Fanfiction, or fiction about the characters or world of an existing work written by a fan of that work rather than its creator, predates the internet — and acclaimed, respected writers have been writing it for a long, long time. There is a storied and illustrious history of transformative works reinventing and reinterpreting literature, and modern fanfiction is the literary descendant of everyone from Shakespeare to Alan Moore. Before you delete that FanFiction.net profile or purge that Archive of Our Own page, let’s review a few of history’s most prestigious published precursors.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Paradise Lost — a retelling of the Biblical Fall that turns Bible antagonist Satan into a conflicted anti-hero — is one of the greatest works in all of literature while being technically fanfiction. Milton (huge Bible fan) was both exploring and critiquing his source text while filling in some of its blanks himself. For instance, the fallen angels aren’t just Biblical background extras anymore — they have names and everything! Milton was really creative about it, too, naming them after pagan deities like Moloch and Osiris. Some of the fanon (canon created by fans) aspects of Paradise Lost, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden actually being Satan in disguise, are even today commonly accepted as canon. Can you imagine your fanfic overriding the literal Word of God?
Dante’s Divine Comedy
If Paradise Lost was the first fictional Bible spin-off, Dante’s Divine Comedy was the first self-insert Bible fanfic. In it, Dante imagines what it would be like to to go on a personalized one-on-one tour of heaven, hell, and purgatory. His guide through heaven is an OC named Beatrice, who might be the original manic pixie dream girl, and his guide through hell and purgatory is none other than Virgil. That’s right. Dante wrote RPF in which he got to become best friends with his favorite poet.
The Aeneid by Virgil
Virgil probably wouldn’t have minded, though, considering he himself was a major Homer fanboy. His poem The Aeneid was an unauthorized sequel to The Iliad, written deliberately in Homer’s style. Virgil, being Roman, decided to make the Greek story of the Trojan War all about Rome with a new Mary Sue character called Aeneas, prophesied to escape Troy in order to go on to found a great empire that will rule the entire world forever. Yeah, okay, Virgil…
Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Thousands of years later, acclaimed feminist writer Margaret Atwood put her own twist on Homer with her novel The Penelopiad, which retells The Odyssey from the POV of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. In taking over as narrator rather than a mostly-off-screen character, Penelope gets the chance to set the record straight regarding some of our ‘misconceptions’ about her, her husband, and his Odyssey (not to mention Helen, who is pretty much The Worst from Penelope’s perspective — but that, of course, is only one fan’s interpretation of her character).
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Another acclaimed feminist reinterpretation of a pre-existing classic work is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which functions as both a prequel and a parallel narrative to Jane Eyre. The first half of the book is narrated by the girl who will become Bertha Mason (the ‘madwoman in the attic’) when she’s still a young Creole girl named Antoinette, living in the Caribbean. Her oppressive, controlling new husband — Rochester himself — narrates the second half of the book, providing some fascinating new insights on Jane Eyre pre-Jane. Fanfiction at its best!
Grendel by John Gardner
Similarly to Wide Sargasso Sea, John Gardner’s Grendel retells a classic story from the perspective of someone made out to be a monster in the original work. But in this case, ‘monster’ is meant literally, since Grendel retells Beowulf from the POV of the titular villain — turning him into a tragic anti-hero much like Milton did with Satan. And with that, we’ve come full-circle!
A few additional respected, critically-acclaimed works of literature that are derived from earlier sources include Dorian by Will Self (a 20th century AU of The Picture of Dorian Gray), A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman or House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, both following a long and storied tradition of Sherlock Holmes pastiche (a question to ponder: why is Sherlock Holmes fanfiction only taken seriously when middle-aged men are the ones writing it?), and of course, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore (the ultimate fantasy AU and RPF crossover).
What did we leave out? What’s your favorite classic work of literature that could actually be considered fanfic? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured Image Credit: Life of Leo