Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Other Face of Plagiarism

This is a repost from an older blog:

When I first started writing stories, I shamelessly copied others' works, changing little more than the names of characters and certain stylistic aspects of the plots. I say 'shamelessly' because, being only seven at the time, I didn't realize that it was a shameful thing to do. I was proud of what I had written. I was proud that I had written anything. As I grew older, I became aware of what it meant to plagiarize. By the time I was twelve, there was almost nothing as important to me as writing my own original epic fantasy. So you can imagine how I felt to learn that an actual author, a member of the profession to which I had aspired virtually since I could spell, would have taken the route I had learned to shun.

I recently read The Sword of Shannara, the first in a long and very successful modern fantasy saga. It was written in 1977, and sequels and prequels to it have continued to be written ever since. Most who've read The Sword of Shannara would defend it with terms such as "derivative" or "in the style of"; but as I read it, as I pushed myself to finish it, the entire book seemed nothing more or less than a poorly disguised copy of The Lord of the Rings. I finished reading it out of pure stubbornness, but I felt that nothing could change my mind. Terry Brooks had plagiarized the entire work, it seemed.

Today, though, listening to a classic R n' B song, another defense of the work surfaced in my memory: "You gotta keep the classics alive somehow." You see, the song I was listening to had become fodder for a modern musician who had made a practice of taking classic hits and updating them, as it were, for our day. I used to listen to this musician, once upon a time. I had seen what he had done with his music and eventually concluded that "you gotta keep the classics alive somehow."

The Lord of the Rings needs no help in preserving itself; anyone can see that; but there are archetypes that crop up in literature. I won't get into a discussion of them, except to say that they can be found everywhere, not just on the page. They take different forms, certainly, but every form they take expands and even reinforces our understanding of them and their deeper meanings. Why have these archetypes found the places they have? It is because of the places they already hold in our lives. As entertaining as these books are, each one holds a deeper appeal: the presence of characters whom we recognize in ourselves and in those around us.

C. S. Lewis once said, "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." His words were not written to excuse plagiarism, which is intentionally passing off someone else's work as your own; but as I read these words, I find I can imagine a young writer, just starting out, crafting a world, a philosophy of life, and a cast of characters which, though they may have been based on someone else's work, were still uniquely his own. I can see the formation of a plot, simple and derivative at first, but growing in complexity and originality as each character in the story began to assert himself, or herself.

I am able, in part because of my own struggles as a writer, to appreciate the challenges this writer would have faced, even if he had had the collected works of Tolkein at his fingertips throughout the entire writing process. And I am more than a little interested to see where Mr. Brooks has taken his saga in the almost thirty years since book one was first published. Plagiarism? No; I believe that he was just trying to keep the classics alive.


  1. I completely understand where you're coming from. However, most, if not all, of modern fantasy writing finds its basis, at least in part, in the writings of Tolkien. Being an avid fantasy reader, and having actually READ Lord of the Rings, I see shadows and echos of Tolkien's work in much of what I read. Even if it is something as simple as a race of beings called Elves who are leaving their current home because their influence (or power, as you like it) is diminishing. Your thoughts on CS Lewis' comment hit it on the head- no matter how much others may say you "borrowed" from another author, as long as you set out to write your own story, you've done your job. We are all, literarily and in life, affected and influenced by what we have learned. If another author's idea strikes a chord within you, it therefore is important to you, and using it in your own work is not a bad thing. The instant you do so, however, it becomes your own.

  2. I'd say the roots go back much farther than Tolkein. Who can fail, for example, to draw parallels between Gandalf and Merlin, or by extension, between either Frodo or Aragorn and King Arthur? Granted, Arthur was looking to find a sacred object rather than destroy one, but the quests are still remarkably similar. The largest difference between The Lord of the Rings and the adventures of King Arthur is that Arthur rode around in THIS world.

    That's what I meant about archetypes. We all imagine ourselves as heroes on a quest, even if it's just a quest to get home at the end of the day and watch the UNC game. We all have a "wizardic" Merlinesque mentor in our lives, even if it's as mundane as a parent or school teacher. As such, we tend to gravitate towards stories that offer us similar fare. We, unconsciously, see these stories as allegories for our own lives.

    At least, we do with the really good ones.

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