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callowyn [userpic]
it's still monday somewhere
by callowyn (callowyn)
at August 9th, 2011 (02:59 am)

Title: History, Fantasy, and How Fanfiction Improves Both
Author: callowyn
Summary/Abstract/Thesis Statement: In which fanfiction is both a vehicle for political opinions and a way to make emotional connections with history.
Fic analyzed: Primarily Rewriting The Old Language by zempasuchil (Merlin)

In sorting through zempasuchil’s impressive masterlist, what struck me the most was her treatment of politics. She’s written four fics that actually fall under the category of historical RPF, dealing with the participants in revolutions both American and otherwise; the rest of her work is mostly fantasy-based fandoms. And yet in For Who So Firm, which features Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, or How To Celebrate Defeat, starring Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, her focus does not fall on the wider social movements that these men brought about, nor even the writings for which they are so famous (well, except as a vehicle for a little antagonistic flirting between Hamilton and Jefferson). Instead, she fleshes out their relationships with each other, turning the dry stuff of textbooks into people, flawed but relatable; in essence, she turns them into characters.

Such humanization is necessary for good fiction, of course—no one calls history books RPF. What I found curious is the way the opposite process seems to have taken place in so much of her fantasy writing: not that the characters are dehumanized, but that she uses them as vehicles for a broader social commentary that is very much political, in ways the historical fiction is not.

Take, for example, Rewriting The Old Language, an AU of BBC’s Merlin set in modern-day America. At the time of this fic’s writing, Merlin was only one season old, and the canon was, for the most part, a delightfully silly romp through the French British countryside, occasionally interspersed with soulful looks and acts of codependent heroism between our fearless leads. The standard for historical accuracy was set at “pigeon sandwiches.” The first season of Merlin did offer us glimpses of Camelot’s dark side, from Edwin seeking revenge on Uther for killing his sorcerous parents (1.06) to Nimueh’s revelation that Ygraine’s death was the inevitable price of magic that Uther had asked her to perform (1.09), suggesting that her machinations throughout the season were fueled by something other than simple malice, but by the end of the season Nimueh, along with all the other evil mages flitting through this season, lay dead (1.13). Albion’s status quo remained safely intact.

Or did it? zempasuchil inspects what the aftermath of Nimueh’s death would look like in the context of a true magical revolution—and, to make things even more interesting, in a context that modern American readers will find very familiar indeed. “Rewriting The Old Language” doesn’t shy away from overt referencing of current events, referring to President Uther’s anti-sorcery campaign as a “war against terror” and having Gwen’s father taken to an “off-shore prison.” Uther, to his son’s mind, is waiting, even hoping for an attack that would allow him to strike back with lethal force—much the way many people believe Dick Cheney was planning to launch a war in Iraq years before 9/11 gave the excuse to do so. The American public in this fic seems on board with the Orwellian idea that “as long as the war is being fought, things are going in the right direction,” while 1984’s modern cousin the Patriot Act lingers behind Arthur’s warning that “Everything you say is overheard; you could be misunderstood.” Even the description of Nimueh’s uplifted face on a t-shirt calls to mind the questionable legacy of Che Guevara in the United States, a revolutionary on sale at the Gap.

So why did zempasuchil choose a quintessentially British fandom through which to express her concerns about modern American politics? After all, she could just as easily have dropped Jefferson and Hamilton into the future to see what their beloved Union had become. Part of it, no doubt, is the impulse to apply her interests and expertise to whatever fandom is the current object of her obsession. (One need look no further than Comandante to see that her fondness for Latin American revolutionaries is alive and well). But there’s more at work here. Writing on the internet offers a virtually uncensored medium that can do things like call a George W. Bush stand-in a “dictator”—commentary that television, especially shows marketed for children, as Merlin is—would never dare touch. It’s often easier to explore sociopolitical issues through the lens of fantasy, an elaborate metaphor which grants distance from their very real counterparts in our world. Moreover, the nature of fanfiction guarantees an audience who, although perhaps not concerned about or aware of the same issues, can be invited to the discussion by means of the characters they already love.

Which brings me back to my comments on historical fiction: zempasuchil adds characterization and emotion to stories that would otherwise be purely political, and brings political commentary to characters that would otherwise have purely personal storylines. Thus her fic counteracts both the way culture gives us history, devoid of human content, and the way we’re given entertainment, devoid of political content. This allows her—and we as readers—to form, not only a critical, but an emotional connection to political history.


