My Kindly master then began by saying. . .
‘That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
The other one is Horace, satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.’ . . .
And so I saw that splendid school assembled,
Led by the lord of song incomparable,
Who like an eagle soars above the rest.
-The Inferno, Canto IV 1
“This is fan fiction.”
We were in the middle of a tenth-grade literature discussion, and I don’t remember who said it. But the student was right. Most of us are familiar with the concept of fan fiction. According to Wikipedia, “fan fiction is fiction about characters from an original work or setting, created by fans of that work rather than its creator.”2 I did try to find a more authoritative source for a definition, but a) fan fiction is such a modern literary phenomena that it was hard for me to find a nice Oxford definition of it and b) most other definitions I came across fit within the Wikipedia definition.
The internet has grown fan fiction exponentially, since “fandoms” can gather around a website and share their contributions. Like any exploding genre, it has some problems. Because of copyright, it is rarely published professionally, which means it has few filtering bodies. It is often used to twist the story’s original relationships — “I always thought X and Y should get together, so I’m going to write it.” By its nature, fan fiction is rarely original, nor is it considered quality literature. Finally, it can lead those whom it influences towards escapism rather than creativity.
And yet it’s true that The Divine Comedy is, in fact, “a fiction about characters from an original work or setting, created by fans of that work rather than its creator.” The first canto reveals this. Dante writes himself into some dark woods (this is called ‘self-insertion’) and is beset by three horrible monsters. Suddenly, he sees the figure of a man.
“Have pity on me,” were the words that I cried,
“Whatever you may be—a shade, a man.”
He answered me: “Not man; I once was a man. . . .
And I was born, though late, sub Julio,
And lived in Rome under the good Augustus.”3
Dante realizes that this isn’t just any ghost, but Virgil, the author of Rome’s epic, The Aeneid. That would be like C.S. Lewis walking into the room to deliver us from the clutches of an atheist professor. An astounded Dante asks for help, and Virgil answers: to find a way out of the dark wood, Dante must follow him through Hell and then Purgatory. At the crossover to Paradise, the pagan poet promises that “a soul more worthy than I am will guide you.” So begin the adventures of The Divina Commedia with its three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
Admittedly, The Divine Comedy centers on a historical, rather than fictive character, but it qualifies for fan fiction in other ways. Dante models his work on Virgil’s fictional Aeneid, which sends Aeneas on a journey to the underworld. Further, Dante writes himself meeting various historical and fictional celebrities. Readers won’t be surprised to find Caiaphas in Hell, though they might not expect to see Odysseus confined to the eight circle as a fraudulent counselor. Moreover, all of Hell’s inhabitants are guarded by mythological greats such as the Minotaur and three-headed Cerberus.
In Purgatory, Dante encounters more notables, including Cain, as well as a host of popes and Italians more familiar to his own era. Finally, in Paradise, he sees such lights as Thomas Aquinas, the Emperor Trajan (he’s surprised at that one), the Virgin Mary, and, finally, Christ Himself.
The Divine Comedy therefore not only qualifies as fan fiction, but it’s one of its greatest examples, excepting only Virgil himself, who stole so liberally from Homer. Given fan fiction’s spotty record, how do we process this? If we require our students to read Dante, are we approving the genre? I would say yes, provided that each fan fiction work follows these criteria:
First: it should be written in high literary form. Dante wrote not only in a highly structured rhyme scheme, but his use of metaphor is second-to-none.
Second: it should be inspired by a literary classic. Dante’s model for The Divine Comedy is the Aeneid, so he’s already working with quality material.
Third: it should elevate its characters rather than degrade them. Dante doesn’t twist history by making Virgil a Christian, but he does portray the pagan poet as virtuous, courageous, and wise.
Fourth: it should offer its own plot. The Divine Comedy is original. It is Dante’s imagined journey, not a retelling of Virgil’s biography or Aeneas’ journey. Consequently, it adds to the work that inspired it, rather than twists it.
These guidelines should weed out the trash. I’d be surprised if any modern fan fiction qualifies for all four, but one never knows. Perhaps there’s a young poet out there who can bring the genre back up to Dante’s level.