The Mirage of Originality

“Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief, they kill their inspiration and sing about their grief.” U2 “The Fly.”

“Your idea reminds me of another book I’ve read,” or of “a movie I’ve seen,” a friend tells me when I tell him about the idea I have for a novel or a short story. The fire of my exuberance is extinguished under the cold water of reality, and I find that the idea that I had built up to be nothing now but a heap of ashes. I thought it was a unique concept for a book. I thought that I alone had thought of it. This other book, or movie or show, I’ve never even heard of. I then get frustrated because after all of my attempts of trying to be original I find that I’m not so original at all. At least this is how I used to feel. Cheated. Like someone stole my idea before I could breathe godly life into it, thus giving it a soul.

However, as I have grown to learn, I am not the only thief. Most creative people who wish to express themselves through works of art, poetry, novels, movies, shows, and video games, are unintentional thieves like myself. For in a way, there is no such thing as an original idea. Just about every story-line has been done before. This can be proven when analyzing the aforementioned mediums. While this blog is dedicated to creative writing in terms of novels and stories, it’s imperative to observe the other forms of self-expression to find common themes and ideas.

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Odin looking strikingly like Gandalf the Grey.

In regards to fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien is often lauded for his originality of creating worlds populated with wizards, kings, dwarves, elves, and dragons. Many modern fantasy writers have tried to replicate his style, as well as RPG programmers for console and computer games. Yet, Tolkien, who was a professor of mythology, didn’t conjure the basis of his mythology out of thin air using a wizard’s staff. He was acquainted with Norse myths, the stories and beliefs of the Vikings. This mythology deals with rings of power, magic runes, elves and dwarves, and it even had its own Middle Earth called Midgard. Even some of the names of the dwarves are identical to what he wrote in The Hobbit, which book also pays homage to the legend of Beowulf when Bilbo tries to steal a cup from Smaug.

Some may claim that the works of Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia are more original, but even those books take ingredients from many other well established stories and mix them together. For instance, entering a fantasy land full of talking animals from a house through a magical piece of furniture had already been done with Lewis Carrol’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. The rest of the Narnia series borrows, with recognition and no apology, common themes from mythology and Biblical stories. As for books such as Alice and Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, they didn’t introduce talking animals with human characteristics to begin with. Whimsical stories full of anthropomorphic animals, such as one reads in these books about Wonderland, go back thousands of years.

In terms of more modern fantasy novels, many will see J.K. Rowling as being original with her Harry Potter series. But stories about schools of witchcraft and wizardry have been done before.One can read such books such as Jill Murphy’s, The Worst Witch, published in 1974. Another fantasy novel from 1991, Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen would also have shades of Harry Potter with a wizard’s school full of moving paintings, and two best friends for the protagonist, one a red-headed boy and the other an intelligent girl, a pre-Ron and Hermione. In fact, Io9 would publish an interesting article entitled Did Harry Potter Really Steal All Those Story Ideas?

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The famous playwright William Shakespeare would play a huge influence on writers such as Anthony Burgess, best known for his novel “A Clockwork Orange.

How about Shakespeare? Surely the bard who crafted such plays dealing with treachery, pride, greed, and betrayal was original, this man who inspired Anthony Burgess and a slew of other writers and film makers. Hardly! Shakespeare’s themes, if they can be called his, hearken all the way back to the tragedies performed in ancient Greece and Rome, and are themes still used in bestselling literature, blockbuster movies, and theatrical plays today.

In terms of science fiction, one might see the television series Star Trek, from the 1960s, as being original. But the whole idea of space travel had been covered in the literary works of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Author C. Clark prior to it. Even movie director James Cameron, who a biographer dubbed the Futurist, would come under criticism from science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, claiming that Cameron stole his idea from his story Soldier Out of Time for the Terminator. But it doesn’t stop there. Even Joss Whedon’s brilliant space western Firefly bares similarities to the anime Outlaw Star, another western in outer space which predates Whedon’s work. Star Wars, one of America’s best loved movies, even borrowed heavily from the old black and white Flash Gordon. Another matter that may have been either intentional or unintentional, George Lucas’s beloved film even bears some resemblance to the 1970s French graphic novel Valerian and Laureline, which a film adaptation is soon to be released in theaters. According to Force Material in their article Six Ways Valerian (Might Have) Influenced Star Wars a few such similarities are the Millenium Falcon and the XB982, a man hiding a burned face behind a mask, and both having a story-line with an army of clones.

