Intrinsically Intertextual Inspirations

I nearly called this post “Faith and Fiction” and then remembered I already had a post called that and it is not this post. I’ve reached a point where I’ve been blogging long enough that I’m running out of titles. Or maybe I’m just not thinking creatively enough – which I guess is possible.

Over the past couple of years of studying English Literature I’ve become increasingly aware how much you need to know to be able to understand a lot of literature, because it relies so much on referencing other things. Sometimes, books reference Shakespeare. (Quite a lot, actually.) So it helps to be able to tell your Hamlet from Macbeth and work out what Twelfth Night is. But more often, they reference religious texts.

And because we’re talking about English Literature and for a very large percentage of the time in which these texts were written, England was a Christian country, ‘religious texts’ refers to the Bible. Or, you know, things associated with it.

Because you read the Bible, but then they’re also referencing the Apocrypha because they’re Catholic or something, or maybe they’re talking about angels and the main place to find that is in the book of Enoch, which is an extrabiblical text … and then you think it’s going to be from the Bible, but it turns out it’s actually from Dante’s Inferno or something, and unless you’ve got an intimate knowledge of Every Piece Of Important Literature Ever, you’re gonna miss some of the references.i understood that reference

There’s a reason a lot of universities put The Bible on recommended reading lists for English Literature courses – because it doesn’t matter if you believe it. People throughout the centuries have been drawing on these stories and ideas under the assumption that their readers will know what they’re talking about.

In GCSE English, we studied The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Obviously, it’s set in a super religious society. Off the top of my head, though, there’s a line about “Remember what the angel Raphael said to the boy Tobias,” and unless you know who they are, that’s fairly nonsensical. Well, it harks back to the Book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha, with Raphael being the archangel who looks after Tobias when he goes on a journey, but you have to know that.

At AS we discussed how Hamlet’s religious beliefs impact on his actions – how his fear about his father’s ghost isn’t just a simple, “But what if it’s not him?” but rather, “But my religion says purgatory doesn’t exist so he cannot be a ghost which means it’s a demon come to trick me into committing murder – unless my religion is wrong. So now I’m going to have an existential crisis instead of just doing what he said.” Understanding why that is totally changes how you view his actions.

you know it all makes sense now

It’s at times like this that I really appreciate being brought up in a Christian family, because it means that I tend to pick up on the use of religious imagery in poems, and I’ll understand a concept that’s referenced or the symbolism of a Biblical name that’s used in a novel. A lot of what I know, though, isn’t from standard church attendance.

A couple of years ago I was writing an apocalyptic novel, so I spent a lot of time researching angels (and ended up reading the Book of Enoch which was … illuminating). On a similar note, because of my poem Urban Angels, a 2.5k poem that’s included in Crossroads Poetry, I now know the difference between different types of angels, and I’ve figured out what the seraphim actually are. Or at least, I did know. I’ve mostly forgotten again.

I’m reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People at the moment, for fun, because I’m a total nerd, and a lot of that revolves around miracles and healing and penance and visions – when it’s not dissing the Irish for celebrating Easter at the wrong time. So when in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Angel says that “faith was a living thing” in the medieval period (I’m paraphrasing, but he’s basically insulting the state of the Victorian church), I concluded that as an educated man he’d probably have read Bede and similar works. He’s thinking about these miracles as much as about the illuminated manuscripts that survived.

I don’t know about the Anglo-Saxon Church because I was taught it – I know about it because I’m a nerd – but it helps a lot in situations like this. I know he’s probably not thinking about witch hunts and persecution and thinking it’d be better if we treated people that way: he’s thinking about the church Bede describes, where miracles were regular occurrences but people fasted and punished themselves and dedicated their lives to God.

And, you know, there are other things I pick up on with my reading that aren’t to do with Christianity. I pick up on folklore and mythological references, imagery reminiscent of legends. Once I said that a description reminded me of Blodeuwedd, and then had to explain to the class who that was. Some of what I know is history, so I know what happened, but most of what I know is literature.

booksPlus, I’ll use any excuse to utilise a Black Books gif.

I think the thing that you have to remember when reading is that no book exists in a vacuum. Just as YA fiction now might involve pop culture references, drawing on images from TV and films that the vast majority of people would understand, fiction has always taken influence and inspiration from what people knew. If what people knew was myth, it was myth. If it was religion, it was religion. If it was theatre, it was theatre.

(I’m not saying YA fiction never references Biblical or mythological or Shakespearean imagery. They do. I do. There’s stuff about Hamlet dotted around in The Quiet Ones and book six of the Death and Fairies series is structured as a five-act revenge tragedy would be structured in Jacobean theatre because that was what worked – or was when I did that draft. And I just told you I wrote a poem about angels and an apocalyptic novel for which I did a lot of research and read a lot of Biblical stuff.)

In a perfect world, we’d all have infinite time and would be able to sit there and read every text that might possibly have influenced any writer. We’d read the Bible and everything that goes along with it. We’d read the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid. We’d read the Mabinogion and the Tain and the poetic and prose eddas. We’d read the complete works of Shakespeare – and probably more recent writers too, like Dickens and Austen and the Brontes, because they’re always alluded to.

And then we’d pick up any ‘classic’ and we’d feel like a total smartass for getting the references. Hooray. Brownie point for us for having years of knowledge in order to comprehend a single throwaway sentence.

i understand everything

To some extent, that’s all it is – to feel clever. But it can also enhance a book a great deal. I enjoyed Brighton Rock a lot more when I understood the metaphors it was using, which I initially didn’t pick up on because I haven’t read Faustus and I’m not a Catholic.

