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Theocritus and Fan Fiction: Idylls 8 and 9

Nita Krevans

In this paper I argue that the Theocritean bucolic idylls create a distinctive imaginary world that both models and invites reader participation in the creation of new episodes—fan fiction.  Payne (2006) has demonstrated that Theocritus constructs a new literary space with its own setting, characters, plots, and social conventions.  Fantuzzi (2006) argues that Theocritus'  "cooperative readers" adhere to a "fixed series of 'constants' in setting and characters", and Bernsdorff (2006) identifies such constants in Theocritus' earliest imitators.  While these 'constants' (including character names and histories) can provide fertile ground for disruptive allusion in the case of later pastoral authors like Virgil (Hubbard 1998), the corpus of Theocritus includes two idylls almost universally identified as early, largely uncritical reworkings of the genuine bucolic idylls: 8 and 9.

These idylls have attracted little attention outside of the obligatory echtheitskritik (but see Piacenza 1994; Fantuzzi 1998).  Yet in their relationship to the genuine bucolic idylls they represent an intriguing version of the modern phenomenon of fan fiction.  Jenkins (1992), in his seminal study of amateur additions to the Star Trek corpus, outlines the key factors which make fan fiction possible: a coherent, distinctive fictional universe; multiple episodes featuring repeating characters; a set of clearly apprehensible rules governing the universe; a media platform that allows fans to share contributions to that universe.

Like scifi/fantasy authors such as Gene Roddenberry, J. K. Rowling, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, Theocritus is a superlative worldbuilder.   His pastoral 'universe' is artificial, attractive, and distinctive—it even has its own dialect and technical terms (e.g. boukoliazomai).  Imitators can enter this world by invoking its 'canon' (fans' collective understanding of plot, characterization, social norms, etc., inferred from the source text).  The Theocritean bucolic idylls seem almost to demand fan fiction, because they constantly insist that the boundary between audience and author is permeable.  Urban poets step into the pastoral world (Id. 7); rustic audience members are identified as potential performers (Id. 1.1-3; 4.29-30; 7.35-38; 10.23-38); amoebean song requires characters to alternate roles as listener and composer and to rewrite 'source texts' (Id. 5, 6, 7).

In the pseudo-Theocritean Idylls 8 and 9, early fans appropriate the setting, social structure, dialect, and characters from the genuine idylls.  Both poems feature Daphnis, the mythic neatherd who dies for love in Idyll 1.  In 8, Daphnis defeats Menalcas in a poetic contest and marries Nais.  In the clumsier 9 (pace Piacenza 1994; "hackwork", Gow 1952), Daphnis and Menalcas exchange songs and receive gifts.

Each poem includes elements common in fan fiction.  Idyll 8 is a 'prequel' starring a youthful Daphnis (8.3; 8.81; 8.88; cf. Idyll 6).  This anteriority allows the author to replace the tragic Daphnis of Idyll 1 with a happy bridegroom (8.93).   (Fans often rewrite unhappy endings; consider Aeneid 13 or the 1681 King Lear.)  Idyll 9 may be our earliest preserved example of a 'Mary Sue'.  Fan communities use this term to condemn fan fiction that distorts the canonical source into a wish-fulfillment fantasy starring an idealized representation of the author.   Here, the author violates Theocritean canon by confusing his roles as narrator and character, by awarding gifts to the singers (in canonical examples singers exchange gifts), and by appending his own song to the matched songs of the mythic performers.  Trumping Daphnis' song is as implausible and unpersuasive as the Star Trek 'Mary Sue' who singlehandedly saves the Enterprise.

Idylls 8 and 9 are the first in a long line of professional and amateur fan fictions (Simonova 2012) set in Theocritus' bucolic universe.  Each fan addition expands that universe: 8 builds from Theocritus; 9 builds from 8; Virgil treats both 8 and 9 as 'canon'.  Viewing pastoral through this lens may help explain two puzzling features of pastoral: its unstable generic structure, which privileges content over form, and its long association with authorial role playing (the 'bucolic masquerade'; Kooster 2011).

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Hellenistic and Neoteric Intertexts

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