How about superheroes, such as the characters from Marvel and DC? Go back to ancient mythology and you get people with superhuman strength such as Hercules. How about whimsical creatures like the Smurfs? Mystical forest folk have been a part of mythology and folklore for a long time, even if they weren’t called Smurfs. What about video games such as the Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros.? Gamers have wondered if Shigeru Miyamato was inspired by Alice in Wonderland, since Mario can take a mushroom and grow bigger, much like Alice could. Mario could even climb a beanstalk  up to a sea of clouds with coins, something akin to Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Jack climbs a beanstalk to find a castle in the sky with treasure. How about trippy shows full of bizarre mysteries and unique characters such as Lost? Damon Lindelof would say that they were inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. As for Twin Peaks, many have pointed out the similarity to the characters in that show to the characters in the novels of Victorian author Charles Dickens. How about Jaws, a story about the hunt for a man-eating shark? Just replace the shark with a great white whale and vengeful Captain Quint with vengeful Captain Ahab and you are getting near to the story of Moby Dick. How about the comedic genius of Mark Twain? There were other writer’s at the same time period writing similar comedic stories like Twain wrote, only Twain endured throughout the ages.

Everything has been done, just with different variations and twists. Some of this has been done intentionally by the storyteller being inspired by previous storytellers. In this case the lyrics from the U2 song calling every artist a cannibal and every poet a thief rings true. Even if unintentional, there is the subconscious mind to deal with, in which a storyteller may have read or watched something prior, even if many years ago, that got stuck in the back of their minds. Aside from that, there is a well of common archetypes and symbolism that’s universally shared by all humanity,  in which all dip their buckets in and draw out of. Psychiatrists such as Carl Jung and mythologists such as Joseph Campbell have talked about symbols and archetypes, and the commonality that they share with humankind, stretching out among different cultures all over the globe. Just about every mythology has its flood story, or their own fertility god, their own god of war, their own creation story. The vampire is a good example of different parts of the globe sharing similar folk tales, Europe having theirs and Japan having their own, the kappa. If one chooses to redirect their thoughts away from the transcendental realm of myth, instead opting to focus on a rocket ship to the stars, then again common ideas are going to be shared. In terms of basic literature, feelings dealing with revenge, heartbreak, romance, and laughter are all emotions that nearly everyone has experienced all throughout history. Therefore, it’s only logical that gripping drama novels or comedic pieces about buffoons will resonate and be recycled throughout every generation. When it comes to fear and chaos, most people have a fear of the unknown or a fear of the dark, fears not instilled by their parents, but being innate, thus rendering similarities with the modern horror genre and old ghost stories.

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A tablet from the Mesopotamian myth of the Gilgamesh, an early flood story. One flood story out of many.

To put it succinctly, all the commonalities shared don’t in anyway negate one iota of the genius of all these different storytellers expressing themselves in a myriad of mediums. It doesn’t make them any less genius because they had a concept that was identical to someone else’s. Nor does it make them blatant forgers just because they intentionally saw concepts in someone else’s work that they loved and tried to make said concepts their own, giving the stories a bit of a different twist.

All of this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try to be original. No one likes sloppiness, and being someone who blatantly copies is not only bad form, but sloppy as well as illegal. The point is while one should strive for originality, one should see such as being that unattainable Holy Grail, worth always striving for, but never within reach. In the end, maybe it’s not so much about being original as striving to be original, or at least trying to come across as original. With these thoughts in mind I will continue to try and achieve originality as I go on with my writing.

(C) Jonathan Scott Griffin

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