And reading modern texts that reference older ones can make you appreciate the source material all the more. I got into Hamlet originally because of Maggie Stiefvater using it in Ballad, even if I disagree with her interpretation. (Ophelia didn’t kill herself.)

So I guess what I’m trying to say is: it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, but reading the Bible can be really useful. As can reading epic poems and obscure myths and occasionally, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. But only if you’re prepared to put up with him going on and on about when Easter should be every five pages because, uh, he does that. Like, the whole way through.

It’s pretty entertaining after a while. Or I think it is. Because I’m a nerd. I think I mentioned that bit.

17 thoughts on “Intrinsically Intertextual Inspirations

  1. Someday, I’ll read the entire Bible… I want to read the Koran too. But anyway, yeah, I’ve studied religions in general, but I would like to read their holy books. It’s helpful for understanding stories and people in general.
    Nice post! :)

    • I haven’t read the whole Bible. A lot of it. I’ve read from the beginning as far as halfway through Psalms, and a handful of the prophets, and pretty much all of the New Testament (plus Tobit and Enoch because why not). But that still leaves the rest of the prophets and stuff that I’m too lazy to get around to reading, heh. Still, I have a pretty good grasp on the ideas and stories that are there.

      (I’ve also read most of the Aeneid and the Iliad, which is always useful, plus the Tain, and the poetic and prose eddas. Only got halfway through the Mabinogion though. Got a pretty good grounding in Shakespeare, but there’s a lot still to read, and there’s a lot of contemp. plays like Faustus and all that which I keep meaning to read but haven’t yet. Sigh.)

      I think basically I’m trying to say that I’m a well-read nerd who could always be more well-read and is working on it.

  2. Nope. Don’t understand. I AM AN UNCULTURED WRITER THAT IS FOR SURE. I just…classics and long texts and intricate detailed things (like Shakespeare) I just don’t get them. It’s like my eyeballs are trying to read the alphabet backwards. I’ve always felt like a bit of a dodgy writer because of this (never read Shakespeare. I’ve read the fully Bible but I didn’t understand any of it! Except for, well, Jesus tells Lazarus he pongs. That was funny). But it’s nice to know I’m in the presence of such cultured and intelligent nerds. Huzzah.

  3. It also certainly helps to be a huge Greek mythology buff, because those old text sure do through in a lot of random Greek stuff. I want to read the whole Bible one day. I’ve read most of the new testament, but still not a lot of the old. Just viewing it as a story, it’s really fantastic. I always laugh when people say that Christians think we’re better than everyone else, because if you just read the Bible, you would understand that we think we’re crap. The first time I started reading the Bible, I was like, “These people were horrible!”

    • The Old Testament is full of violence and sex, to be honest. No idea why people think it’s dull.

      Yeah, Greek mythology’s useful. Hellenic imagery is everywhere in literature.

  4. Some questions on your post that I’m really curious to hear your (or anybody else’s, for that matter) response to:

    “In a perfect world, we’d all have infinite time and would be able to sit there and read every text that might possibly have influenced any writer. ”
    Why, in your opinion, would this be an element of a perfect world?

    Maybe you just said that as “a throwaway” line, but that actually leads me to another quote and quite a few more questions:

    “And then we’d pick up any ‘classic’ and we’d feel like a total smartass for getting the references. Hooray. Brownie point for us for having years of knowledge in order to comprehend a single throwaway sentence

    To some extent, that’s all it is – to feel clever. But it can also enhance a book a great deal. I enjoyed Brighton Rock a lot more when I understood the metaphors it was using, which I initially didn’t pick up on because I haven’t read Faustus and I’m not a Catholic.”

    Is enjoying books a major goal in life? Is a deeper understanding of human, written expression something always to be valued? Is everything worth reading, understanding, and connecting to?

    I know this touches on a lot. Maybe to much for a blog comment. But…*shrugs* I was just so curious that I figured worth a shot!

    • It would be a perfect world for me because I like reading books, so having infinite reading time would be great. But I didn’t mean much by the comment. :)

      As for the idea of enjoying books, I’m using enjoyment here also to reflect the idea of understanding. Like, I wouldn’t read some of these books for entertainment because they’re really miserable, but if I have a grasp of the symbolism, then I’m likely to find it a more interesting process. Though personally I do think enjoying books is important. I know people who say they don’t read certain genres because they read books for their messages rather than for enjoyment but I choose to read books that I find entertaining, especially as you find the most profound hidden meanings when you’re not quite looking for them.

      • I like reading books too, so more time for reading would be something I would like as well, but I have a tendency to take things literally – so if someone says “perfect”, I take that to mean flawless – and so I was like ‘Whoa! Would having infinite reading actually help make this world flawless? Is finite time a flaw? ‘ But I get how that’s just me reading into things too much :P

        Hmm, your second paragraph has me a little confused, but I think my thoughts in response to it go something like this: I also think for myself enjoying books is an essential component to my life, but I don’t thinks something I would say is intrisically human or something that I would want everyone to have/do.

        Also, it seems to me you’re saying that enjoyment is a good reason to read, but understanding is a more important one. Addtionally, you seem to think they are bound up with one another anyway, so that if you go looking for ways to make your reading life more interesting (like by being well read so you get referenes) you’re going to stumble across more profound understandings. Am I understanding your thoughts correctly? Sorry, if not. Like I said I was kind of confused.

        P.S. I like the new layout :)

      • I enjoy things more if I understand them because I can’t laugh at a joke I don’t get. So for that reason, I want to understand as many things as possible. (But you may be reading slightly too much into my word choice, ehehe.)

  5. Ah so I had it kind of backward then. *smiles wryly* Yeah, I tend to do that. Reading slightly too much into things is another one of my favorite pastimes *invites groans*

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