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9 - Poaching Romance: Fan Fiction Theory and Shared Medieval Narratives

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 October 2022

Victoria Flood
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
Megan G. Leitch
Affiliation:
Cardiff University
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Summary

By current critical understanding of the aesthetic difference between high and popular romance, authors like Thomas Chestre (fourteenth century) and the anonymous authors of The Greene Knight (c. 1500), Torrent of Portyngale (c. 1400) and Sir Gowther (mid to late fifteenth century) can only fail to impress. Chestre's work has seemed unfocused and amateurish, while the Greene Knight appears to academic audiences as a bad misunderstanding of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But if we use a different critical lens – that of fan fiction – we might reorient our approach to what motivates people to write and tell stories in the late Middle Ages. Modern fan fiction theory is a useful way of illuminating how medieval popular romance works because it helps to move us past modern notions of both textual authority and writing for profit, although it is also necessary not to collapse all distinctions between medieval literature and modern fan texts. Using Henry Jenkins’ theory of ‘textual poaching’, authors like Chestre look rather more like ‘readers who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests’. Chestre's work, Torrent, and the Greene Knight engage with new social interests or produce fan-friendlier versions of difficult or ambiguous narratives; Sir Gowther links romance to apocalyptic eschatology through the figure of Merlin. All four participate in a popular view of history as something organised around and by chivalry and chivalric identity. I will argue that to some extent this will not be a new apparatus, but a shifting of focus, partly concerning authorial intention and partly concerning perceived aesthetic effect. Fan fiction, then, offers a new way to interpret the radical translation into the vernacular – of earlier aristocratic ethos, of eschatological prediction – represented by late Middle English romance, where the focus becomes the entertaining of both one's self and one's audience. Textual poaching imagines a diegetic field – a body of story – as a game preserve, bordered and guarded. The fan fiction writer defies authority in order to translate material across those borders. Jenkins’ other term for fan fiction practitioners is, after all, ‘nomads’.

Fan fiction is different from adaptation, although they share significant features. The idea of textual poaching has been expanded and questioned. Juli J. Parrish argues that fan fiction writers ‘reimagine the preserve itself’, the landscape in which the poaching takes place transformed by their activity.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2022

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