) has no canon is not entirely accurate, as there are certainly stories that are approved by the BBC, which owns the franchise and therefore controls the canon, and others that are not.

[3.2] Sometimes texts can be removed from the canon, such as the animated series of Star Trek (1973–74), which, when broadcast, was considered to be part of the original Star Trek series canon (1966–69) but which was removed from it by Gene Roddenberry's office in 1988 (note 2). Sometimes noncanon details may be made canon, such as the first name of Hikaru Sulu, first established in Vonda N. McIntyre's noncanonical Star Trek novel, The Entropy Effect (1981), but not used in any canonical text until the movie Star Trek VI:The Undiscovered Country (1991). But again, this can only happen if the canon owner permits it—though often this is a response to a buildup of momentum in favor of the noncanonical detail from the fan community, resulting in fanon, or fan-created canon, that is then accepted as canon by the franchise owner.

[3.3] Fan fiction operates in hierarchic relation to these texts. Fan fic stories generally state which fandom or fandoms they are in, and they are generally expected to conform with the established canon. If they do not—for instance, if they are set in an alternate universe (AU)—the writers are expected to make clear that they are deviating from canon. Further, fan fic writers know that future canon texts may contradict the fan fiction. There are some great Steve Rogers/Bucky fics out there, but they will be jossed (rendered canon divergent—a reference to Joss Whedon) once Captain America: Civil War (slated for 2016 release) comes out.

[3.4] Greco-Roman mythology does not have the same hierarchic relationships. The term canon is used of mythology (Edmunds 1990, 4–5). However, canon does not mean that there were fixed versions of myths, or that there was a collection of text whose contents was to be respected in the production of further texts. No ancient author is treated by other ancient authors in the same way that fan fic treats its canonical texts, not even Homer (though some modern commentators in the field of classics can get snooty about changes to canon made by modern creators, thus denying Wolfgang Petersen license allowed to Euripides or Ovid). Their texts were composed by emphasizing or deemphasizing details of other versions that were in circulation, or inventing new details. No one, not even Homer, had access to "original" versions in the way that fan fic authors can read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Holmes story or watch the pilot episode of Star Trek.

[3.5] I have suggested elsewhere that it is actually better to talk about dominant versions of myths rather than canonical versions ( Versions of myths such as Homer's of the story of Odysseus (in the Odyssey) or Sophocles' of Oedipus (in Oedipus Rex) become the versions against which other subsequent versions are reacting. However, these versions were not automatically dominant because of the circumstances in which they were produced. When Euripides changed the myth of Medea so that she, and not the Corinthians, killed her children (as we know Euripides did from an ancient commentator on his play Medea), he did not declare at the beginning that his play was an AU version of the story. Nor did this become the correct version of the myth because Euripides had written it, or because it was presented at the festival of Dionysus. It became dominant because audiences over generations took to Euripides' version, and it spread through the ancient world and was continually repeated. Community reading is taking place here, unbound by any hierarchic relationship to a canon, such as that found in fan fiction. Nor was it possible to remove texts from the canon, because a controlling force that could add and remove texts from the canon did not exist.

4. Types of story

[4.1] The nature of stories told in fan fic and mythology merits discussion. Fan fiction stories tend (and I am aware that I am generalizing here) not to be the central narratives of their megatext. They are often stories that fit between the main narratives, that retell them from a different perspective, or that spin off from them into AUs.

[4.2] It is certainly true that Greco-Roman literature has texts like this, such as Ovid's Heroides, a selection of letters from mythological heroines, or Aeneas' encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus in the days after Odysseus' visit, related by Virgil in book 3 of the Aeneid. Often, however, the stories told and retold in mythological texts are the core stories. When Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides presented their versions of the Electra myth (in Libation Bearers and two plays called Electra, respectively), they were not providing AUs or telling new episodes of the story. They were retelling the core myth. With these stories, what mythology is doing is less like fan fic and more like rebooted megatexts. Reversioning of myths is similar to the retelling of Batman's origins in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel Batman: Year One (1987), Tim Burton's movie Batman (1989), and Christopher Nolan's movie Batman Begins (2005). With the older megatexts, there are now multiple versions of some of the stories, each of which is correct in its own way. This is a similar situation to mythology, except that mythology had considerably longer to develop different versions before any were written down, and, as noted, we no longer have access to the first tellings.

5. Cultural penetration

[5.1] In her comparison of fan fiction and Latin literature (‐andas‐fandom‐part‐1‐knowing‐the‐past/), Ika Willis notes a number of similarities between the two, such as that both are produced by small communities for prestige rather than for direct financial reward. Again, there's a lot of truth in this. It is necessary to note, however, that while some mythological texts had small circulations, the cultural penetration of mythology was far greater than that of fan fiction in contemporary culture. All ancient elites were expected to be familiar with mythology (Cameron 2004, 220–24). Even those who could not read the texts would be constantly exposed to mythological images through other art forms, such as statues, temple reliefs, and public performances.

[5.2] Fan fiction does not have this sort of cultural penetration. Though more and more people are now aware of its existence, it would not be true to say that most people read it or know the stories that are told in fan fiction. In terms of cultural penetration, again, mythology resembles megatexts rather than fan fiction.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] I have set out in this article a number of ways that fan fiction and mythology differ. There are clearly links and connections, but simplistically saying that all texts retelling mythology are basically fan fiction sets up a series of false expectations in terms of how and why such texts were produced. There are respects in which mythology is a useful source of analogies for thinking about fan fiction, but sometimes it is actually a better tool for helping to explain the megatexts, and these different aspects should not be confused. (Correspondingly, there are respects in which megatexts rather than fan fic are better for explicating mythology.)

[6.2] However, although mythological texts are not fan fic, they are transformative works. This seems to me to be a better term to use, as it describes the process of creation of these works rather than implying anything about the attitudes of the writers. Euripides, Virgil, Ovid, and all the rest are taking the stories of mythology and reinventing them in new forms. Mythology and fan fiction are not the same, but they are part of the same family of derivative, transformative texts (note 3).

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] My thanks to Ika Willis for encouraging me to submit this piece and engaging in conversations with me about the concepts embodied here, and to Kate Keen for her advice on all matters related to transformative works and fan fiction.

8. Notes

1. The best reference work for the details and variants of mythological stories is March (2014).

2. Okuda and Okuda (1999, iii) state that "the final decision as to the 'authenticity' of the animated episodes, as with all elements of the show, must clearly be the choice of each individual reader." This is true, but the canon owner nevertheless makes decisions. Individuals may accept or reject those decisions, but the individual judgment does not necessarily have any effect on others in their engagement with the canon. Reading as a community practice establishes what the community defines as canon—that is, fanon.

3. See Juliette Harrisson's discussion of the relationship between fan fiction and ancient literature (‐fandom‐and‐fan‐fiction.html), which covers some of same ground I do here.

9. Works cited

Cameron, Alan. 2004. Greek Mythography and the Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books.

Edmunds, Lowell. 1990. Approaches to Greek Myth. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kastan, David Scott. 2001. Shakespeare and the Book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaveney, Roz. 2005. From "Alien" to "The Matrix": Reading Science Fiction Film. London: I. B. Tauris.

March, Jennifer R. 2014. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Oxford: Oxbow.

Okuda, Michael, and Denise Okuda. 1999. The "Star Trek" Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future. Expanded edition. New York: Pocket Books.