For Who So Firm, historical RPF, Hamilton/Jefferson
How To Celebrate Defeat, historical RPF, Engels/Marx
Rewriting The Old Language, Merlin, gen
Comandante, Supernatural, gen


Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 9th, 2011 11:54 pm (UTC)

I would definitely give this essay an A+! I like the distinctions you draw between straight history and rpf, and also I like the discussion of the potential of fantasy to dig into bigger issues, because this is my most favorite thing about fantasy.

Moreover, the nature of fanfiction guarantees an audience who, although perhaps not concerned about or aware of the same issues, can be invited to the discussion by means of the characters they already love.
I had not thought of it quite like this but of course you are right!

Posted by: callowyn (callowyn)
Posted at: August 9th, 2011 11:59 pm (UTC)

<3! I had vague thoughts about the lack of historical accuracy in Merlin, and how the portrayal of its time period helps or hinders its usefulness as a metaphor, but the only thing that made it out of that train of thought was the bit about pigeon sandwiches. I mean, Merlin clearly isn't trying to be true to history.


Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 12:02 am (UTC)

Nooo, Merlin is basically going out of its way to be ahistorical. I AM NOT SURE WHAT THIS SAYS, but I kind of like it? Also, it means that we can have the Idealistic Ruler thing held up instead of, you know, typical early medieval monarchs.


Posted by: callowyn (callowyn)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)

Like all myths, it's been retold in a way that modern society will relate to and care about. It's sort of already a reflection of the way we see things like government and class and discrimination etc, but fans aren't afraid to GO THERE the way television is. Z has just unclouded the mirror, as it were.

Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)

In some ways I wish the show would go there! I want some more exploration of the way that Morgana is just perpetuating the oppression she hates and also is not super revolutionary, though fandom does love her that way.

Posted by: callowyn (callowyn)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)

Yeah! We all see revolutionary parallels that frankly I don't think are there, the same way I believe Show wants us to accept Morgana as being Evil™ now (why yes, I am still angry with how that was handled). The intent of the showmakers doesn't necessarily limit fans in interpreting things however the hell they want, but it is disheartening when such good opportunities to make a point are wasted.

Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 12:17 am (UTC)

Yeah, I agree! This is very pro-establishment.

I wish Morgana had gotten more screentime but honestly I feel that her character has been 100% consistent. Morgana: willing to kill people to fulfill personal vengeance plans since very early on!

Posted by: callowyn (callowyn)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 12:32 am (UTC)

That's true! I always forget 1.12 happened. Part of my ongoing problem with Merlin is the way so few of their actions end up having consequences—with every episode their reasons and methods for reestablishing the status quo become more ridiculous, and ultimately, I think, less interesting to watch. Maybe SPN has spoiled me in terms of the ~feeeelings~ we can expect from characters, but Morgana's bizarre remorselessness about hurting Arthur and especially Gwen read as totally OOC to me—her original issues with Uther stemmed from too much empathy with the people he caused to suffer! True, she's not the most aware when it comes to what her actions do to others, and yes, I'm sure she thinks everything she does is justified, but I still need some explanation, any at all, about what happened that year that she doesn't feel guilt about what she's doing now. ROBOMORGANA, ANYONE?

Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 11th, 2011 12:00 am (UTC)

They do have a totally ridiculous fondness for the reset button! GUYS. MERLIN SHOULD ONLY BE ABLE TO BE OBVIOUSLY MAGICAL SO MANY TIMES.

Idk, I think it's fair. I think Morgana has always divided people into Us vs Them, and once Uther became a Them and Morgause was the Us it wasn't long before Gwen and Arthur got shafted--I think she sees that they have Sided With Uther, and therefore she's willing to fight against them. Plus, she wants Arthur's throne.

Posted by: callowyn (callowyn)
Posted at: August 11th, 2011 03:27 am (UTC)


I guess so. I mean, I definitely understand her trying to hurt Arthur, he's directly in her path to power and also sort of a dick. I just get so upset on Gwen's behalf! SHE WAS THEIR FRIEND.

Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 13th, 2011 02:53 am (UTC)


NO I KNOW. I AM TOTALLY NOT RATIONAL ABOUT GWEN I AM JUST LIKE GWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEN. But idk, I think their class statuses have always been between them. Even in the ep where Gwen's dad dies it becomes all about Morgana's feelings, you know?

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